Alfredo Rodríguez returned to the Bay Area Sunday night for the first time since 2009, when he made his local debut in a well-received SFJazz show. The hype around the young Cuban pianist hasn't died down since then, though he's only just now about to release his first album, Sounds of Space (on Quincy Jones' Qwest label). Indeed there were many in the house who were at that last show eagerly anticipating his return, this time in Berkeley, courtesy of Cal Performances, and he certainly delivered a performance worthy of the hype and high expectations.
Originally announced as a solo recital, I was pleased to see the stage set up for a trio. Shortly after 7 Rodríguez, bass player Peter Slavov and percussionist Francisco Mela walked onstage and they began with Rodríguez's ironically titled "Silencio." Rodríguez, a classically trained musician who moved into jazz after hearing Keith Jarret's Koln recording, has absorbed a lot of Jarrett's mannerisms at the keys, from the hunched shoulders to rising off the bench almost into the piano. But the absorption has also been a musical one, as the song went into loud, sinewy passages rooted in swing that would veer into territory more closely associated with rock dynamics- at one point the tune sounded almost like an early Black Sabbath song as Rodríguez laid into extended riffs in minor keys, before the song concluded like a runaway train.
The next song was Maria Vera's "Veinte Años," which Slavov kicked off with a funky solo before Rodríguez and Meya slowed it down into son territory, and then refined it further into an elegant, Oscar Peterson-like ballad. Meya, an absolutely phenomenal drummer, played with sticks, brushes and hands as the song evolved into a rumba before closing out in full jazz mode.
Next came two more Rodríguez compositions, "El Guije" and "Transculturation." These pieces covered a lot of musical ground, at one point in "El Guije" the trio had moved far into territory many would label "new music" instead of jazz, as the pianist's classical foundation came to the fore. Mela's aggressive drumming and Slavov's steady bottom would veer from Loussier's formalism to Brubeck's bounce and then leave it all behind to play something completely unique- I found myself thinking I've never heard anything quite like these guys before, then Rodríguez would return to the minor keys, working in the theme from"The Girl from Impanema" and improvising outward until they brought the latter song home with a resounding thump.
Rodríguez took the mic, introduced the players and the previous songs, then they performed "Quízas, Quízas, Quízas" and "Guantanamera"- the first was a slow, hazy shuffle which soon shifted into something much more brooding as Rodríguez again shifted from major to minor chord progressions, working the rhythm back and forth to a point where were it not so intriguing it could have been excessive but never was. The latter classic was so heavily laden with improvisation, played as a breakneck jam, it was almost unrecognizable, and both were compellingly played.
Rodríguez returned to the stage alone for the encore- a devastatingly beautiful rendition of the bolero "Como fue" by Ernesto Duarte, which was accompanied by some one's phone going off in a manner that was particularly egregious, all the more so because its owner refused to silence it while the voicemail options went off through the hall. I almost expected a repeat of the infamous recent New York episode was about to unfold, but Rodríguez played through it, his back to the offender, seemingly unruffled by the disturbance.