A native of White Plains, an MSM precollege alum, and a freshman at Juilliard, drummer/pianist Julius Rodriguez has been shaped and nurtured by the musical forces of the New York area. While his talents have taken him to festivals and competitions across the country, Rodriguez is deeply woven into the fabric of New York’s complex and tight-knit jazz community. You might find him hosting a jam session at Smalls, or even headlining a show at Lincoln Center, an annual holiday tradition for the past several years where his musicianship and spirit have inspired rave reviews.
Rodriguez is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, having played here in October with Daryl Johns on bass, Michael Ode on drums, and Morgan Guerin on tenor sax and EWI. Next week, Rodriguez returns from a tour of Japan to play at the Gallery again with the same rhythm section, but this time featuring vocalist Maya Carney. We phoned Rodriguez on a rainy Tuesday afternoon to catch up about his touring schedule, his first year at Juilliard, and his plans for the upcoming show.
The Jazz Gallery: In October you played at The Jazz Gallery—What were your thoughts about the show?
Julius Rodriguez: That show was amazing. It was a bit of a surprise to me, getting to perform at The Jazz Gallery. It’s one of my favorite venues and I’ve always dreamed of playing there. I always knew it would happen, but I didn’t know it would happen so soon. I’ve seen so much amazing music go down in that room. Being on that stage is an honor, knowing that someone thinks that I belong up there with all those people I admire.
TJG: What did you play then?
JR: A whole range of things. Some of my music, some of my friends’ music. I have a lot of friends who write a lot of great music. It’s good to support each other’s music as composers and musicians, to help people say what they need to say. It’s helping me to find my sound too, the more I play others’ music. A friend of mine, Lauren Scales, sat in that night and sang a couple of pieces.
TJG: And what’s on the setlist for the upcoming show?
JR: The next show is going to be all music of The Beatles. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Beatles. In fifth grade my cousin gave me the full Beatles catalog and it changed my life. I’ve gone through, picked out songs people might not know so well, and reworked them in a totally different way. Avant-garde jazz style. I look up to The Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran a lot. It’s all influenced by them. I’ve done a couple shows with this project before, with [singer] Maya Carney and [bassist] Daryl Johns, and it’s been evolving. I’m excited to bring it to The Jazz Gallery.
TJG: What are some of these Beatles deep-cuts that you’ve sought out?
JR: We’re doing everything from “Day Tripper,” “The Two of Us,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “For No One,” “Fixing a Hole,” all great tunes. My first time at The Gallery, we actually did “I’m So Tired,” another beautiful song.
TJG: So you’re sitting down, you’ve found yourself a Beatles song, and you say, “It’s time to do something different with it.” What are some of the next steps?
JR: I look at how it can be translated into “jazz,” so they say. Sometimes people just take a song and put a swing rhythm behind it. That’s cool. But jazz is evolving to be more than that. Change time signatures, change the tempo, change feels, move sections. Keeps it interesting for the listener and for us.
TJG: How does Maya’s voice fit in with that Beatles sound? You never hear a female voice in a Beatles song.
JR: It’s really cool. She’s got her own thing, you know? Some people call it wild. I don’t even know how to explain it, her improvisational thing. Sounds, all sounds. You just have to hear it.
TJG: How did you meet Daryl and Michael?
JR: Daryl and I did a precollege program at Manhattan School of Music together for a long time. We were both there for seven years, started when we were twelve of thirteen. I’ve known Michael from working around town, but we didn’t meet until this year’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead in Washington with Jason Moran. I try to play with both of them as much as I can. Michael’s one of my favorite drummers, so when he’s in town I try to play with him a lot. And the past three or four gigs I’ve played in New York had Daryl on bass. We play together all the time.
TJG: You’ll be playing piano, but you often play drums as well. They’re both rhythm section instruments, but what unusual similarities do you feel between the two, as a true doubler?
JR: They’re different worlds, though they connect through rhythm. When I’m playing drums with a piano player, there are a lot of things we catch rhythmically, and vice versa when I’m playing piano with a drummer. People notice that, and they love to see that connection. They’re both accompanying instruments, and their job is to make the soloist feel comfortable and sound good. It’s different on the piano, because you have all the harmonic things you can do. On the drums there’s the rhythm. So the harmonic sense helps me on drums, and the rhythmic awareness helps me on piano.
