Sounds Of Space, the title of Cuban pianist and composer Alfredo Rodríguez’ debut recording, evokes images of science fiction. In truth, it’s about a far more personal adventure. “It’s about the space that surrounds us,” he explains. “In this record I wanted to introduce myself: here are the people, the places and the sounds that have surrounded me, and made me who I am.”
A key player in Rodríguez’ extraordinary story is producer Quincy Jones, who co-produced Sounds Of Space with Rodríguez.
“He is very special, and I do not say that easily because I have been surrounded by the best musicians in the world my entire life,” said Jones. “And he is one of the best.” In turn, for Rodríguez, 26, Jones has not only become a mentor and a teacher but “like a new father.” Still, such priceless endorsement can also create impossibly high expectations. But in Sounds Of Space, Rodríguez proves up to the challenge.
The album comprises 11 tracks composed and arranged by Rodríguez. It includes nods to Cuban masters such as Ernesto Lecuona, but also pianistic models such as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk; it draws on the tradition, but it has a personal imprint. And now and then, Sounds Of Space is also shaped by nostalgia for a country left behind, so near yet so far.
Born in Havana, Cuba, 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. But while his formal musical education was strictly classical, he also learned music “on the street,” or more precisely, on stage. “I didn’t play with many dance groups, but I played in my dad’s band since I was 14,” he says. “And my dad presented a daily TV show and many famous Cuban musicians came through it and we had every type of music. I was still a kid but had a chance to perform every day, and write arrangements for all kinds of music: boleros, rock ’n roll, dance music—you name it. It is where I learned the discipline of being a professional musician. That was another great school for me. I was very lucky.”
The momentous discovery during that formative period, however, came packed on a CD. “When I was 15, my uncle gave me Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert,” he recalls. “That’s when I began to explore the idea of improvisation. Up to then it had been all Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and I’m thankful to my teachers for it because without that I wouldn’t be the same pianist. But up to that point I didn’t know anything about improvisation. The Köln Concert changed my life. I realized that was what I wanted to do: just sit and play. And not only musical ideas; music doesn’t come only from music. It can reflect and speak to what surrounds us.”
In 2006, Rodríguez was selected to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival. While there, he was invited to a gathering at the house of the festivals’ founder and director, Claude Nobs, who asked him if he would play for Quincy Jones.
“And of course I said yes,” recalls Rodríguez. “I remember I played an arrangement I had written of ‘I Love You,’ by Cole Porter. And when I finished, Quincy said he liked it a lot and that he wanted to work with me. That was amazing. That someone I admire so much would be interested in doing something with me was incredible. But I’m a realist, and while it was a nice idea I thought it would be difficult. And it was.”
Still, a month later, back in Cuba, he received an email from Jones’ Vice President Adam Fell. “Then I knew this was serious. That’s when I decided I was coming to the U.S.”