The second-Saturday Jazz Fest appearance by Havana-born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez marks a visit by two of the most talented musicians in the world, in an unusual yet satisfying duo format, supporting a new record, Duologue, produced by Quincy Jones.
Another creation of the enviable Cuban conservatory system, Alfredo Rodriguez was encouraged to leave Cuba by Quincy Jones, when they first met in Montreux, Switzerland in 2006. Stunned by Rodriguez’s skills, Jones not only helped his resettlement in Los Angeles, he also lent his own studio production skills to the pianist’s recordings—leading to a Grammy nomination for arranging and solo on the song “Guantanamera” from his second album, Invasion Parade. Pedrito Martinez also played percussion on that record, which helped form a fast friendship between the two.
Twelve years older than his Duologue counterpart, Martinez landed in Union City, New Jersey, in 2000 and founded the great Latin funk band Yerba Buena. That year he appeared in the documentary Calle 54. Martinez, a Santeria priest, has since become a session man for absolutely everyone in jazz, pop, Latin, and funk genres. He speaks of acquiring his vast knowledge of Afro-Cuban religious rhythms literally on the streets in his Havana Cayo Hueso neighborhood. For a Santeria drummer, this knowledge can mean memorizing hundreds of toques (rhythms), voicings, and inflection—on the three-headed (or six, to be more precise) bata alone. Along with this percussion training he practiced singing to the Orishas, or Yoruba spirits.
The duo’s concerts are filled with jokes and laughter—often initiated by the funny guy in their comedy duo routine (Pedrito). Martinez also fills the performance area with his various percussion instruments: conga, bata, cajón, cymbals, high hat (struck with his hands), and snare drum. On a small stage, Martinez, with his boxer’s physique, looks rather crowded in by all the various tools of his trade, and has to switch position often to tap out parts on bata, before going back to conga, and then to the cajón, etc.
When he does use his snare drum, Martinez plays it barehanded, gently coaxing softer sounds out of the drumhead. Unlike American jazz drummers like Philly Joe Jones, who played with his hands on occasion, Martinez never uses sticks. His effortless drumming and his own magnetism naturally lead to comparisons with the late Chano Pozo. Because the piano is a percussion instrument, and a great Cuban pianist like Rodriguez lives by his interplay with the drummer, the two are able to have a rhythmic conversation using practically any song they choose.
The entire 11-song recording testifies to two absolute masters of every Cuban form and rhythm, and each song contains the courageousness of Rodriguez’s bold piano arrangements; he first captured melodies and rhythms on his iPhone, and sent the demos to “Pedrito,” who immediately started composing lyrics. “I’m not a conga player or drummer, but I do have the sounds in my head,” Rodriguez explains. “When I did the arrangements in my kitchen,” he continues, “I had to use spoons, cooking utensils, trash cans.” Later in the studio, the two worked their way through the pianist’s ideas.
The title song is a tour de force of melody, counterpoint, and polyrhythms.
The men also cover the Celina González Cuban classic “(Yo Soy) El Punto Cubano,” Martinez leading with his supple voice. Still, the two musicians aren’t nostalgists, and are keen to broaden their reach.
Always experimental in his own recordings, Alfredo Rodriguez says of this record, “We are trying to bring our roots in a different way. We’ve been in the states for 10 and 20 years, and yes we do bring our history to the stage,” he says. “But it’s not just about Cuba—we are thinking more globally.”
Indeed, breathing new life into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is one of their surprises, fearlessly done as a Cuban timba—the aggressive, funkified Cuban form of son. The producer “asked if I could do ‘Thriller’ because I’ve been doing timba transformations of songs,” Rodriguez says.
Martinez remembers it a bit differently: “Quincy Jones highly recommended we do ‘Thriller,’” one of the great producer’s own successful historical studio productions, after hearing the theme song to “Super Mario 3.” Martinez says that after a Rodriguez social media post about the video game went viral, “I said we have to put that song on the record.” It became of the many musical Easter eggs hidden in Duologue.
Not only is this year’s Jazz Fest visit a first for Alfredo Rodriguez, it is his first ever trip to New Orleans–whereas Pedrito Martinez knows the city well from past appearances. While the duo plan to soak up all things New Orleans, “The history, the rhythms, the food, everything,” says Martinez, fans of piano, percussion, and Cuban music, will be soaking in one of the best concerts of the year.