Bassist Ricky Rodriguez moved to New York City from his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico about a decade ago and since then has been a versatile and boundary-pushing force on the jazz and contemporary music scene. A true stylistic chameleon, Rodriguez melds his roots in Latin music with classical training into a unique, progressive jazz voice. Rodriguez has performed as a sideman with artists as diverse as David Sanchez, Claudia Acuña, Joe Locke, Alvin Batiste, Stephon Harris, Ignacio Berroa, and Henry Cole, as well as leading several bands of his own. One of the few bassists on the scene who truly doubles up on upright and electric bass, Rodriguez will be performing with a plugged-in group of his this Thursday, April 30th, at The Jazz Gallery. We caught up with Ricky this week to talk about the many strands of music that filter through this group.
The Jazz Gallery: This group you’re bringing to the Gallery has a definite plugged-in character to it. How did the group come together?
Ricky Rodriguez: [Saxophonist] Ben [Wendel] and I worked together with an incredible Cuban drummer named Ignacio Berroa, and we went on tour together in Europe, but you know, we both got busy. The last time we worked together was like 5 years ago, and it’s been too long.
[Keyboardist] Fabian [Almazan] and I just started playing together last year on a gig with David Sanchez, but we also met one time way back in Amsterdam when he was playing with Terrence Blanchard and I was playing with Kenny Werner.
And [Drummer] Henry Cole and I went to school together way back in Puerto Rico, so we’ve been playing together for like 18 years. We worked together on his last Afrobeat record and we worked together with David Sanchez and Miguel Zenon.
I’ve been writing really hard music for these guys and my brain is fried from it, but it feels so fresh. I’m also playing some music that’s going to be on my album that’s coming out June 20th. The album’s going to have a different band that features Adam Rogers on guitar, Obed Calvaire on drums, Luis Perdomo on piano, and Myron Walden on alto saxophone, and David Sanchez on tenor saxophone.
But for this hit, I’m mixing some of the music on the record with a more electric sound. With my writing, I’m thinking specifically about everybody’s sound, Ben’s sound, Henry’s, Fabian’s…so I’m writing music specifically for those guys. And then I picked 2 or 3 tracks from my album to see if it would work for this electric context.
TJG: A lot of guys “kind-of” play electric bass but they don’t really double up, but you focus your energies equally on upright and electric. How do you approach the two instruments differently?
RR: I work with Joe Locke the vibraphone player and I used to only play upright with him, but on his new record, that’s coming out in May, I play both electric and upright about equally. I actually started on electric bass when I was about 7 years old back in my hometown of Ponce. I went to this private school and I was lucky because I had this teacher that had just arrived from New England Conservatory so he was fresh and had all this information, harmony, advice… He told me “hey man, check out Weather Report!” You know, I didn’t know Weather Report when I was eight! And Bitches Brew and stuff… when I heard those records I thought “I don’t know what that is but it sounds killing!” And it turned out it was Dave Holland on bass. There are some people who do both really well: Miroslav Vitous is badass, [John] Patitucci, Christian McBride…
People know I’m going to put in 100% on electric bass, it’s not just going to be a sideman gig. I’ve seen some killing acoustic players who take a gig on electric and I’m ready to leave the room, because they haven’t studied the electric approach, which is a very specific type of thing. That’s why I have respect for so many electric bass players…the way that Jaco was…Gary Willis, this unsung cat who played with Tribal Tech in the 80s and 90s. He played fretless, but, MAN, his intonation was killer. Matt Brewer actually studied with Gary Willis back in the day! I guess it’s the same thing for piano players, some cats play acoustic and some cats play Fender Rhodes, but just be honest about what you do well. Don’t buy a keyboard for the gig tomorrow and not know how to get sounds out of it.
That’s why it’s hard for me when I’m calling up cats. The first person who was going to do this gig was Jason Lindner, but he’s so busy, and he’s coming in [to the Jazz Gallery] with his big band right after. But Fabian is incredible at both piano and keyboards. Fabian and I played a show together about two months ago. I did a gig at Iridium with my quintet, and he brought this keyboard and his computer. I think he puts some crazy processing program on his keys and it sounds awesome.
I want Fabian to have the freedom to create lots of moods and textures. With this music, it doesn’t have to just be about solos. We can get a groove going on and then he can make sounds over that.
TJG: I feel like you and Henry Cole are really groove-centric players. You can swing, you can play funky, you play Latin music…Fabian is funky, but he’s also got a weird textural thing going on. Even on acoustic piano, he does lots of prepared stuff. I think THAT will be an interesting dynamic.
RR: That’s why Fabian is really excited because finally the three of us are gonna get to play trio together for the first time! We’re waiting to see what will happen…maybe it’ll be the beginning of something…And then Ben [Wendel] can play everything. He plays Latin music. He plays hard music easily. That’s why I’m writing hard music, because I trust in those guys.
