It’s a tricky business, being taken seriously in the music world without slipping into taking YOURSELF seriously. You need technique, you need vision, but you also need a sense of humour and a willingness to step outside your Zone of Proximal Development. It’s so tough, in fact, that most composers decide to skip the step; too many are content to either crank out the same thing every single time or to keep chasing their own tail into irrelevance. On the evidence, it would appear that someone has had this talk with Alfredo Rodriguez. Maybe it was Quincy Jones, his mentor and co-producer here, or maybe Rodriguez taught himself this valuable lesson. His new disc, Sounds of Space, is full of intricate passages that actually go somewhere emotionally, and lyrical passages that display a shockingly high degree of difficulty. In short, the best of both worlds, career-development-wise.
The album does not start with the title track, but we will. Melodically, it’s a gentle Cuban-influenced piece; rhythmically, it’s got a hard-edged 9/8 meter that undercuts any unconscious urges towards sentimentality. Ernesto Vega doubles up on both clarinet and bass clarinet to help Rodriguez state the theme, and we expect him to break into a solo – that’s what happens next, right? Instead, we get a new theme full of stops and starts and switchbacks, and then another, and a third. Finally Rodriguez drops into a groove, his solo full of drama, ending in one impossibly long piano trill. We go everywhere in the course of 4:44, and immediately we want to go back. Similar shenanigans occur again and again here. “...Y Bailara la Negra? (A Ernesto Lucuona)” keeps shifting its tempo up and down and up again, with very little notice for the listener. Luckily, his rhythm section (Michael Olivera on drums and Gaston Joya on bass) is right there with him, managing to stand out while never wavering or showing off. The uncertainty continues for about half the piece, with Rodriguez driving things along from the piano bench, until the biggest shocker of all: the band develops a sweet listenable fusion-y motif and stays in it long enough for Vega to uncoil a superb soprano sax solo.
Things aren’t always so frantic on the disc. “Sueño de Paseo” is straightforward and adorable, with long solo passages and lots of lovely chords. “Cu-Bop” sounds exactly the way you think it will, with both feet planted firmly in Havana but technique on loan from the masters. (Nice solo from bassist Joya here too.) And “April” is a ruminative and rambling piano solo piece with no fixed meter, scheme, or intention. It sounds like nothing more than early Gonzalo Rubalcaba – high praise indeed, coming from this reviewer. But it will be the crazier moments that will stick with you: the straight-out speed assault of “Transculturation” and “Crossing the Border,” the introduction of the woodwind-only Santa Cecilia Quartet on “Fog,” the rocked-out riffs of “Silence.” Very little rock or electronica can deliver the kind of twisty thrills that Rodriguez seems to be able to pull out of his hat on a regular basis.