‘Duologue’ by Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez Review: Channeling Cross-Cultural Passions
‘Thriller,” one of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits, rendered as timbá, set to Cuban dance rhythms? How about Koji Kondo’s theme for the popular Nintendo videogame “Super Mario Bros. 3” moving to those beats? When pianist Alfredo Rodriguez created videos along these lines and posted them online, he wasn’t just messing around: He was working on something.
It took percussionist Pedrito Martinez, a masterly and individualistic interpreter of Afro-Cuban rhythms, to help Mr. Rodriguez get there. On their new joint release, “Duologue” (Mack Avenue), out Friday, what in lesser hands might have sounded merely clever makes for rewarding, even enlightening, listening. On “Thriller,” performed as an instrumental, Mr. Rodriguez turns brief snatches of familiar melody into counterpoint that fuels the groove, overdubbing acoustic and Rhodes electric pianos to create intriguing textures. Mr. Martinez, who uses a hybrid setup combining the hand drums of Cuban percussion with elements of a trap set, staggers rhythms to build and then quickly deconstruct dance beats. The two musicians turn “Super Mario Bros. 3” into timbá yet also hint at the melody’s natural affinity with danzón, an elemental Cuban form.
When Messrs. Rodriguez and Martinez first performed as a duo at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard two years ago, their deep rapport and shared joy was evident. So was their intention to combine the traditions of their native island, Cuba, and their tantalizing technical skills into something accessible yet, beneath the surface, complex. At the club, this meant using Cuban forms as jumping-off points for free-flowing exchanges. The new CD’s title track—the shortest and most satisfying of these 11 pieces—best captures that feeling. Mr. Rodriguez has an ability to turn simple motifs into emotionally charged pianistic statements. Mr. Martinez is a singular rhythmic presence: Sitting atop a cajón (box drum), playing congas and snare drum, hi-hat cymbal and occasionally batá, the two-headed drums of Afro-Cuban religious rituals, he is by turns forceful or tender, and always precise.
Percussionist Pedrito Martinez and pianist Alfredo Rodriguez team up on the new album ‘Duologue’ Photo: Anna Webber
Mr. Martinez, who is 45 years old and lives in Union City, N.J., grew up in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana, where he’d often ditch classes for religious ceremonies, studying instead the drumming and chants of Cuba’s African-derived rituals and folkloric music. Since moving to the U.S. in 1998, he has stirred up the excitement in many musical environments—leading his powerhouse quartet, and supporting a wide range of projects led by stars including Chucho Valdés, Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis.
Mr. Rodriguez, who is 33 and has lived in Los Angeles for the past decade, is also from Havana. The son of a popular singer and television host, he studied classical piano at celebrated Cuban conservatories. Once he took up jazz, he caught the ear of Quincy Jones, who has co-produced all his albums, including this one (and who produced the original version of “Thriller”). Mr. Martinez played on Mr. Rodriguez’s 2014 release, “The Invasion Parade,” which interpreted Cuban folk music.
Here, the two perform one Cuban classic, “El Punto Cubano,” for which Mr. Rodriguez uses the sampled sound of the tres, a small Cuban guitar. Most of the other tracks are collaborative original compositions: Mr. Rodriguez recorded rough demos; Mr. Martinez wrote lyrics and devised rhythmic patterns; then, the two reworked things in the studio. As do many Cuban pianists, Mr. Rodriguez takes a distinctly percussive approach to the piano. Mr. Martinez’s drums are finely tuned. Thus, the harmonic and rhythmic weight is carried equally by both musicians, lending this music rare balance. Even a song such as “Flor,” whose smooth textures and laid-back feel sound too much like 1980s fusion, bears enough subtle tension and finely wrought detail to hold interest.
Mr. Martinez is as powerful and sensitive a singer as he is a percussionist (both musicians sing here). Mr. Rodriguez has a knack for soaring melodies. Mr. Martinez’s wondrous voice elevates these all the more, as on the ballad “Cosas del Amor” and especially on “Yo Volveré,” when Mr. Martinez, in Spanish, invokes the Yoruba deity Yemaya and pines for his native Cuba. These two musicians might well have stretched out and communed through extended improvisations (some listeners will wish they had). Instead, they’ve channeled a common passion for their homeland and cross-cultural mastery into tight, catchy and deceptively dense songs that work the way good pop music should.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.