But having Fabian playing broken sounds or broken chords over the grooves that me and Henry lock into…that could be like one full song! I’m trying to break the pattern of head-solo-head. I respect the roots, I play standards, and I love it, but man we’re in 2015; if you don’t break the pattern, who’s going to do it? Sometimes I like starting with a drum solo at the beginning of a tune, and then you play the head, and that’s the whole song!
I’m going to leave a lot of things open. These guys have big ears and are going to take the music in very interesting places. On my end, I like playing loose and playing around the beat, with a pulse still being implied. I can mention so many drum and bass players who think about that stuff in the same way.
TJG: I feel like you have some great relationships with drummers: Henry Cole, Terreon Gully, Jonathan Blake, Obed Calvaire… How would you characterize the way you approach your role in a rhythm section with each of those guys? Do you play around the beat more with certain people? Do you find that certain people are more open-ended while others are more locked or groove-based?
RR: For me, with each drummer it really depends on what their background is. Henry’s coming from Puerto Rico and we’ve got the same roots, so Henry feels the beat and understands the roots in the same way that I do. He can play inside the beat while it’s simultaneously loose.
Jonathan Blake, on the other hand, is coming from a Philly tradition. He’s coming from more of a swing place, but he also has a hip-hop vibe. He’s into J-Dilla. So he can break up the beat so deeply. We did a record together with Joe Locke and we had so much fun.
Then there’s Obed Calvaire… He’s coming from Haiti, so he’s got a lot of rhythms going on inside of him, but you can also see Obed playing swing, funk, R&B, modern music (like what he’s playing with SF Jazz Collective and David Sanchez)…So he’s one of these guys that understands everything! When I play with a drummer like that, it’s really easy for me. They’re right there (taps on the table metronomically).
I just did a gig with Justin Brown in January, and Justin Brown is a monster and so original, but he’s also so loose that sometimes you don’t know where the one is, which is a cool vibe too. So in that case, I have to hold it down more so that people understand where the one is. Because if I don’t adapt, it could be a little bit uneven.
When drummers keep the beat, then I can open up a little bit. You’ve got to adapt because otherwise if you start fighting with the music then that’s bad. You’ve got to let your ego go and listen really well. You can read music and listen at the same time. But some people only read and can’t listen. They just read the part.
On this gig, I wrote a few tunes that are really difficult. There will definitely be chart reading. But with these guys, they’re so killing, I anticipate that the way they play this music is exactly the way I’m hearing it in my head.
TJG: So how do you write the stuff? Are there any conceptual undercurrents in these tunes? Are there any sounds or composers that have inspired what you’re working on?
RR: I write mostly on the piano and a bit on the bass for ostinatos and things like that…
I’ve been listening for years to Steve Coleman and the Five Elements. I’ve also been listening to this amazing alto player Steve Lehman, who’s a deep guy. So on like three or four tunes I was trying to get deep with polyrhythms and twelve tone harmonies. And I’d write it and say “Ok, there’s one tune. Let’s see how that goes…”. But it’s also hard for me because I want to do something that’s my own thing; I don’t just want to copy these guys. For me, listening to Steve Coleman feels like what the post-bop guys must have felt like listening to Charlie Parker, and trying to understand the bebop language. Every time Steve’s in town, I try to go check him out. And with Steve Lehman, he plays hard music but he makes it sound easy!
I want my music to always feel relaxed, regardless of how complicated it is. I remember when I was in college and I would write this hard stuff, and I’d just be counting and it wouldn’t feel so good. But now I play this crazy stuff and feel like dancing! Henry’s the same way where we can be doing something crazy in 9 ½ and it’s grooving. I don’t want to count, otherwise I’d be playing everything in 4/4 and have it feeling really comfortable.
TJG: So what is the music that is influencing you the most right now? What are you listening to? What bass players are you really into now?
RR: As far as bass players go, I’d say my favorite guy is Larry Grenadier. He’s my favorite because his sound and his rhythmic feel is so solid. I was lucky enough to study with him, and I try to check out anything new he’s doing. I also love Scott Colley. I have a really good relationship with Scott and we’ll spend hours on the phone just catching up. Of course Charlie Haden is huge for me. He’s the pinnacle of the bass for me, and to an extent, both of those guys are coming from that sound. Also I’ve been checking out Ben Street and I love the way he approaches music. I love Matt Brewer: he’s getting that new sound. All those 4 guys I mentioned are coming from the same school of thought about bass that’s simultaneously rooted in that deep Charlie Haden groove and Latin music. Even Matt [Brewer], who’s the youngest guy, plays Latin music. And Ben and Larry and Scott all play Latin music beautifully.
