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Cuban pianist’s journey of note

When the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez says that he loves to improvise, he’s specifically talking about making music. But he also could be speaking of his life.

As a youngster in Havana, Rodriguez wanted to play drums but switched to piano in school. Classically trained, he can ad-lib his way from traditional Cuban son and modern jazz to Bartok and Iranian popular tunes, in a manner that suggests Art Tatum by way of Ernesto Lecuona.

But his greatest test in extemporizing came earlier this year when Rodriguez had to talk his way past suspicious Mexican federal police and into the United States, where he defected through a Texas border town in January.

Now, Rodriguez’s grace under pressure and talent for finding emotional truth in the split-second fall of a piano key has brought him to the verge of an improbable success story. The musician, who turns 24 on Wednesday, will be performing today at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the "?Bienvenido Gustavo!” concert celebrating Gustavo Dudamel’s arrival as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new music director.

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The Silver Lake resident is recording a debut album with Quincy Jones, the Grammy Award-winning composer, producer and musician who discovered Rodriguez at the Montreux Jazz Festival and has become his mentor, teacher and, Rodriguez says, “like a new father” to him.

Although leaving his family and country behind was the hardest thing he has ever done, Rodriguez said during an interview in Spanish over lunch, “I have had a lot of luck, truly.”

“It’s really difficult because my family and all my customs, all is in Cuba,” he said. But, he added, “it’s my dream, with the music, and I feel really good about that.”

Since moving stateside, Rodriguez has been receiving loud ovations and praise from fellow professionals at such venues as the Monterey and Playboy jazz festivals. Jones says that when he first heard Rodriguez play three years ago “it knocked me on my booty, man.”

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“Herbie [Hancock] was there that day, and Michel Legrand,” Jones said of the intimate jam session at a private home where Rodriguez performed. “Man, and I’ll tell you, this cat blew that place apart.”

Some Los Angeles musical insiders, including Josh Groban and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, got a preview of Rodriguez’s talents during a showcase a couple of months ago at the Vibrato Grill Jazz. In his brief set, Rodriguez demonstrated his elegant yet explosive technique and command of an array of musical idioms.

It all goes back to Cuba, where Rodriguez’s father, who shares his name, is one of the island’s most famous singers. “Always in my house there was music of all kinds,” he said.

As a child of no more than 4, Rodriguez manifested his rhythmic instincts by whacking the car seat cushions. His father resolved to put him in a national music school, named for the great Cuban composer Manuel Saumell, but students weren’t allowed to take up percussion before the age of 10. So Rodriguez switched to piano.

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It didn’t go well initially.

“In my first year it was very difficult because the teacher told me I would never be a pianist,” he said, laughing. “Very traumatic!”

The instructor went so far as to recommend that Rodriguez be removed from the conservatory. But, encouraged by his father, he stuck with school. By the time he turned 10 he didn’t want to give up the piano.

“The piano is so general,” he said. “I don’t only play the piano as a melodic instrument. For me, it’s a total instrument. I could do whatever I wanted with a piano. I could play drums on the piano. I like music that’s very rhythmic, with a lot of contrapuntal. I’m a person who thinks that life is to be explored. And that is simply what I do with music.”

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Because Cuba has no official national school of popular music, all of Rodriguez’s class time was spent studying and playing classical. But as a teenager he began to exercise his love of popular and genre music by playing in trios and small ensembles with friends on the streets of Havana.

At around age 14 or 15, he also began playing piano with his father’s band, touring all of Cuba’s provinces and eventually parts of Latin America and Spain. All the while, he was expanding his musical vocabulary and making the acquaintance of new artists through the few recordings that could be procured in the socialist country. He remembers when his uncle told him he wanted him to hear an incredible disc by a “crazy pianist.” It was “The Koln Concert” of Keith Jarrett.

“It was brilliant,” Rodriguez said. “Because Keith Jarrett, of course, is a great connoisseur of classical music -- of Bach, of Mozart, of all music. In this disc it’s like an improvisation, a great improvisation from the roots of classical music and of jazz. This man sits at the piano and plays. This man reflects life in the piano. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”

When Rodriguez played at Montreux in 2006, it was the first time he’d performed his own music by himself outside Cuba. What impresses Jones is not only Rodriguez’s talent and technique but also his knowledge of such composers as Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski and Astor Piazzolla, his ability to score and arrange music and his dedication to his craft.

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“Gustavo’s 28, this kid is only 23,” Jones said. “To me that’s the future, man. Because he is an absolute monster, he composes, writes, all day long. He played so hard on that piano that day, he broke the C string.”

When Jones returned from Switzerland, he had Rodriguez’s e-mail address with him. He began investigating strategies to bring the young man to the U.S., even consulting with a Major League Baseball attorney familiar with navigating the tricky legal and diplomatic shoals between Cuba and the United States.

Back in Cuba, Rodriguez was making plans of his own. “The idea began to take hold in my head of coming here, because it was the only option of working with Quincy,” he said. Finally, after several attempts to leave, in January 2009 he decided to defect while accompanying his father on a tour to Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

“It was truly one of the worst moments of my life,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave my family. I didn’t want to leave Cuba. Truly, I can’t explain with words what I felt in this moment, my mother crying, my father crying.”

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From Merida, he flew to a Mexican city on the U.S. border, where he was immediately seized at the airport by Mexican federal police. Just a few months earlier, the Mexican and Cuban governments had agreed to a new policy whereby Cubans found traveling illegally through Mexican territory en route to the U.S. would be deported to Cuba, where they would be imprisoned.

When Mexican officials took Rodriguez into a detention center at the airport and began grilling him, he at first denied he was defecting. When that failed to impress the Mexicans, he concluded his only option was to tell the truth: that he was traveling to the United States to pursue his artistic dreams and start a new life.

To his astonishment, the official put him in a cab bound for the U.S. border, a short distance away. At about 11 p.m. on Jan. 15, Rodriguez showed his Cuban passport to U.S. border agents and asked for asylum.

Rodriguez is able to communicate sporadically with his family and his girlfriend in Cuba via e-mail and Skype. Meanwhile, he’s been consumed with playing, practicing and preparing to record his first album, which will offer a mix of Cuban and perhaps also U.S. standards, plus popular Latin music, jazz and maybe some Asian music.

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“My love is improvisation,” he said, “but I want to do my music in every style. I’m not closed. I’m open-minded.”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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