In January of 2009, Cuban jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez first crossed the Mexican border at Laredo into the United States. But he almost didn’t make it out of the airport.
Rodriguez was trying to get to the States to record an album with famed producer and musician Quincy Jones, whom he had met at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The two had attempted a collaboration while Rodriguez was still in Cuba, but the political situation with the U.S. made it impossible. So after playing a gig with his father, also named Alfredo Rodriguez, in Mexico (his father has lived there since 2008), he caught a plane to Laredo — where he was promptley arrested and questioned for four hours.
“I didn’t know it was going to be that difficult — I flew from Yucatan to Laredo, Mexico, a border city in Mexico, and they kind of know when they find a Cuban over there, he’s going to cross the border,” Rodriguez said recently from his home in California.
“They were asking all these questions, why I was trying to go to the United States. They were looking for money; that was what they wanted to have, but I didn’t have any money. They detained me for four hours, speaking with me, trying to find something unclear from me, but I didn’t have anything. I think they understood that I was just pursuing my dream, performing and composing music. They understood, and they put me in a cab, and I took a backseat ride from the airport to the border.”
Like being a child again
Not even six months later, in June of 2009, Rodriguez made his U.S. performing debut at the Playboy Jazz Festival, opening for Wayne Shorter at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Over the next three years, Rodriguez set about establishing himself both musically and culturally — when he first arrived in the U.S., he spoke no English.
“It’s like going back to being a child — you don’t know how to express yourself in a way that you want it,” Rodriguez said. “But it was a very positive change at the same time, an opportunity to learn new things and be in a different area. All of those experiences are a part of my life, and so they are a part of my music.”
Just last year, he released his Jones-produced debut album, “Sounds of Space,” which finds him leading a trio through a set of originals that combine Latin rhythms and traditional American jazz forms.
Rodriguez is set to play with his trio at the kickoff show for the seventh annual SaratogaArtsFest tonight at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center Ladd Hall, along with U.S.-based Cuban timba septet Tiempo Libre. The two bands will play separate sets, with Rodriguez joining Tiempo Libre for a few songs in their headlining set.
“It’s going to be a Cuban party — it’s not going to be a normal concert,” Jorge Gómez, pianist and musical director of Tiempo Libre, said from his home in Miami Beach on a brief break in the band’s touring to work on some recordings with violinist Joshua Bell. “You’re going to see people dancing and singing with us. Even if they want to play some instruments with us, they are so welcome to come to the stage and play with us.”
Reunion among friends
Tiempo Libre formed in Miami in 2001, with Gómez bringing together the other members — lead vocalist Xavier Mili, bassist Wilvi Rodriguez Guerra, saxophonist/flutist Luis Beltran Castillo, conga player Leandro González, trumpeter Raúl Rodríguez and drummer Armando Arce. It was in fact a reunion among friends — all seven attended Havana’s National School of Art together, where they studied classical music at the same time they were playing traditional Cuban music together.
“I left Cuba in 1995 and I went to Guatemala; I lived there for five years, then I came to the United States in 2000,” Gomez said. “[We came to the U.S.] at different times; it’s a crazy story. For example, our trumpet player, he used to live in Spain; our saxophone player was in Italy; our conga player was in Germany; our singer, he used to live in Germany; I was living in Guatemala. It was pure coincidence to reunite again here in Miami.”
Their initial reunion wasn’t even planned out to be a band as such. “We played together because we started together. It was like a jam session, but we had never had this kind of freedom before, and it wasn’t like a plan; it was, ‘Hey man, let’s go to my house and play together and see what happens.’ And it was good, so we said, ‘Let’s go to the next level,’ ” Gomez said.
The band has since recorded six albums that combine the traditional salsa and timba styles of Cuba with rock, pop and classical influences, including 2011’s “My Secret Radio” and 2009’s “Bach in Havana,” an album composed of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach adapted to timba rhythms that earned the group one of three Grammy nominations.
Craving American music
“My Secret Radio” references the band members’ time growing up in Cuba in the late ’80s, when American radio was banned. In order to listen to such favorites as Michael Jackson; Gloria Estefan; and Earth, Wind & Fire, the band members would use homemade antennas on their rooftops to pick up faint radio signals from Miami.
“My favorite band is called Earth, Wind & Fire, and they were doing the same thing we are doing now, but in the opposite way,” Gomez said. “They started doing American music with Cuban rhythms, and now we are doing Cuban music with American rhythms. But it’s all thanks to them, because with out them I don’t see [any] possibility of doing that.”
Likewise, Rodriguez’ music also straddles the line between Cuban traditionalism and American jazz and classical music. Like the members of Tiempo Libre, Rodriguez began seeking out Western music at an early age; the 26-year-old was introduced to jazz improvisation at age 13 through a Keith Jarrett CD his uncle gave him.
“I was very, very, very close to the American music, which is — those are the roots, because all of this music coming in today, I don’t know if they are happening because of the tradition, but I have the fortune that I could learn from the music from America in that kind of way, learning from the tradition and the roots,” Rodriguez said. “So when I came here, one of the positive things was I had the opportunity, and more freedom in terms of technology. Back in Cuba, it’s so difficult — we don’t have Internet or those kinds of things, which helps a lot these days.”
The music on “Sounds of Space” was mostly written while Rodriguez was still in Cuba. He recently finished recording a second album, as-yet-untitled, which will feature a stronger American influence. But Rodriguez is constantly composing, and already has plans for a future album with a symphony, which would bring him back to his classical roots.
“I’m trying to develop a voice, when it comes to music or everything in life, but now of course I’ve been changing since I came here to the United States,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the process of human beings; we change all the time. The music is a complement of that, and this is going to be represented in the next album.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or email@example.com.