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Alfredo Rodríguez

by John Child (

Cuban pianist, bandleader, arranger, composer, singer and percussionist Alfredo Rodríguez died in Paris on Monday October 3rd. "He had such a special charisma and presence and dedication to his craft," said UK Latin club DJ and promoter Dominique Roome. "I'm particularly sad because the concerts we organised at London's Bass Clef, HQ and Bar Rumba with him were so memorable in terms of atmosphere. He was a great character!" In tribute, I offer a revised version of a discographic profile I originally wrote in 1990, including an updated selection of his albums. The quotes are from an un-broadcast Aracataca interview Tomek and I conducted with Alfredo in 1990.

Alfredo Rodríguez

b. 1936, Havana, Cuba; d. 3 October 2005, Paris, France.

Unlike most salsa musicians of his generation, whose musical education was "street schooling," virtuoso pianist, arranger, and composer Rodríguez came from a classical music background. When he was five or six years old he used to sing and play claves. At the time, there were lots of children's talent contests at theatres and on the radio. Alfredo participated in these and won a number of competitions.

When Rodríguez was seven years old, he began taking classical piano lessons with a concert pianist in Havana. He remembered seeing quite a few great classical pianists, including Arthur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau, in Havana when he was a young boy and he dreamed of becoming a classical pianist. In the late '40s he met the Cuban piano titans Peruchín (Pedro Jústiz), Luis "Lilí" Martínez Griñán and Jesús López, who became his major influences. He described these keyboardists as "the three pillars of Cuban piano playing of all time" and regarded Peruchín as "the master of all contemporary salsa pianists." Latterly he admired his contemporary compatriots Jesús "Chucho" Valdés, Gonzalito Rubalcaba and Emiliano Salvador.

Rodríguez relocated to New York in 1960. Failing an audition to join Arsenio Rodríguez's group spurred Alfredo to resume piano tuition and study musical theory. He also started listening to Cuban music. His love for jazz led him to take private courses with Roland Hanna, Albert Dailey and Bill Evans, among others. In the mid-'60s he began his professional career in Latin music as a member of the Vicentico Valdés band. This was followed by work with La Sonora Matancera and the charanga of Belisario López. Alfredo made his recording debut in 1966 on Swing on Malva (also issued on Tropical and Seeco) by Conjunto Sensación. This eight-piece group was led by Rey Roig and featured Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez on lead vocals.

In 1968, Rodríguez, who had been working in the printing trade for a number of years, became one of the rare salsa sidemen to give up his day job. This decision meant he had to take a big economic loss and it was a struggle for him to survive. Willie Rosario hired him to perform with his orchestra. Bobby Valentín also played bass with the band at the time. "I really loved his playing very much," said Rodríguez in 1990. "Bass and piano are like two brothers. Bobby Valentin is a nice guy. He is fantastic."

After two years and four albums with Rosario, Alfredo moved to one of the big names of the '60s, Joe Cuba. He joined Cuba's sextet during its period of decline, replacing pianist Nick Jiménez, who had relocated to Puerto Rico. Lino Frías, the pianist with La Sonora Matancera at the time, recommended him to Joe Cuba. Frías was an old friend of Alfredo's father, who had built the pianist's house back in Cuba. Rodríguez went directly on a tour of California with the Joe Cuba Sextet. However, he did not know the group's repertoire and was further handicapped by the absence of piano charts, which Cuba had lost. Alfredo and the bandleader became close friends. He later said of Cuba: "He was a very shrewd man and he had a lot of charisma. That's what he used to sell, his image." Rodríguez's spell with Joe Cuba was followed by a stint with Cuban sonero Justo Betancourt, who Alfredo described as one of his idols. The two artists became good friends. Rodríguez performed on Betancourt's biggest-ever hit, the title track of Pa Bravo Yo (1972 on Fania).

In the mid-'70s, Alfredo moved to Miami and initially worked with a big band accompanying great vocalists like Rolando La Serie and Vicentico Valdés. After three months he broke his contract by agreement and went to work for José Fajardo, who needed a pianist for his quintet. Rodríguez had heard Fajardo on popular radio programmes in Cuba in the early '50s. Alfredo recorded two albums with Fajardo's charanga during his three-year tenure with the bandleader, which finished in 1976. The two artists performed together again in Paris in 1989. "The time spent with Fajardo's band was very important to me since my musical abilities were put to a big test. He is one of the best flautists of this music of all time," said Alfredo.

