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'It's about feeling': Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez bring Cuban jazz to St. Louis

Jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez
Photo by Betsy Newman. Courtesy of the artist.
Jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez is a product of Cuba's rigorous music training. After years of focusing on classical composers, he switched to improvisation.

Anyone who visits Cuba would be struck by two important musical currents: the streetwise character of modern dance music — and the elegance of classically trained performers adept at various genres.

St. Louisans this week have a chance to see both when pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, who hails from the Cuban Institute of Music, joins conga player Pedrito Martinez, who had no formal training. Since crossing paths in the United States in recent years, they’ve played together on stage and on recordings.

Their latest collaboration will be at Jazz at the Bistro, where they will perform fuse jazz and Afro-Cuban music, including timba, the fiery dance music that took the island by storm a couple of decades ago.

Rodriguez sparked a sensation on Facebook before the Christmas holiday when he posted an improvised version of “Jingle Bells” that after the initial melody drew heavily on the modern sound.

“That’s what he does with the music,” Martinez said of Rodriguez. “People [are] expecting something — then he turns his music into something different that blows people’s minds. So, you know, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Rodriguez, 31, went through Cuba’s rigorous musical training program, in which students dedicate themselves to classical music. The son of a well-known singer of the same name, he began his training at age 7 and attended the island’s three elite music schools, focusing his talents on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and other classical music composers.

As a teenager, Rodriguez played traditional Cuba music with his father’s band and absorbed all of its important musical styles — from Cuban son (the root of modern salsa) to cha cha cha and guaguanco, sounds that are part of the fabric of Cuban life.

But he became hooked on jazz when his uncle gave him “The Koln Concert,” a 1975 recording by pianist Keith Jarrett. The album seemed a perfect blend of classical music and jazz, and taught Rodriguez that musicians could create music on the spot through improvisation.

“At that moment, I knew that I wanted to sit at the piano and express any idea that could come to my mind,” Rodriguez said. “And ‘The Koln Concert’ changed my life forever.”

That recording led Rodriguez to master jazz composers such as Thelonious Monk. Before long he became an accomplished improviser that he was invited to the Montreaux Jazz Festival, where he met music producer Quincy Jones, who took an interest in his career.
Rodriguez left the island for the United States in 2006, and since then has won acclaim for his work with his trio and quartet. He featured Martinez and bassist Esperanza Spalding on his album "The Invasion Parade" and has a new recording, "Tocororo."

Martinez, 43, had a much different education in music. He grew up in a poor Havana neighborhood called Cayo Hueso, an area known for rumba, the African-rooted rhythms underlying much of Afro-Cuban music. Unable to study music in school, he learned on the streets, performing in local ensembles.

Percussionist Pedrito Martinez.
Credit Photo by Danielle Moir. Courtesy of the artist.
Percussionist Pedrito Martinez, a Santeria priest, leads the Pedrito Martinez Group in New York.

A bata drummer and Santeria priest, Martinez left Cuba in 1998 to tour the United States and Canada with saxophonist Jane Burnett. Although he had to learn how to read music and how to play in any setting, his expertise in Cuban folklore and his use of Yoruba chants helped him gain a footing in New York, where he leads the Pedrito Martinez Group. He explores his roots on his latest CD, "Habana Dreams," recorded last year in Cuba.

“The way I learned [music] is completely different from to the way he learned,” Martinez said of Rodriguez. “But I’m very happy that I learned on the street because there’s a lot of information on the street that you can’t find in school. That definitely makes this mix beautiful and completely different. Because he has his knowledge from the school, I have my knowledge from the street.”

The two musicians are riding a renewed wave of interest in Cuban music among U.S. jazz fans in recent years. After decades of isolation, in the last two decades Cuba’s jazz musicians have reconnected with their north American counterparts, forging the kind of relationships that performers in the two countries had in the 1940s and 50s. A number of them have moved to the United States.

Martinez said Rodriguez is among the Cuban musicians who have incorporated other musical traditions into their work while remaining faithful to the island’s musical heritage, a fusion of African, Spanish and other influences. That’s what Rodriguez did recently on the simple song like “Jingle Bells.”

When he heard the pianist’s timba-laced rendition of the tune, Martinez said he couldn’t wait to join him on stage in their planned series of duo concerts — one in St. Louis and a handful in New York.

The timba craze on the island is important because it sprang from difficult circumstances. In the 1990s, Cuba lost the support of the Soviet Union, its longtime benefactor. The late Cuban leader Fidel Castro called the resulting economic crisis the “special period.” That a host of powerful bands emerged at the time speaks to the way contemporary musicians on the island have always thrived, even under the most difficult circumstances.

“It was very complicated to find anything. I’m talking about food. I’m talking about anything,” Rodriguez recalled. “You know, everyone was kind of stressed in a way. We didn’t’ have that help from Russia any more so we were suffering a lot in Cuba, and timba music came of those consequences. Music usually comes to the world usually out problems and that is what was happening in our country.”

As popular as timba was on the island, it never became popular in other countries and has even fallen out of favor in Havana as young people gravitated to reggaeton, the rap and dance music from Puerto Rico.

Rodriguez also think timba, a fast-paced music that people in Havana dance to, was too aggressive for people outside of Cuba. That puts it in contrast to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club, the gentler music of a bygone era that in the late 1990s captured the attention of audiences worldwide.

But timba continues to be an influential fountain for Cuban musicians. That could explain why Martinez, who draws heavily on the sound, is so taken by the percussive technique Rodriguez employs on the piano.

But that, the pianist said, is by design.

“My roots are very influenced by African music, and African music is very influenced by rhythm and percussion instruments. So what I’ve done for so many years is translate all of those sounds. It could be like the religious sounds like the bata [drum] …  or it could be like anything, like a bongo,” Rodriguez said. “Every time that I listen to percussion, I imagine a pianist playing that percussion instead of just a percussionist playing percussion.”

In St. Louis, Rodriguez will be on piano and keyboards, while Martinez will play percussion and offer Yoruba chants; both musicians will sing.

Although the audience may not follow the arrangements, Spanish or how Martinez chants in the Yoruba language of his ancestors, the musicians say concert-goers will enjoy the improvisational music emerging from the stage.

“I think music’s not about understanding; it’s about feeling,” Martinez said. “That’s what we show on the stage — love for what we do.”

If  You Go

What: Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez duo

When: Wednesday through Saturday

Where: Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Ave., St. Louis

Tickets: $30 and up; Students, $10.

David Cazares is St. Louis Public Radio's editor for arts and culture, health and science.

Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.