I’m really picky about the electric bass, but there are a few guys I like. In our generation, I love this Cuban guy Carlitos Del Puerto, who’s been playing with Chick Corea. I also love some stuff from Richard Bona. With Matt Garrison, I’m blown away by his lines, but if I see Matt Garrison play three tunes, that’s enough for me, because he’s playing really cerebral stuff.
And then for R&B I love the guy who plays with Stevie Wonder, Nathan Watts, because he gets the exact right sound for Stevie. He did a master class last month at the Guitar Center in New Jersey and I was so bummed I had to miss it. That guy could be sitting here playing on an electric bass with a little amp, and it would still sound like he’s playing with Stevie, because with him it’s about more than sound. He’s bringing something else to the table. That’s what I hear when I listen to James Jamerson carrying that bass on those Motown albums on a janky bass with rusty strings. It’s about the heart and the groove.
TJG: Any records you’ve been checking out recently?
RR: I bought two records a while back. The first one is the new Steve Lehman record with his octet, [Mise en Abìme], and the other is Donny McCaslin’s new record with Tim Lefebvre [Fast Future]! That guy [Tim Lefebvre] is sick! His personality is his sound!
For me, I always like to check out what is new, but I’m the kind of guy who likes to go back and check out the roots. Right now I’m checking out a lot of British Blues. And I’m always listening to Weather Report, especially 8:30 and Mr. Gone. Every time I put those records on at my place, I feel like they’re new. They’re so advanced. Joe Zawinul pioneered those killing sounds we’re hearing today with synthesizers and sound processing.
TJG: You trained at the Conservatory de Musica de Puerto Rico and have a great deal of classical training. How do classical music and Latin music inform your style today?
RR: I have an older sister and she started playing classical flute and bringing home LPs and tapes…Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven…and I listened to that when I was very young and thought, “that sounds romantic, or that sounds beautiful.”
I have another brother who plays guitar. Now, he’s more into Pop in Puerto Rico, but he was playing classical guitar back then. And then when I started playing electric bass, my brother got me into Rock music. But at the same time, my dad was listening to Fania, Hector Lavoe, and these guys. So I was listening to a lot of Salsa, Bomba, and Rock simultaneously, and I started playing in little festivals with some Rock bands, and also playing Salsa music.
When I began studying with my teacher in private school, I got more into Jazz music. He suggested that I go to conservatory and take acoustic bass. I started with the upright teacher and would travel an hour to San Juan from Ponce for a weekly lesson at the conservatory. I learned to play with a bow and learned proper technique. Thanks to my classical training, I now have the flexibility, dexterity, confidence, and intonation to play all types of music. There are a lot of acoustic players who do some advanced stuff but the sound and the pitch is off. That’s why I’m picky though. Thank god I come from that background. I still practice that stuff too. Sometimes I get called for a movie soundtrack and they are expecting beautiful bow sounds, and I have to be prepared for that. I also just played at the Gallery last Thursday with Jonathan Powell and he wrote beautiful, hard music for bass.
As a composer, too, you have to understand the instrument. You need to write lines that work for each instrument. The registers, the techniques… I really respect when composers can write stuff for acoustic. Jonathan Powell, Miguel Zenon, and Steve Lehman all write killing parts for all the instruments. Jonathan’s music feels like a movie score.
TJG: After college, you came to New York City. Did you know cats here already? How did you break into the jazz scene?
RR: Back in Puerto Rico, Branford Marsalis came to my private school and he loved my playing, and he said that I should definitely come to the States. Danilo Perez also came and offered me a scholarship to go to New England Conservatory, but I was scared and didn’t know if I wanted to uproot myself. When you’re 20, you want to hang out with your friends and stick to your routine. But when I moved here, I had friends from Puerto Rico in New York: Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez, and Henry Cole…When I moved to the city, I called up Branford telling him I was here, and he said “good to know…well…good luck!” But really, that was a test. A month later, I started playing with Ray Barretto, and that’s where I met Myron Walden. A month later, I was on tour in Europe and I got an email from Branford calling me in for an Alvin Batiste record with Branford, Russell Malone, Herlin Riley! I thought, ok, now I’m in New York!
Henry [Cole] moved here before me but I used to play with him all the time in San Juan. We were the rhythm section for every band back in Puerto Rico.
The Jazz Gallery was actually my second gig in New York back at the spot on Houston Street. My first gig was at the old Zinc Bar with Obed Calvaire, and my second one was at the old Jazz Gallery with Luis Bonilla and Donny McCaslin, and we did a live record at the Gallery that night! I still have the flyer from when I played there the first time! This show will really feel like home.
The Ricky Rodriguez Group plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 27th, 2015. The group features Mr. Rodriguez on bass, Ben Wendel on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on keyboards, and Henry Cole on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission for the first set ($10 for members), $12 general admission for the second ($8 for members). Purchase tickets here.