In 1976, Rodríguez was back in New York still mourning the death of his father and had not played piano for three months, when Cuban master percussionist Carlos "Patato" Valdez invited him to perform on Ready For Freddy on LPV. Alfredo recalled Patato instructing him to start playing: "I don't know what the hell I did. And I started to play. It was a magical thing, a spiritual thing. The album was spontaneous; nobody knew what was going to be played. It was done in one take. It'll never happen again." The record, which also featured singer/percussionist Papaíto, came to be considered as "one of the pillars of Cuban music done outside Cuba." According to Alfredo, many jazz musicians, including Cecil Taylor and Art Blakey, said that they held Ready For Freddy in high regard.

Rodríguez became a member of Charanga 76 and performed on several of the band's albums. In 1979 he sessioned on Para Africa Con Amor on Sacodisc, one of the finest albums by violinist Alfredo de la Fé. At the beginning of the '80s, Justo Betancourt invited Rodríguez to come to Puerto Rico to perform with him, but Alfredo had already decided to settle in Paris. In 1981, Alfredo participated in Afro-Charanga on Zamidou, an interesting experiment fronted by African singer/composer Amadou Balake supported by a charanga ensemble of New York-based salsa musicians performing Cuban arrangements. Rodríguez played a particularly aggressive and intense solo on the track "Whiskey Et Coca Cola", which became a London club favourite. "I think I was a little bit unhappy," he later recollected. "I don't know for what - I did that with Willie Rosario too. When I used to get mad at the bandleader I used to take an aggressive solo instead of hitting the person. I would take revenge with the piano solo." Also in 1981, Alfredo toured as a member of Tito Puente's Latin Ensemble, which included Patato.

In 1982 he did a three-month stint with SAR Records as a replacement for the company's house pianist and musical director, Alfredo Valdés Jr., who was in dispute with the label at the time. Rodríguez sessioned on SAR albums by Papaíto, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros and Lita Branda (the sister of Melcochita). That year, Alfredo acted as musical director, arranged two tracks, and played on Y Sigue La Cosa on Montuno by the typical band Armando Sánchez y su Conjunto Son de la Loma.

Additionally in 1982, Rodríguez toured with a quintet that included flautist Artie Webb, saxophonist/flautist Allen Hoist and Patato, who was living in Paris at the time. Thereafter, Alfredo took up residence in Paris and continued to live there, becoming a key figure on the city's Latin scene. In 1983, he made his debut as a bandleader in collaboration with Patato and Totico (Eugenio Arango) on Sonido Solido on TR recorded in New York. The track "Para Africa Traigo Mí Son", which Alfredo composed and arranged, was a hit in New York, throughout France, and in various parts of Africa. In 1985, Rodríguez returned to New York to record Monsieur Oh, La, La for Caimán Records, a successor of SAR co-founded by Sergio Bofill and Humberto Corredor. The album featured Adalberto Santiago and Jimmy Sabater as co-lead vocalists.

From 1987 onwards, Alfredo and his group performed a number of times at London's Bass Clef, HQ and Bar Rumba. Also in 1987, he performed with Papaíto in Paris and London. In 1989 he toured Europe and French Guiana with Patato.

He made the live Latin jazz set Cuba-New York-Paris (1991 on Bleu Caraïbes) in Amsterdam and Switzerland with Patato guesting and Hoist on alto and flute. He guested along with Lou Donaldson, Chocolate and Nicky Marrero on La Fiesta Del Timbalero (1991 on L+R) by the German-based band Irazu led by the Chilean saxophonist Raúl Gutiérrez. For the típico-oriented Para Yoyo (1993 on Bleu Caraïbes), recorded in Paris, he assembled an orchestra with a sax, trumpet and trombone frontline, rhythm section and lead/chorus voices including the London-based alto and tenor sax player Lisa Graham and percussionist Dave Pattman. Peruchín's son, Pedro Justiz Marquez Peruchín (known as "Peruchín Jr."), plays guitar on four tracks.

