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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Cover art by Long Vu,  courtesy of Destiny Records

Cover art by Long Vu, courtesy of Destiny Records

Ricky Rodriguez, a bassist with a heavy history of touring with the greats, will bring his own band to The Jazz Gallery for the release of his first album as a leader. Raised and schooled in Puerto Rico, Ricky has been on the New York scene for almost eleven years. Looking Beyond (Destiny Records) presents the inimitable lineup of Adam Rogers (guitar), Luis Perdomo (piano), Myron Walden (alto saxophone and bass clarinet), and Obed Calvaire (drums). The album also features special guests David Sanchez (tenor saxophone) and Pete Rodriguez (trumpet). We caught up with Ricky by phone, and talked about his composition and arrangement style, the backstory behind the formation of his quintet, and his philosophy on approaching the New York scene as a young musician.

The Jazz Gallery: Your last gig at the Gallery was in April 2015, with Ben Wendel, Fabian Almazan, and Henry Cole, where you reworked several tunes from “Looking Beyond” with an electric approach. How did the show go down?

Ricky Rodriguez: It went well, man. As a double bass player and electric bass player, I respect the instruments’ different sounds, from classic and acoustic to electric and crazy, you know what I mean? I picked some tunes from the record, and combined them with new ones that I was writing for that particular project. It worked great, because the bass lines I wrote on acoustic, I can play on electric too, and it doesn’t sound out of context. When I compose, I try to think of those days when the airline might not let me travel with my acoustic, so I have to bring the electric. So I try to make my music work for both. Except for when we play straight-ahead jazz of course; I respect that sound so much that I have to play acoustic. But the rest of my music works fine for both. I can play with Fender Rhodes or acoustic piano, and it sounds good either way. So with the electric band, we had a good time, and people liked it. For this week, it will totally be like the real shit, you know? [laughs]. The ‘real band,’ with the acoustic instruments, so I’m really excited about that.

TJG: With Myron Walden in the band as a doubler, do you write differently for his alto playing and his bass clarinet playing?

RR: Oh yeah, definitely. As I said in a previous interview, I’ve known Myron for years. Even before I moved to New York, I was listening to him on his records. I wanted to play with him when I moved to New York, and he was playing with the Ray Barretto Sextet, a band that I really enjoyed. I was young at the time and I considered him one of the masters, as I still do, so later when I wrote this music I was thinking of him. It’s funny because I’d played his music already with different saxophone players, like David Binney, John Ellis, and Ben Wendel, and they’re incredible. But the Myron sound and approach is so particular to what I was looking for. I guess that’s important; when you write for someone specific. You write it into the band, like Duke Ellington did with his musicians.

TJG: How does Myron’s sound change from alto to bass clarinet?

RR: I wrote a couple of tunes for him on bass clarinet, because of course when I heard him he was playing with the [Brian Blade] Fellowship, and I loved it, so I wanted to channel that. For this show, I asked him to try some of the same music with him moving from alto to bass clarinet, to try something new, because I love bass clarinet. It matches so well with the acoustic bass and piano. The approach between alto and bass clarinet changes a lot, so I have to do some thinking as I write, or else it won’t sound right. For most of the bass clarinet stuff I was thinking about tenor [saxophone]. On the record, I had special guest David Sanchez, so I wanted to try some of those parts on bass clarinet, since it’s in the same register. That’s what I told Myron, so he said “Let’s see” and immediately started exploring.

TJG: Tell me about your decision to have both a pianist and a guitarist in the quintet.

RR: Good question. I always want to record and write, and you know how hard it is to get a label to sign you. I was saving money, and I was thinking of doing a quartet, with no guitar. When I got approached by Destiny Records three years ago, they told me that they were interested in having me record whatever I had ready. I said I had the quartet, but when the studio date got to be about a month away, I wanted to add something, and I had so many guests I wanted to invite. But I had to work with a budget. I definitely wanted to have David Sanchez, one of my mentors, who I’ve been playing with for years, on a couple of tunes. But then I figured out that it would be great to listen to how I can re-harmonize and re-orchestrate some of the music with piano and guitar. Sometimes you hear the two together, and they’re doing almost the same thing; I didn’t want to do that. I started listening to records with guitar, piano, and bass, and started to analyze it. I told the label that I wanted to add a guitar, and the guys asked me, “Who?” I didn’t know, but I definitely wanted to have a quintet. So they said okay! I was scared, because suddenly I had less than a month to put together the guitar part.

One of my favorite guitar players is Adam Rogers. The first time I heard him, he blew my mind. He can play classical guitar at a high level, as well as crazy rock, jazz, everything. Every level is so high with him. So I just approached him, and he said he was interested in recording. I got so excited that in less than a week, I finished all the parts! I was writing for him in particular, like I was doing with Myron. Mike Moreno has played with me before, as well as Ben Monder, and other guitarists too; they sound incredible, but they don’t sound like Adam in the band, because of his approach and background, and because I was writing for his particular harmonic sensibility. He adds another voice to the quintet texture, and so there’s no competition between Luis Perdomo on piano and Adam guitar. I can tell you, I was kind of nervous when I was at the studio because I had one m********ker next to me on guitar, and another m********ker next to me on the piano, and thought it might get into some wrestling, you know? [laughs]. But no, man, it was beautiful. I was so excited listening back, and now I want to transcribe it all. I chose those guys because they take it to the next level, and they hardly needed any explanation from me. They all did an amazing job.

TJG: Any plans for a tour of the album?

