Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Brings His Glistening, Fearlessly Relevant Cuban Jazz Uptown
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s recordings run hot and cold. He can take your breath away with his towering majesty; other times, he overreaches. When he’s at the top of his game, he’s a great tunesmith. His latest album The Little Dream – streaming at Spotify – was conceived in opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant bigotry, in particular the clampdown on DACA and the deportation of children and families. The result is a characteristic mix of material that draws equally on classical, latin and more recent postbop jazz. Rodriguez and his trio, bassist Munir Hossn and drummer Michael Olivera are playing the Miller Theatre this Saturday night, March 3 at 8 PM; you can get in for as low as $20.
Throughout the album, Rodriguez’s playing is remarkably spare and focused: this is his most minimalist work to date. It opens somewhat jarringly with Dawn, a haphazard juxtaposition of Rodriguez’s signature neoromantic glimmer and gravitas, postbop scramble and what could be soukous, Hossn scurrying way up high as Olivera flurries frenetically.
The title cut has an insistently verdant, Pat Metheny-ish PBS title theme feel: Hossn channels Jerry Garcia, way up the fretboard, then Rodriguez hits a terse stride interlude. It’s a celebration of the “dreamer” kids’ resilience rather than a commentary on their precarious status in the United States.
The whole band gets into picturesque, pointillistic mode for Silver Rain. Likewise, Rodriguez works variations on a shiny, glistening bucolic theme in Bloom while Olivera circles hypnotically with his brushes, and Hossn bends and perambulates with his treble turned all the way up.
Unlike what its title might have you thinking, Dance Like a Child has a terse, darkly bluesy focus, Rodriguez shifting through increasingly enigmatic, animated cascades to lingering, looping phrases. He artfully spaces his colorful riffs in Vamos Todos a Cantar, Hossn adding yet more spiky upper-register work, this time with son jarocho tinges.
Interestingly, Besame Mucho – ostensibly the most recorded song in history – is where Rodriguez really distinguishes himself, with his tersely balletesque pulse, austere lyricism and soul-infused Fender Rhodes voicings as the rhythm section shuffles mutedly. A lot of artists never get to this song’s haunting, wounded inner core, but Rodriguez does, all the way through to an ending so simple it’s crushing.
Hossn’s muted plinks evoke a kora as the glimmering Tree of Stars comes together, up to a triumphantly precise, spiraling coda. The spare but insistent song without words World of Colors is almost stunningly translucent yet just as bittersweet.
True to its title, Alegria leaps and pounces with a joyous Spanish Caribbean folk feel hitched to sparkling Metheny drama, although the light electronic touches don’t add anything. A Rodriguez album wouldn’t be complete without a moody nocturne, so Moonbeam fits the bill, but with more slink and space than usual: it’s the strongest track. The final cut is a fusiony mess and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Another thing this album could stand to lose is the echoey, wordless vocals, which aren’t anywhere near boisterous enough to evoke flamenco, and often drift perilously close to new age music. Rodriguez’s concise, vivid tunes stand on their own just fine without them.