In 1995 he made his first recording in Cuba on the Billboard top ten hit Cubanismo! (1996 on Hannibal) led by the trumpeter, arranger and composer Jesús Alemañy. The following year he made the heavily Afro-Cuban flavoured Cuba Linda (1996 on Hannibal) in Cuba with some of the same personnel from Cubanismo! (including Alemañy and percussionist Tatá Güines); the result was one of his strongest solo outings. The track "Tumbao A Peruchín" pays tribute to Peruchín and features Peruchín Jr. on guitar. He sessioned on Alemañy's more confident Hannibal follow-up Malembe (1997) recorded in Cuba.

His final solo recording Cuban Jazz: Alfredo Rodríguez Y Los Acerekó (2002 on Naxos) was made in France and featured Bobby Carcassés on vocals, Changuito (José Luis Quintana) on timbales and Tatá Güines on congas. Alfredo contributed a couple of notable solos to A Bailar La Rumba - Featuring Alfredo Rodríguez on Nextmusic by the Venezuelan vibes player Franklin Veloz released in 2005, but recorded in 1998.

In addition to the artists and bands already mentioned, Rodríguez gigged with Ismael Rivera, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Pupi Legarreta, Mongo Santamaría, Monguito, Rafael Cortijo, Camilo Azuquita, Roberto Torres, and Andy and Jerry González, amongst others, and sessioned with Louie Colón, Dizzy Gillespie, José Mangual Jr., Orquesta Novel, Legarreta, Daniel Santos, Charanga La Reina and others.

Alfredo died in Bretonneau Hospital, Paris, on October 3rd 2005, reportedly from cancer. His funeral went according to his wishes on the following Friday without a mass in a small church close to Notre Dame. The church was packed and many musicians and promoters from all over Europe were in attendance. He was buried in the cemetery in Montmartre, the part of Paris where he had lived.

Selected albums on which Alfredo Rodríguez performed:

with Conjunto Sensación Swing '66 on Malva/Tropical; with Willie Rosario Two Too Much '68 on Musicor, El Bravo De Siempre c. '69, De Donde Nace El Ritmo '71 and Mr Rhythm / Mr. Ritmo '72 on Inca; with Joe Cuba Sextet Recuerdos de mi Querido Barrio (Memories Of My Beloved Neighborhood), Bustin' Out and Doin' It Right / Hecho y Derecho '70-3 on Tico; with Justo Betancourt Pa Bravo Yo '72 and Leguleya No '82 on Fania; with José Fajardo Fajardo y sus Estrellas del 75 and Fajardo '76: La Raiz De La Charanga 'Charanga Roots' '75-6 on Coco; with Carlos "Patato" Valdez Ready For Freddy '76 on LPV; with José Mangual Jr. Tribute To Chano Pozo '77 on True Ventures; with Alfredo de la Fé Para Africa Con Amor '79 on Sacodis; with Amadou Balake Afro-Charanga '81 on Zamidou; with Papaíto Papaíto '82 on SAR; with Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros Chocolate Dice '82 on SAR; with Lita Branda La Tigresa de la Salsa '82 on Toboga; with Armando Sánchez y su Conjunto Son de la Loma Y Sigue La Cosa '82 on Montuno; with Irazu, guesting along with Lou Donaldson, Chocolate and Nicky Marrero La Fiesta Del Timbalero '91 on L+R; with Roberto Pla And His Latin Ensemble Right On Time! '96 on Tumi; with Cubanismo led by Jesús Alemañy Cubanismo! '96 and Malembe '97 on Hannibal; with Franklin Veloz A Bailar La Rumba - Featuring Alfredo Rodríguez '05 on Nextmusic.

Solo albums:

Sonido Solido '83 on TR (aka Alfredo Rodríguez . Patato . Totico); Monsieur Oh, La, La '85 on Caimán; live set with Patato guesting Cuba-New York-Paris '91 on Bleu Caraïbes; Para Yoyo '93 on Bleu Caraïbes; Cuba Linda '96 on Hannibal; Cuban Jazz: Alfredo Rodríguez Y Los Acerekó '02 on Naxos.

© and John Child, producer and co-host of the the totallyradio show Aracataca , contributor to the Latin music website and MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music

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