“Pete Rodríguez isn’t a purist. He knows his salsa, as one would expect of the offspring of famed salsa vocal icon Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez and he knows his jazz. Rodríguez mines his Nuyorican musical veins and jazz lodes, ultimately mixing his finds together to create a form of music that’s loyal to both camps yet highly original and completely mutable.“ Dan Bilawsky – allaboutjazz.com
Trumpeter, vocalist, and percussionist Pete Rodríguez carries the bloodline of Nuyorican salsa as he takes the tradition of Afro-Caribbean jazz to new places. The son of renowned salsero Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez and godson of Fania Records bandleader Johnny Pacheco, the younger Rodríguez cut his teeth backing up some of the greatest names in Latin music. He became his father’s musical director at the age of nineteen.
Coached by pianist Oscar Hernandez, the former director for “El Conde” and Ruben Blades, Rodríguez was playing trumpet, singing coro, playing maracas and giving cues to the band. As a vocalist, he sang on Tito Puente’s Grammy-award winning Mambo Birdland. As an instrumentalist, he’s appeared with legends including Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Chico O’Farrill and Bebo Valdez. Now, as a bandleader, Rodríguez is drawing on these experiences to take his brand of Afro-Cuban jazz in exciting new directions.
Rodríguez’s music comes from a deeply personal place, reflecting on his connections to his father and heritage, as well as other unexpected influences. Rodríguez lived through the birth of Hip Hop during his early childhood in Bronx, New York. As a sharp contrast, after moving to Puerto Rico, he focused on classical music, performing trumpet with the Symphony of Puerto Rico at the young age of 15. While in the United States Army, he discovered his love for jazz and made it the focus of his professional and educational pursuits after leaving the military. The diversity of these life experiences can be heard both in Rodríguez’s compositions and playing style.
While pursuing his musical career, Rodríguez has also always made time for prioritizing education. He holds his bachelor and master of music degrees in jazz from Rutgers University. He obtained his doctorate of musical arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007.
Congratulations to you and everyone involved with the making of El Conde Negro.
Shortly after your father’s untimely death in December of 2000 you put your down and “retired” from the music business. Did you ever think you would play again?
After my father died I became very depressed and stopped playing for three years. I started up again because I got a job, teaching music in elementary school. Then I decided to go back to school and get my Doctorate in trumpet. In 2008, I quit again after El Alquimista came out and I couldn’t get any work.
Reviewers called it, “An attention getter,” and “A new potent formula for jazz that deserves to be replicated,” but it didn’t receive the attention it deserved.
It was a very disheartening time. I was angry and frustrated. Someone else might have handled it differently but I can’t say I regret it. The situation inspired me to write a lot of music and pushed me in new directions.
What came first, the birth of your daughter or the move to Austin, Texas?
The birth of my daughter, that’s when my life began to change. I was a stay-at-home dad for ten months and it was the hardest job ever. My wife worked from home and my daughter didn’t sleep a lot. I spent more time at Chucky Cheese, Barnes & Noble and shopping malls than I care to mention. But when my daughter was born things began to change. When she hugged me it felt like my father was hugging me. I felt a strong connection.
When did you move to Texas?
2011. When I arrived I was out of shape. After my first gig I was totally exhausted, my “chops” were done, my dexterity was off. Around that time my daughter started school and I started “shedding” (practicing) every day. I connected with a club called The Brass House, where I perform on Saturday’s and I organized a jam session as a way of giving back to the community. It’s one thing to practice at home and another to perform with colleagues in front of a live audience.
How did you connect with Destiny Records?
I learned about them through a friend. The connection led to Caminando Con Papi and El Conde Negro.
Prior to the making of Caminando con Papi you couldn’t listen to your father’s music. With time you overcame your grief and found a way to honor and reinterpret his music on your own terms. What changed?
I couldn’t listen to him. I’d start crying. Also, I was blocked; I couldn’t come up with anything. Ten years later, I sat down at the piano and composed the arrangement for Tambo in twenty-five minutes.
I started out by singing the tune the way my father did and I experimented with variations. Also, I decided to understate the vocals and highlight the lyrics.
Caminando con Papi marks the first time you sing on a project of your own.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. I’m not trying to sing like a “salsero” and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do harmonically. I didn’t want to transcribe the arrangement and sing it the same way. My father wouldn’t have approved of that. He was the first one to tell me, “You have to find your own voice. Don’t try to imitate me. I didn’t bust my ass singing and paying for you to go to college for you to imitate me.”
Nate Chinen of the New York Times described Caminando con Papi as a, “A brilliant homage to your father.”
