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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Abu Dhabi Festival: Alfredo Rodríguez pays a high price to pursue his American Dream

Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez took a risky decision after a chance encounter with Quincy Jones, but it was a turning point in his career.
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez began to compose, arrange and appear on stage alongside his father at the age of 13. Photo by Miguel Elizalde
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez began to compose, arrange and appear on stage alongside his father at the age of 13. Photo by Miguel Elizalde

It is often said musicians suffer for their art. But few have sacrificed more than Alfredo Rodríguez. The Cuban jazz pianist defected from his homeland to pursue a career in the United States – a painful experience that left its scars.

“I can never go back,” says the 30-year-old from his adopted home in Los Angeles.

“I am a Cuban, and I cannot live anymore in my country. There are so many things that are wrong.”

As with most artistic success stories, it was a combination of hard grind, blind talent and right-time-right-place good fortune that led to Rodríguez’s defection.

In 2006, aged just 20, Rodríguez was selected to represent Cuba as part of a young musician showcase at the historic Montreux Jazz Festival. During his stay, the players were invited to perform at the home of founder Claude Nobs, where Quincy Jones happened to be a guest that evening.

“I played just one song, and afterwards Quincy said to me,‘I want to help your career’,” says Rodríguez. Sure enough, when he returned to Havana, there was an email from Jones’s manager.

But it would be three years before the promise paid off. While touring Mexico playing with his father, a well-known Cuban musician who goes by the same name, Rodríguez made the decision to cross the border and claim political asylum, pledging allegiance to the US and relinquishing his right to return to Cuba. “It was a very big decision – and a very risky decision,” says Rodríguez.

“For anyone, moving to a new country is a big deal, but for a Cuban, it’s more difficult because you know you can’t live in your country anymore. It’s a very sad situation we’ve lived through for many years, and I hope it changes soon.”

Rodríguez had a soft landing thanks to Jones, with doors held wide open – soon he was onstage at the country’s biggest jazz festivals – and invites to play alongside Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. But settling into the American dream was not always easy.

“I didn’t know much about the culture, how to speak English – I didn’t know anything,” he says.

In 2012, debut album Sounds of Space was released, followed two years later by The Invasion Parade, and this year’s Tocororo. All co-produced by Jones, the releases showcase Rodríguez’s roots in Latin and classical music channelled through contemporary jazz prism.

Rodríguez’s first musical aspirations date back to when, as a 2-year-old, he wanted to become drummer. That dream was short-lived, however, when at the age of 7, his parents enrolled him in a classical conservatory. There, he was given the choice of studying piano or violin – drums were limited to those over 10.

With his growing knowledge, Rodríguez began from the age of 13 to compose, arrange and appear on stage alongside his father.

His musical path was set a year later when he discovered a copy of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s influential, improvised solo recording The Köln Concert from his uncle.

“At the time I was just playing classical music – music that somebody wrote for you,” he says.

“Keith Jarrett was just sitting at the piano and playing any idea which came into mind. I said to myself, ‘this is what I want to do’. I discovered that was going to be my goal forever – to translate what we live through everyday into music.”

It is an ever-evolving goal, with new tours, experiences and encounters feeding into Rodríguez’s ever-expanding sonic canvas. Latest release, Tocororo, has his steady trio augmented by musicians and vocalists from India, Lebanon, Cameroon, Spain and France.

The choice of material also reflects Rodríguez’s global vision; alongside original tunes, the album features popular Cuban standards next to classical compositions by Argentinian master Astor Piazzolla and JS Bach, Rodríguez’s favourite composer.

The album’s name reflects the pianist’s jarring mix of strong roots and cosmopolitan sensibilities, taking its name from Cuba’s national bird.

“First,because always my music has been influenced by everything in Cuban culture,” says Rodríguez.

“But also because, if this bird is caged, it dies – it has to be free to keep living. It’s a metaphor for my life – I feel that music and art has to be free to keep breeding.

“It’s a translation of what I’ve gone through to share my music with people, to share who I am as a musician, and as a human being.”

• The Alfredo Rodríguez Trio perform as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at NYUAD’s The Arts Center, in the Black Box, on Thursday at 8pm. Register for free tickets at nyuad-artscenter.org

rgarratt@thenational.ae