By Felix Contreras for NPR
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez gave our office audience a very quick lesson on why pianists from that island nation are so impressive: they treat the piano as the percussion instrument it is. Rodríguez immediately let fly with an intense flurry of notes that were as melodic as they were rhythmic.
The mash-up of European lyricism and Afro-Cuban percussion is at the heart of the Cuban piano tradition and it is very present in the first song. It wasn’t long before Rodríguez dug deep into rapid-fire syncopation along with drummer Michael Olivera and guitarist/ bassist Munir Hossn.
Iconic music producer/composer Quincy Jones heard Rodríguez during a performance at a European jazz festival and took him under his wing, eventually signing him to Jones’ management company. When you listen to the expansive and lyrical exploration of the second song in this Tiny Desk set, “Bloom,” it’s easy to hear what captured Jones’ attention.
The West Africa-based Yoruba spiritual tradition, commonly known as Santeria, infuses so much of Cuban daily life in music and Rodríguez closes with his take on the music dedicated to the Orisha Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean and all waters. The song’s melody is a derivation of the song associated to Yemaya and the Tiny Desk trio explores the rhythms of the melody, up to and including the sing-along at the end.
Every exposure to Cuban music presents an opportunity to walk alongside historical music figures and Santeria spirits alike. This performance is no exception. Watching these three performances repeatedly reveals new musical turns that slowly reveal how Alfredo Rodríguez is making a name for himself, alongside two incredibly talented, like-minded bandmates.
Producers: Felix Contreras, CJ Riculan; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kaylee Domzalski, CJ Riculan; Production Assistant: Brie Martin; Photo: Cameron Pollack/NPR