THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Feb. 26, 2018
Two Views of Cuban Dreams
Reviews: ‘The Little Dream’ by Alfredo Rodríguez and ‘The Grand Concourse’ by Dayramir Gonzalez
Two releases from jazz pianists represent the fertile results when Cuban musicians put down roots in the U.S.
It’s impossible to imagine this country’s jazz scene without the many Cuban musicians living in the U.S., so invigorating and influential is their presence. Their experiences here—the firsthand exposure to jazz masters, the diversity of career opportunities—have in turn opened new avenues of expression: Along with new lives, they construct fresh musical identities.
Two new releases from Cuban pianists—Alfredo Rodríguez’s “The Little Dream” (Mack Avenue) and Dayramir Gonzalez’s “The Grand Concourse” (out March 2
on Machat)—offer compelling yet contrasting statements, each in its own way grounded in Cuban tradition as tempered by life and work here. Messrs. Rodríguez and Gonzalez were both born into musical families in Havana. Both studied at Cuba’s storied conservatories and have lived in the U.S. for nearly a decade. Each has a heavy hitter, a bona-fide legend, in his corner. Mr. Rodríguez, who is 32 years old and lives in Los Angeles, first caught the ear of Quincy Jones
when he was showcased at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in 2006. After seeking asylum in the U.S. in 2009, he rekindled that relationship; Mr. Jones has co-produced his four releases for the Mack Avenue label. Mr. Gonzalez, 34, moved to Boston in 2010 to attend the Berklee College of Music and now lives in New York. His 2012 debut at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall came within “Voices From Cuba,” a series curated by the eminent Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, who was his primary mentor in Havana.
Mr. Rodríguez’s previous Mack Avenue releases, which earned widespread acclaim and a Grammy nomination, augmented his working band with additional players. On “The Little Dream” he pares down to his core trio, with drummer/percussionist Michael Olivera and Munir Hossn on guitar and electric bass. His earlier releases focused on specific aspects of musical inspiration: 2014’s “The Invasion Parade” interpreted Cuban folk traditions; 2016’s “Tocororo” enlisted musicians from France, Lebanon and India to achieve a more global sound.
On his new album, the clave, the five-beat pattern elemental to Cuban music, is prominent on Mr. Rodríguez’s “Dance Like a Child”; elsewhere, his compositions (some written in collaboration with Mr. Hossn) embed Cuban elements, along with aspects of African highlife music and Spanish flamenco, deep within more free-flowing structures: We feel more than hear these influences. Mr. Rodríguez played mostly classical music until his teens, when he was drawn to improvisation by Keith Jarrett
’s 1975 solo-piano album, “The Köln Concert.” He sounds nothing like Mr. Jarrett, yet shares his affinity for turning simple musical motifs into impressive forms that take shape more via emotion than technique. On “Silver Rain,” he wrings from an accessible melody passages that sound alternately bent on ecstasy or tinged with sorrow or, in his best moments, both at the same time.
Dayramir Gonzalez’s 2007 Cuban release “Dayramir & Habana Entrance” won three Cubadisco awards (his native island’s Grammy). It was, he told me in an interview, “a Cuban expressing life in Cuba.” “The Grand Concourse,” his first release in more than a decade, is, he said, “the sound of that same Cuban guy in New York.” Mr. Gonzalez has a sensitive yet bold touch on piano. He thinks on a grand scale. “The Grand Concourse” features more than two dozen musicians; its 12 tracks combine several styles. The opener, “Smiling,” blends electric and acoustic elements to suggest the path first blazed decades ago by his mentor, Mr. Valdés. Yet the album soon synthesizes many sources, from Cuba and the U.S., with elegance and an original point of view.
Mr. Gonzalez is a stunningly gifted composer and arranger whose ambitions benefit from careful production, creative orchestration, and the help of stellar players, including alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry and percussionists Pedrito Martínez and Mauricio Herrera. In Mr. Gonzalez’s hands, an Afro-Cuban batá drum pattern becomes a tone poem filled with funk attitude and modern-jazz feel. The bittersweet harmonies of “Blood Brothers,” in dedication to his late brother, suggest a Billy Strayhorn ballad and arrive voiced through a fascinating blend of oboe, strings and French horn. He solos only briefly here and there, and plays one track alone at the piano; yet throughout, his assured and sometimes daring pianism grounds what amounts to a multipart large-ensemble piece.
Mr. Gonzalez’s achievement here is outsize, even audacious. Mr. Rodríguez’s sounds introspective and accessible, yet ambitious, too, for its synthesis of influences. Both releases are filled with lovely and distinctive details. Each represents Cuban tradition transplanted to the U.S. to offer an intriguing view of a wider musical world.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.