BRATTLEBORO—On May 18, at 8 p.m., the Vermont Jazz Center will present a duo concert featuring two of Cuba’s foremost musical performers: pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.
Their charismatic presence, a brand new album, and an ongoing tour of about 50 international gigs has generated tremendous excitement and expanded their circle to include listeners around the globe.
In the coming months they will be touring Canada, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S. In the promo for the new release, Duologue, Martinez says “what makes this duo completely different is that I came from the folkloric side and Alfredo came from the classical side.”
The New York Times adds that these “masters of Afro-Cuban rhythm who both hail from Havana ... learned their craft in different settings: Rodriguez at clubs and solares — the housing units where much of Cuba’s African musical inheritance is passed down — and Martinez at various conservatories in the city.”
Downbeat reviewer Catalina Maria Johnson hailed their fusion by calling it a “Cuban firestorm, a mesmerizing duet of superstars from the Cuban jazz scene.”
In her review of their concert at New York’s Winter Jazz Fest, Johnson reveled at how the duo “traded and juxtaposed riffs, laughing and delighting themselves and concertgoers in the deliciousness of their musical conversation.”
The music created by Rodriguez and Martinez is energetic yet deep, enhanced and informed by the complex abundance of rhythmical material gleaned from their native Cuba. Their set list draws from spiritual and ancestral sources as well as from unexpected popular-music choices.
For example, their composition Africa combines Yoruba chants with an Afro-beat. Also in their repertoire are Cuban folk songs, a rumba-clave version of the Michael Jackson’s pop hit Thriller, and a clever arrangement of the Mario Bros. video game theme song.
In a feature in Downbeat, Rodriguez elaborated on the significance of their choice of material by saying that “everything we do in life is reflected in our music. We try to find a balance that talks about unity, about breaking those barriers and borders that we put into life nowadays.”
Martinez added that “we are very focused on having the record show who we are and where we came from. At the same time, we wanted people to feel that we live in the United States. We have absorbed the music of a lot of cultures and incorporated them into the way we play. So the sound of the record is global, not just local.”
The duo format suits Rodriguez and Martinez perfectly. It provides a structure where they are beholden only to themselves for ideas and direction. The duo set-up provides plenty of room for creative freedom and encourages engaging interplay.
It is a small miracle that these two musicians found each other and took the time to explore the possibilities of playing as a duo; they are like-minded soulmates capable of playing over extremely challenging, rhythmically-oriented material.
But they approach this material as if they were two athletes cajoling each other in a friendly sprint through the park. Their music is muscular, but it also has tons of heart and vulnerability.
On his website, Rodriguez confesses that he always wanted to be a drummer. “So I love playing with great drummers and Pedrito is the best example when it comes to Cuban percussion. It really touches my heart.”
Beauty and complexity
When they play as a duo, Rodriguez performs on acoustic piano, sometimes adding an electric keyboard bass to round out the lower part of the sonic spectrum. At the Vermont Jazz Center concert, Martinez will play five congas, cajon (a percussive box that doubles as a chair), snare drum, cymbals, and three ceremonial Batá drums.
Both musicians are also fine vocalists, and their singing adds a floating layer of beauty and complexity to their percussive-heavy presentation.
Martinez learned to play the batás — two-headed, hourglass shaped drums — while working as an accompanist for shamans in Santeria ceremonies in Cuba. The complex batá rhythms were traditionally used to honor the Orishas (African deities of the Yoruba tradition) in Afro-Cuban culture.
The batá drums’ early function was religious and the rhythms that were played on them formed an exclusive language. These rhythms are now used more broadly but always with the deepest respect and sense of purpose.
According to The New York Times, “Mr. Martinez became a Santeria priest in 2010 and maintains a small shrine to Santeria deities in his home. He feels that the religion is largely misunderstood, and he hopes to avoid an overemphasis of his spiritual side in any discussion of his music.”
Martinez elaborated by saying “To me, religion was a way to learn the music, because getting into a Cuban music school required connections” and he did not have the right kind, he said. “But people don’t see that — they’re fascinated, they love the mysticism. It’s important to me that people understand I’m a musician, not just a priest.”’
Pedro Pablo “Pedrito” Martinez was born in Havana in 1973. Having settled in New York City in the fall of 1998, by 2000, he had been awarded the Thelonius Monk Award for Afro-Latin hand percussion and was featured in the documentary film Calle 54.
Martinez has recorded or performed with Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon, Paquito D’Rivera, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting and has contributed, as a percussionist and vocalist, to more than 50 albums. He was also a founding member of the highly successful Afro-Cuban/Afro-Beat band Yerba Buena, with which he recorded two albums and toured the world.
Martinez’s career as a leader began in 2005 with the formation in NYC of The Pedrito Martinez Group. The group’s Grammy-nominated first album was released in October 2013 and was chosen among NPR’s Favorite Albums of 2013 and The Boston Globe Critics’ Top Ten Albums of 2013. Habana Dreams, PMG’s second album, was released in June 2016. Guests included Ruben Blades, Isaac Delgado, Wynton Marsalis, Descemer Bueno, Roman Diaz, Angelique Kidjo, and Telmary Diaz. Accolades for Habana Dreams include being chosen as the top Latin Jazz Album in NPR’s Jazz Critics Top Jazz Albums for 2016.
Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez comes from a musical family. As a very young man, he played in his father’s band and studied classical piano at three leading conservatories in Havana. In 2006, he was selected as one of 12 pianists from around the world to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival where music producer/arranger/composer Quincy Jones took notice and offered him work.
In 2009, Rodriguez, while on tour with his father in Mexico, decided to request political asylum at the U.S. border crossing of Nuevo Laredo. He was eventually granted asylum thanks in great part to the support of his mentor, Quincy Jones. After achieving his goal, Rodriguez launched his career in music in the U.S. to great success.
He has performed at numerous esteemed jazz clubs and festivals throughout the world, sharing the stage with jazz artists Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Patti Austin, James Ingram, McCoy Tyner, Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona, and Lionel Loueke.
‘Better City, Better Life’
One of Rodriguez’s best-known compositions is a collaboration with Quincy Jones, the anthem Better City, Better Life, which was selected as the official theme song of the Shanghai World Expo 2010. In 2015, Rodriguez received his first Grammy nomination for best arrangement, instrumental, for Guantanamera at the 57th Grammy Awards. He has recorded four albums as a leader and one as co-leader with Martinez.
In a Downbeat feature, Rodriguez discussed his belief that the accumulation of one’s life experiences and the evolution of spirit comes across in the sounds that are created when improvising musicians commit to a performance:
“When we go onstage, we’re playing our lives, [expressing] the way we grew up, the way we think. All the positive and negative things that happen in our life, we transmit into musical sounds. So, it’s very important for me and Pedro to find a brotherhood, musically and non-musically, so that we can keep building that relationship, so the music will be stronger.”