By Don Heckman
Alfredo Rodriguez returned to Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. Tuesday night, more than a year after he made his first memorable appearance at the Bel Air venue. And the performance was an impressive display of how far he has come in that brief, intervening time.
Reviewing that first performance in August, 2009, I praised the gifted young Cuban expatriate pianist’s ability to “reach across the complete range of the piano’s expressive potential.” On Tuesday, Rodriguez did all that and more.
The set was limited to a few selections, apparently all orginals, each one allowing Rodriguez, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez (no relation) and drummer Henry Cole plenty of room to stretch out, as soloists and as collective improvisers. Fragments of familiar melodies, from bebop to tango, drifted through the multi-layered interaction between the players.
Rodriguez’s technical mastery was once again the energy that drove his playing. But he now seemed to have found ways to use his astonishingly articulate keyboard skills at the complete service of a rapidly expanding musical imagination. That vision found its full, far-reaching expression in genres reaching from Cuban roots music and blues to jazz and classical. Occasionally, huge imposing choral clusters interacted with lightly stepping counterpoint. In one intriguing passage, he plucked the piano strings with his fingers, adding new, tonally varied timbres to his melodic and rhythmic palettes.
Even more remarkably, he offered many extensive passages convincingly stretching the boundaries of jazz improvisation into territories more familiarly associated with contemporary classical music. And doing so while remaining intimately in touch with the rhythmic propulsion essential to jazz.
In my review of last year’s Rodriguez performance, I also noted a few “rough edges,” having to do with tendencies to stress the “extreme limits of soft and loud, overlooking the many levels in between,” as well as a penchant for “overstuffing his variations with a conflicting plethora of ideas.”
He’s come a long way since then. But Rodriguez still has more growing to do. Brilliant as his music has become, it will become even more compelling when its musical testosterone evolves into a fully mature, emotionally diverse, creative expression.
That caveat aside, he made it clear that he is well on the way to affirming the promise he showed last year, a very short time after he had emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. Today, working closely with Quincy Jones, and all the expansive possibilities that association can bring, there seem to be few limits as to where his future can lead.