By Don Heckman
Bel Air, CA. Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. seems to have become a musical home base for pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. On Tuesday night the Cuban-born pianist made yet another of a continuing string of appearances in the elegant Bel Air room, reaching back to his much-heralded arrival in Los Angles in 2009.
This time, however, there was a compelling sense of change in the air. Rodriguez’s early performances – at Vibrato, as well as the Playboy Jazz Festival – immediately established him as a brilliant talent, gifted with inventive skills and virtuosic technical ability.
All that and much more was present from the very beginning, when a smiling Rodriguez, wearing a bold-striped t-shirt, strode on stage. Awaiting him, Vibrato’s grand piano stood alone, the absence of a drum set, bass or other instruments making it clear that this would be a solo performance. But the unexpected presence of a Moog synthesizer and keyboard, positioned over the piano keys, suggested that the journey would travel beyond the territory of acoustic piano alone.
As it did.
The set-up Rodriguez was working with – which was actually more than a synth –allowed him to sequence spontaneous patterns of melody and rhythm. Laying them down, one track at a time, he built what were essentially compositions on the fly, one element at a time. In some cases, after establishing expansive, ostinato synth patterns, often employing surging bass rhythms, he soloed above the orchestral-like textures he had created as a foundation.
The results were extraordinary, underscoring Rodriguez’s remarkable ability to apply his brilliant improvisational skills to full scale compositions. At times he did so, amazingly, by controlling the Moog’s melodic and rhythmic functions via his iPhone (and a Moog controller app).
But there was more. In addition to his complex, multi-layered synth and piano works, he also offered a few pure acoustic piano pieces. Several were boleros – “Quesas, Quesas, Quesas” among them — interpreted by Rodriguez with the rich emotional expressiveness of his rapidly maturing talent.
In an earlier review I wrote about his Vibrato appearance in 2009 I made references to Bill Evans youthful work with George Russell and the melodic inventiveness of Keith Jarrett – all of it filtered through Rodriguez’s fertile imagination. All of that, and more, were still present in this remarkable performance.
So, too, was a growing sense of creative maturity. Playing now with a broader dynamic overview than was often apparent in his earlier appearances, he now displays the musical presence of an artist who has found the fullness of his creative abilities.
From the very beginning of his U.S. performances, Rodriguez’s playing was often a blend of extraordinary abilities combined with the promise of much more to come. Now, four years later, he’s delivering on that promise.
Photos by Faith Frenz.