TJG: Tell me a little about Onyx Collective, which you’ll be touring with in Japan later this week.
JR: It’s lead by this saxophonist named Isaiah Barr, another guy who I’ve known since I was twelve. He started this group a while back. They do a whole bunch of different things, from bebop and R&B to hip hop. They work with a bunch of people, Dave Glasser, Ratking, one of the guys from Wu-Tang Clan. They used to a radio show every Wednesday and would always invite me to play, but I was in high school and I couldn’t get into the city on a school day. So we’d been planning to play together for a while. After I got to college I did a show with them playing drums with this pop singer Dev Hynes, who goes under Blood Orange. He produced Solange’s album. I did that show, and then he hit me up a couple weeks later and asked if I was interested in going to Japan with them. I said, “Totally!” I’m happy to be a part of the group now.
I’d been to Japan before with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, an all-star high school group. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. The audience in Japan loves jazz. They might love jazz more than Americans love jazz. They treated us so well while we were there. The hospitality was amazing. The language barrier sometimes disappears when you start talking about music. We weren’t just playing, we were working with kids in schools. It’s heartwarming to see people so excited about music. We would do masterclasses with the high school jazz bands. We’d play for them, they’d play for us, and we’d impart as much knowledge as we could. There was a language barrier, but once you start talking about music, it becomes clear that we’re all doing it for the same purpose.
TJG: Was this your second year doing a holiday concert at Lincoln Center?
JR: It was. I’ve actually been performing at Lincoln Center for the past five, almost six years now. The guy who produces it, John Senakwami, was a former teacher of mine. He used to teach at the middle school I went to, and he would put on these productions of Christmas and spring concerts at the school. When he left, all the parents were upset. What would happen to the concerts? Somehow, he made a deal with Jazz at Lincoln Center, kept all his students, and continues to put on his shows there. As a former student of his, he likes to showcase me, so I’ve done a few shows there. These last years, I’ve done four or five shows as a leader in The Appel Room. And when his students play, I’m in the band playing drums.
TJG: You’re from White Plains, NY. What were you hearing around you growing up?
JR: Growing up, my dad was a huge jazz fan. We listened to the greats, Monk, Coltrane. I started classical piano lessons at a young age. I was always watching the musicians in my church. My parents, knowing I was interested in music, would take me to jazz concerts in the area. They got season tickets for the “Jazz For Young People” series at Lincoln Center. I’ve been going to those since I was six or seven. I got to hear Wynton and his band at a young age. As I became more of my own musician, John [Senakwami] was a big teacher of mine. I studied with him for a while; he’s responsible for a lot of what I know now. I started the program at Manhattan School of Music. There I studied with Jeremy Manasia. I did a community program in Westchester called Jazz Elite, and we did some festivals like the Mingus festival and the Essentially Ellington festival. My dad would take me to jam sessions around Westchester. Blues R&B, not strictly jazz. There was a guy named Gil Parris who took care of me over there. There’s a bit of a jazz scene in Westchester.
TJG: What’s going on in the Juilliard jazz scene?
JR: I just started there. There’s a wide variety of very talented people. It’s amazing to be there, to watch it all going on. Immanuel Wilkins is there, he blows my mind all the time. It’s a whole bunch of people like him. The teachers are accessible, available for help. I like it a lot.
TJG: You’re so young, and you’re just starting at Juilliard. All the touring, recording, headlining, does it feel surreal?
JR: Sometimes. I guess I’m getting used to it, but something bigger will always happen. The last show I did at Lincoln Center, there was a billboard for it in Times Square. It was crazy to see. Jersey Boys, a Sprint commercial, and… me. I try not to think too much about it. I try to stay focused on the music, because that’s what I believe I’m here to do. Here in the New Year, my next goal is to record an album of me playing piano on it. I’ve been working on my sound as a pianist, and I think pretty soon I’ll be ready to document it.
TJG: We’ll be excited to hear that when it happens. In the meantime, safe travels in Japan, and we’re looking forward to hearing you when you return.
JR: Thanks, I’m excited about it. We’re playing some cool music. It’s different, but people seem to enjoy it.
Julius Rodriguez plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 12th, 2017. The group features Mr. Rodriguez on piano/keyboards, Maya Carney on vocals, Daryl Johns on bass, and Michael Ode on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.