Yeah, that went really well. A lot of people liked what I did with Tambo and Cabildo so I decided to include five tunes by my father on El Conde Negro. One of Papi’s biggest hits is Catalina La O and another is Soy La Ley. By the way, I was in the studio when Victor Paz recorded the trumpet solo on the original recording.
There’s also a story behind the tune, Convergencia. My father was warned about messing with the tune, the implication being that a Puerto Rican couldn’t do justice to a Cuban classic. Obviously, he proved them wrong.
Yes, he did!
How do you go about reinterpreting your father’s material?
I don’t listen to the original version a lot because I’m afraid what will come out will be similar to what was done before. Also, I do it out of respect. I make sure that I know the lyrics and the melody and I pick a range, a starting note, see how high the tune goes and I find a comfortable register. Then I pick chords and harmonies I want to go with and I sing it in broken time. In the case of Convergencia, for example, I also thought of how uncomfortable my father must have felt when people told him he couldn’t, or shouldn’t sing the song, and I tried to put myself in his state of mind.
One week before we went into the studio I was at my mother’s house and I was completely blocked, I couldn’t come up with anything and my mother said, “When you go home it will come to you,” and it did.
In a case of history repeating itself, I was warned about messing with Convergencia. The implication being that I couldn’t possibly do any better than my father’s version or the Cuban version. I took that as a challenge and began to compose. When you listen to the tune you’ll notice, towards the end, the drummer and I play “free”. That’s our reply to the naysayers, to those who said we couldn’t do it. At the end of the day some people are going to like our interpretation and others won’t, you can’t please everybody.
Either way, your interpretation makes a strong statement.
I sent a copy of El Conde Negro to (pianist) Oscar Hernandez and he called to tell me how much he liked the album, which means a lot. Oscar is the person who coached me and made me the musical director I am today and he played the piano on the original version of Soy La Ley.
Thanks for giving credit where credit is due.
One of the questions he asked is, how I came up with arrangements. I explained that my music is a mixture of many things. I grew up listening to my father’s music, Beny More, R&B, classical music and I lived in the Bronx during the birth of Hip-Hop. My music is a mixture of all those things and what comes out, comes out. It’s also the result of hard work, pain, struggle and a lot of soul searching.
I want to believe that El Conde Negro will take off and I can start working and traveling. I’d like to think nobody is doing what I’m doing. I think I might be only the son of a Fania artist and salsa legend that’s performing in a jazz, Latin jazz format. For my next project I want to include tunes by Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano. I’m considering the tunes, Anacaona, El Raton and Amada Mia. Cheo and my father were good friends, very tight.
Tell me about the jazz side of El Conde Negro.
Stolen Changes combines straight-up swing with edgy post-bop, Gravity pairs my midrange trumpet lines with Perdomo’s rapid-fire spirals, Perdomo’s Blue’s was Luis’s ideas. He suggested that I write something groove oriented and simple, Ten Fe is propelled by Ricky Rodriguez’s bass lines and Perdomo’s block chords.
I just recorded a new jazz CD with bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Rudy Royston. The name of the group is the Organized Noise Trio and the title of the album is, The Dark City. Beyond that, I’m seeking management, booking and a record label and I’ll be at Minton’s in Harlem on June 17th.
I look forward to hearing The Dark City.
I should mention, your sister, vocalist Cita Rodríguezis having a very good year. She will be at Lehman College on June 10th, where she will take part in the production of El Conde y La Condesa (The Count and the Countess) and at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing with the Mambo Legends Orchestra on July 10th. She also has a new CD titled, En Un Homenaje a Graciela Perez (Tribute to Graciela Perez).
The Graciela CD sounds great. My sister is ridiculously talented. I think it’s cool that we are carrying on our father’s legacy and interpreting his music in two totally different ways. I know that he would be really proud. I will be in New York City on June 10th and I’m looking forward to it.
Thank you for speaking with me, and good luck to you both. It’s your time!
Soy La Ley; Stolen Changes; Catalina La O; Gravity; Convergencia; Ten Fe; Sombras Que Paso; Perdomo’s Blues; Guaguanco De Amor; El Conde Negro.
Pete Rodríguez trumpet; Luis Perdomo: piano, Rhodes; Ricky Rodriguez: bass; Rudy Royston: drums; Robert Quintero: percussion.
Record Label: Destiny Records
El Conde Negro (Destiny, 2015)
Caminando con Papi (Destiny, 2014)
El Alquimista (Conde Music, 2008)
Mind Trip (CD Baby, 2006)
Photo: Rebecca Meek