By Don Heckman
The anticipatory buzz for pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s performance at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. in Bel Air Wednesday night actually reached back to his impressive appearance at the Playboy Jazz Festival in June. Virtually unknown at the time to the America jazz audience, he played a set that was a dazzling display of improvisational virtuosity. Since then, the twenty-four year old expatriate Cuban pianist — Quincy Jones’ protégé — made his New York debut, then returned to the Southland for his first L.A. club gig.
Given the Jones connection, given the rave reviews from the Playboy Festival, it was virtually guaranteed that the Vibrato appearance would quickly assume the status of a special event. And it was no surprise to see the audience liberally sprinkled with some of L.A.’s prominent music business movers and shakers.
For those audience members who had seen Rodriguez at Playboy, the real question was how his playing would reveal itself in a venue far more intimate than the massive Bowl arena. There were no realistic doubts about his technical skills, which are extraordinary, whatever the setting. The smaller, finer nuances of piano playing — touch, tone, articulation — were other matters entirely, easy to slough off in the peripheral noise of the Bowl, up front and obvious in the rapt silence that greeted him at Vibrato.
Rodriguez played a relatively short set — five or six tunes. As in his Playboy appearance, he showcased his harmonically dense, emotionally layered version of “Body and Soul.” Other numbers roved through Cuban rhythms (including a totally unnecessary foot pedal clave on one tune), an unidentified piece recalling the music of composer Ernesto Lecuona, and winding up with a whimsical set of variations on the children’s song, “Frère Jacques.”
Once again, the fast-fingered passages were extraordinary. His employment of the full orchestral resources of the piano was even better. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a jazz pianist since Art Tatum so capable of reaching across the complete range of the instrument’s expressive potential. In one tune, his crisp bebop lines recalled Bill Evans’ early playing on the George Russell mid-fifties Jazz Workshop album Other pieces suggested the melodic inventiveness of Keith Jarrett. And still others displayed a nascent style of his own, contrasting angular, leaping passages and thick harmonic clusters with sudden, unexpected arcs of lyricism.
More so than at Playboy, however, one also sensed the rough edges around the extraordinary nucleus of Rodriguez’s talent. Fully capable of finding subtle tonal modulations in his touch, he far too often resorted instead to unchanging intensity. Similarly, his dynamic range tended toward the extreme limits of loud and soft, overlooking the multiplicity of levels in between. And, like many still maturing improvisational artists, he displayed a tendency to overstuff his variations with a conflicting plethora of ideas.
That said, it was also apparent that the problems with Rodriguez’s music were developmental rather than inherent. A great deal is happening very quickly to a young man who has had to endure a significant life change to come to this country — a change involving distance from his family, the need to learn a new language and experience the cultural differences of a new society. And do all that while fulfilling the promise of his talent and the potentially grandiose demands being made upon it. So it’s going to take some patience and understanding — on his part, as well as that of Quincy Jones — for Rodriguez to fully emerge as the mature artist he is so clearly capable of becoming. But the results, I’m convinced, will be well worth the effort.