RR: Well, we’re working on that. Now, it’s about trying to get the record to radio stations, magazines, and distributing through the label. I’ve been getting some good feedback, and we’re trying to work it out. The record is going to be out on Friday, the day after the gig at the Gallery. I’ll have some records for sale at the show, of course. I’m also trying to work out some festivals, and I’m doing it by myself, because I don’t have a manager. I’d like to do something in Puerto Rico, maybe as soon as next year, and I’d love to bring this band. But we’ll see. It’s a great project, and everyone seems to like the flow of the band. In the studio, it was simple and magical, and I feel great about it as my first record as a leader. I hope we can continue doing more projects in the future.

TJG: I recently interviewed Mario Castro about his upbringing in the music scene in Puerto Rico, and he mentioned how wonderful it was to be able to share the bandstand with local teachers and professionals at a young age. Was your experience similar, and what did you value about your musical upbringing?

RR: I know Mario Castro—in my case, I’m a little older than Mario; I know him from when he was sharing the stage with me, Miguel Zenón and Henry Cole [laughs]. We offer a concert every December, for about eleven years now, because Miguel is over there, Henry is there, and I go back a lot as well. We get a date at a club, and a lot of people show up from Puerto Rico because they already know what’s happening. In the beginning, I remember those young cats, like Mario, walking up to the stage and saying “Can I play with you guys?” It’s great, because when I was his age, I had the same thing with guys like David Sanchez, Danilo Perez, or even Branford [Marsalis] when they’d come to Puerto Rico. Henry Cole and I would go down there as kids and we’d want to play, but were scared at the same time.

When you start growing up in music and in life, you look back and see the next generation coming up. I love hanging with them now, having conversations with them. I teach privately, and my students are asking me all these questions, and I never keep secrets, I don’t keep things in a box. That’s what I love about music: We share a history. It’s so important to help, share my touring experience, and talk openly about my life as a musician. If a young musician who saw me at the Blue Note runs up and starts talking to me, asking how I liked the show, I’ll stop and talk with him and be open about the experience. When students ask me what they should do, I tell them what I do, and I keep the communication open.

Believe it or not, I’m thirty-seven, and sometimes I take private lessons with one of my favorite bass players, Scott Colley. I go to his house, and we spend hours just talking about everything. That’s what I love about Scott. When he’s playing, you can hear it live, how his life, family, and friends influence him. He blew my mind with how open he was with me. Now, my homework is trying to take that information about life he gave me and push it forward to the next generation. It’s your mission to push it forward. That’s music, for me, that’s life, no secrets.

TJG: How many years have you been in New York now, and how have things changed for you in the city?

RR: I’ve been about ten and a half years. Next year it’s going to be eleven—oh my. My personality has changed a lot. Coming from a Caribbean island, with all my family back there, I arrived in New York by myself. I wanted to grow up more in the music scene, get better, and follow my dreams. I’ve toured with as many people as I can, and now I have my own band, so it’s a dream come true. The city makes me angry sometimes, because of the winter, the subway, the people. It’s stressful. I would be trying to deal with that, because when I’d go back to Puerto Rico, I’d be talking to people and find myself yelling and being mad all the time. My family would say, “Wow, I guess New York changed you!” It opened my eyes to another part of the real world. Back in Puerto Rico, things are so chill, people relax on the beach and walk so slowly. I want to push people and say “Hey, why are you walking so slow?!”

But you know, after traveling around the world, that’s changed my personality as well. Learning from other cultures and meeting musicians from Thailand, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, Europe… It’s like a rebirth. After traveling, I’d always want to go back to New York. So I developed a system of knowing that the stress is coming, so I would be able to deal with it when I got there. I’m trying to fight the stress, and I’ve been dealing with it for ten years, so why get mad? The city is never going to change, the way people live, and rush. I need to find my own path. Many musicians can’t take the city any more, and I might like to move somewhere else in the next few years. The city is incredible, and the jazz scene is too, but nah, not for me man, I don’t know if I want to live here forever [laughs]. I’m a Caribbean island guy, so let’s see what happens.

TJG: What advice would you have for a young musician who is considering moving to New York today?

RR: Like I say to all new guys, I tell them about what happened to me, and to focus on human life and the music scene. As you can see, there are still jam sessions going on. When I moved here, the level was different. You could hop from club to club all night, and the scene was incredible. All those guys, like Nicholas Payton or Roy Hargrove, were already famous, and would be hanging out after the gigs and club hopping, all they way out to Brooklyn. That’s where I met Vincent Herring, Robin Eubanks, and Myron Walden. So what I tell to the new generation is that they should go to nice jam sessions and don’t be afraid to play. Like Miles said, don’t fear mistakes. We all do mistakes, we’re not perfect. I recommend them to go there, play, and meet people. You’re all a part of the same mission, just getting the name out there so people can call you. If you’re home practicing–which is cool, we love practicing–nobody’s gonna knock on your door or call you and hand you a tour with Chick Corea. That’s not gonna happen. You have to go out, deal with life and society, because that’s as much a part of the music as anything else. From there, you connect with people around the world who are the same age, all looking for something. I was doing so many sessions when I moved. From there, that’s how I started getting gigs, believe it or not. You never know, man. Even a restaurant gig. You never know who’s gonna walk through that door and see you. That’s my advice for the new generation: Get out there, don’t be afraid, and play!

TJG: That’s great advice! It’s been wonderful talking with you, Ricky, and good luck with your upcoming show. Anything else to add?

RR: Thank you very much! I’ve also continued to write, so at the Gallery, we’ll have some new tunes to try, and some new things to explore. We’re really looking forward to it.

The Ricky Rodriguez Quintet celebrates the release of Looking Beyond, at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, June 16th, 2016. The group features Mr. Rodriguez on bass & compositions, Luis Perdomo on piano, Myron Walden on alto saxophone & bass clarinet, Adam Rogers on guitar, and Obed Calvaire on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.