Trumpeter, vocalist, and percussionist Pete Rodríguez carries the bloodline of Nuyorican salsa and 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, Rodríguez cut his teeth, backing some of the great 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 played trumpet, sang coro (chorus), played maracas, and gave 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 and taking his unique brand of Afro-Caribbean jazz in exciting new directions.
Rodríguez’s music comes from a deeply personal place, reflecting on his connections to his father and heritage and other unexpected influences. Rodríguez lived through the birth of Hip Hop during his early childhood in the 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 age 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 to prioritize education. He holds bachelor’s and master of music degrees in jazz from Rutgers University. Also, he obtained his doctorate of musical arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007.
TP: Congratulations on the release of El Conde Negro.
PR: Thank you.
TP: Shortly after your father, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez’s death in 2000, you put down your horn and retired. Did you ever imagine you would return?
PR: After my father died, I became depressed and stopped playing for three years. I started again because I got a job teaching music in an elementary school. Then I went back to school and obtained my Doctorate in trumpet. In 2008, I quit again after El Alquimista came out. I couldn’t find work.
TP: Several reviewers described “El Alquimista” as “An attention-getter” and “A new potent formula for jazz that deserves to be replicated,” but the project did not receive the attention or recognition it deserved.
PR: 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 music and pushed me in new directions.
TP: What came first, the birth of your daughter or the move to Austin, Texas?
PR: The birth of my daughter, that’s when my life changed. I was a stay-at-home dad for ten months, and it was the most challenging job ever. My wife worked from home, and my daughter didn’t sleep. I spent more time at Chucky Cheese, Barnes & Noble, and shopping malls than I care to mention. But when she was born, things changed. When my daughter hugged me, it felt like my father was hugging me. I felt a strong connection.
TP: When did you move to Texas?
PR: In 2011. When I arrived, I was musically out of shape. After my first gig, I was exhausted; my “chops” were done, and 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 Saturdays, and I organized a jam session to give back to the community. It’s one thing to practice at home and another to perform with colleagues in front of a live audience.
TP: How did you connect with Destiny Records?
PR: I learned about the label through a friend. The connection led to Caminando Con Papi and El Conde Negro.
TP: Before making Caminando con Papi, you couldn’t listen to your father’s music, but you overcame your grief and began interpreting your father’s music on your terms.
PR: I couldn’t listen to him. I’d cry. Also, I was blocked; I needed help to develop something. Ten years later, I sat down at the piano and composed the arrangement for Tambo in twenty-five minutes. I started by singing the tune the way my father did and experimented with variations. Also, I understated the vocals and highlighted the lyrics.
TP:Caminando con Papi marks the first time you sing on your own project.
PR: I was still determining if I would like it. I’m not trying to sing like a “salsero,” and I wasn’t sure what I would 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 to tell me, “You have to find your 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.”
TP: Nate Chinen of the New York Times described Caminando Con Papi, as “A brilliant homage to your father.”
PR: Yeah, that went well. Many people liked what I did with Tambo and Cabildo, so I included 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. 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 song because “supposedly” a Puerto Rican couldn’t do justice to a Cuban classic. He proved them wrong.
TP: What is your method for interpreting your father’s material?
PR: I don’t listen to the original version 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, and a starting note, see how high the tune goes, and find a comfortable register. Then I choose chords and harmonies and sing in broken time. With Convergencia, for example, I thought about how uncomfortable my father must have felt when people told him he couldn’t or shouldn’t sing the song. 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 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. I couldn’t do it any better than my father. I took that as a challenge and composed. 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. Some people will like our interpretation, and others won’t. You can only please some.
I sent a copy of El Conde Negro to (pianist) Oscar Hernandez, who 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. One question he asked was 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, and 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. It also results from hard work, pain, struggle, and soul searching. I want to believe that El Conde Negro will take off and I can work and travel. I want to think nobody is doing what I’m doing. I might be only the son of a Fania artist and salsa legend performing in jazz in a Latin jazz format. For my next project, I want to include Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano tunes. I’m considering tunes such as Anacaona,El Raton, and Amada Mia. Cheo and my father were good friends.
TP: Tell me about the jazz side of El Conde Negro.
PR: 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 his idea. He suggested I write something groove-oriented and simple. Ten Fe is propelled by Ricky Rodriguez’s bass lines and Perdomo’s block chords.
TP: What’s next?
PR: I just recorded a new jazz CD with bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Rudy Royston. The group’s name is the Organized Noise Trio, and the album’s title 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.
TP: Looking forward! I should mention your sister, vocalist Cita Rodríguez is having an excellent year. She will be at Lehman College on June 10th, presenting 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. She also has a new CD titled En Un Homenaje a Graciela Perez (Tribute to Graciela Perez).
PR: The Graciela CD sounds great. My sister is ridiculously talented. It’s cool that we are carrying on our father’s legacy and interpreting his music our way. He would be proud. I will be in New York City on June 10th.
TP: Looking forward! Thank you for speaking with Jazzdelapena.
PETE RODRIGUEZ DISCOGRAPHY AS A LEADER
Caminando Con Papi (2013)
El Conde Negro (2015)
Organized Noise Trio – The Wink of a Coward (2017)