Of all the musicians to come out of Cuba in recent times, to be repatriated to the United States or Canada, Alfredo Rodriguez is one of the most fearless innovators. There are a handful of others such as Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Hilario Durán, but this is not about them. At any rate, none of the musicians possess such an acute angular attack to rough up music’s molecules to such an extent that, in metallurgical terms, they—the notes, which are likened to the molecules here—become something completely different. Of course they retain their essential properties, but from base metals they turn into rare metals. Why can’t every musician or every pianist do this? Quite simply: not every musician and every pianist an alchemist. There are others who are like this. One of them is Satoko Fujii, but she is Japanese. On this side of the International Dateline, Alfredo Rodríguez is one of those rare birds to die for. Crouched over his keyboard, he seems to mesmerise the keys, commanding them to do his will, which may be to stay silent and only echo the harmonics of the last set of notes he has played. At other times it may be to shatter the air with a trill so beautiful that everyone around him cracks a smile. He plays notes on the piano that may belong to one another in a particular sequence; although sometimes he plays notes that do not make logical sense. However, in the spectral world they are perfect. This is why he is so special. He is inhabited by spirits; not only his own and those of his ancestors, but also his musical ancestors: Peruchín, Frank Emilio Flynn and others.
The Invasion Parade may be only his second album for Mack Avenue, but it appears to be so far ahead of his debut on this label, it could easily be his magnum opus already. It is a stunning album and enormously beautiful in every aspect. The repertoire is a mix of traditional tunes and new compositions. However they are forged in the heat of some futuristic cauldron, infused with something resembling the spices of a medieval apothecary and the magic ingredients that make Mr. Rodríguez a magical being. Take “Guantanamera,” a guajira-son that almost anyone who has heard any music ought to recognize; and just when it is believed that the song is progressing that way into recognition, it slants into dissonance and skitters away into a realm so rarefied that it becomes a new piece wrought by someone schooled in the irreverent school of Igor Stravinsky. The other piece that leads the listener up the garden path only to make another sunshower of a truly unexpected bouquet is the classic “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” This chart is even more tantalisingly turned on its head; after all it is all about possibility and very little else and Mr. Rodríguez makes full use of this fact. And then there is “Cubismo,” a chart with a crinkled rhythm and elegantly chopped harmonic; a visual piece resembling a Kandinsky or a Matisse. It is charts such as these that give Mr. Rodríguez’s album a truly complex and truly highbrow sense and sensibility.
The recording also comes with some elegant and magical surprises at the mighty hands of four other luminous musicians. The first is Henry Cole, a drummer like few others. It seems that his understanding of Mr. Rodríguez’s polyphony is superior to anyone else’s on this recording. He is just there dead centre (or off centre), but always where Mr. Rodríguez expects him to be. “Guantanamera” is a classic example. Then there is the bassist Esperanza Spaulding, a fine bassist and here a dazzling singer, who plays and sings wordlessly on “El Güije,” with such unbridled genius that the listener could well find him or herself gasping for breath. The third magical persona is Román Filiú’s. The saxophonist does not play his woodwinds, he makes them sing, which is why Mr. Rodríguez needs no vocalist on “A Santa Barbara.” And finally there is Pedrito Martínez, a rumbero from Cuba as well. He is not simply a percussionist or a rhythmic colourist either; he is made entirely of music. His batá break on “Caracoles En El Riachuelo” is truly electrifying. This does not mean that the other musicians are in any way simply average; on the contrary, they are just as good as top-flight musicians in New York, or in the Bay Area, or in Montreal or Toronto are and they make this recording truly special. In fact it is the whole package, plus the fact that the music is sensational, that makes this one of the finest albums this or any other year. And long may it stay this way.
Track Listing: The Invasion Parade; Guantanamera; El Güije; A Santa Barbara; Timberobot; Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps); Snails in the Creek (Caracoles En El Riachuelo); Veinte Años (Twenty Years); Cubismo (Cubism).
Personnel: Alfredo Rodríguez: piano, Minimoog Voyager synthesizer, electronics, percussion; Billy Carrion: baritone saxophone; Henry Cole: drums, percussion; Román Filiú: alto and soprano saxophones; Pedrito Martínez: vocals, percussion (1, 3, 7, 9); Javier Porta: flute; Peter Slavov: acoustic bass; Esperanza Spaulding: vocals, acoustic bass (3, 9).
About Alfredo Rodríguez
Born in Havana, Cuba as the son of a popular singer, television presenter and entertainer of the same name, Rodríguez began his formal music education at seven. Percussion, not piano, was his first choice. “But to choose what I wanted I had to wait until I was 10,” he explains. “So I picked piano. By the time I could actually switch to percussion, I knew the piano was my path.” He graduated to the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, and then to the Instituto Superior de Arte. He had a strictly formal classical musical education, and learned popular styles on stage playing in his father’s orchestra from the age of 14. “I had a chance to perform every day, and write arrangements for all kinds of music: boleros, rock ‘n’ roll, dance music, you name it. That is where I learned the discipline of being a professional musician.” Read more…