Julius Rodriguez engages his music from different points of view. Pianist, drummer, composer and budding producer, Rodriguez has worked with an eclectic mix of artists, from Wynton Marsalis to Brasstracks to his own expanding collective that includes such artists as Morgan Guerin, Daryl Johns and Maya Carney.
At 21, the artist and habitual collaborator has gone through some very adult changes in his personal and professional development, and he continues to evolve his music and his conception of sound. He spoke with The Gallery about how one instrument can inform others, his vision for the future of the music and which of today’s artists and producers are keeping him inspired in and out of the studio
The Jazz Gallery: Happy birthday, by the way.
Julius Rodriguez: Thank you.
TJG: For someone without all these years of experience, you seem have quite a sophisticated way of playing with and alongside singers.
JR: I love playing with singers.
TJG: Obviously the singers who collaborate with you are equally sophisticated in their expressions and their artistries—I might mention Jazzmeia Horn, Voilet Skies, Abir. What have you discovered about your own playing from spending so much time collaborating with these great singers?
JR: Generally, I like accompanying. I feel like some of my better ideas come when I’m accompanying because I’m thinking more about the big picture than my own solo or my own thing. That’s probably one of the biggest [reasons] why I love playing with singers. I also just love learning about the relationship between melody and harmony. As a pianist, you learn more about that learning your instrument.
I love the way singers are able to express melodies because the voice is different from the piano. The piano is note by note; with the voice, you can do different things with tone and quality and articulations. Being that I love hearing that so much, I’m always trying to find ways to accentuate that and play around it — make it sound good.
I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. I’ve spent a great deal of time listening to Amy Winehouse—she’s one of my big favorites. Johny Hartman, as well.
TJG: Do you see a thread of similarities in what attracts you to each of these singers, or do like them all for something that’s unique to each of them?
JR: Well, I talk about Amy—she’s really one of my biggest musical influences. She obviously took a lot from listening to Billie Holiday, listening to Sarah, listening to Ella. But she grew up in the age that she did, so she has this sort of modern twist on it, which I think is a perfect example of what I think musicians today should be doing with our art: to have a deep sense of the history but also realize that we’re in 2019. Music has evolved; you should, with it.
TJG: You try to surround yourself with other artists—particularly artists who are older than you—who embrace that concept.
TJG: Would you share some of the experiences you’ve had working with those artists?
JR: Yeah. Carmen Lundy. She’s one of the greatest. She’s been writing ever since she started her career in the ’80s, and she continues to put out really great compositions. What I love about her is she’s coming out of the Betty Carter thing. So she likes to hire young musicians, and she likes to give those musicians space to express themselves in her music. So when she brings a new song, when she brings a chart, she might have a demo, but she really wants you to go in and add your own thing. It’s nice to have someone who comes from the tradition of the music but also leaves lots of space for individuality in the music.
TJG: In what ways has playing piano enhanced your sensitivity as a drummer, and in what ways has playing drums informed your comping on piano?
JR: I’ve noticed there’s a line between the way drums—well really any of the instruments—but the way drums feel time and the way other people feel time. There’s a certain vocabulary to the drums; if you’re not a drummer and you don’t know how it works, you could get lost in the time and get off [by] a beat. [When I’m] on the piano, being that I’m kind of familiar with the vocabulary of the drums, when drummers try to do different things, I can play along with them in the rhythm the way that they’re hearing it. And I know how to play around it as well, since I know where they’re going.
Coming from piano, when I’m on the drums, I can hear how harmony and form works. Having studied a lot of Bach in school, I can hear how certain chords progress to sort of set up different sections—beginning of a phrase, end of a phrase—those are important things to know because they’re important to mark in the form.
TJG: Are you able to tell whether a drummer has a harmonic sensibility from the way they tune their drums?
JR: Not by the way they tune their drums, but by the way they play. Everyone has a specific way they like the drums to sound. But they do certain things, like if there’s an odd bar phrase, the drummer knows where to mark the the beginning of the phrase to help everyone stay in line with the song, in the sense that they know what’s going on with the harmony.
TJG: I was hoping you’d talk a little bit about those sessions where your dad used to take you when you were growing up in Westchester.
JR: Oh, wow. Okay. So there was like a collective of musicians, I’ll say. There was a great guitar player Gil Parris, he played a lot of these jam sessions; a keyboard player Dave Kressel, I’d see him a lot…there was a list of different jam sessions that happened every week in Westchester. So one night we’d go to the Lazy Boy lounge, another night we’d go to a restaurant in Mount Vernon, we’d just chase around different jam sessions. I would just go and learn from the musicians there, sit in and play.
TJG: How were they with you? Were they cool?
JR: They were welcoming. My dad always tells the story about walking into the jam session. He walks in with me and he says, “Okay, we’re here for the jam session,” and they tell him: “Signup sheet’s right over there.” And he says, “Nope, not for me, for him,” and he points to me. And so they think, “Okay we’ll give the kid a chance,” and then they realize I’m actually trying to play for real. And so they were very welcoming to me. Every time I would come to the jam session, they would call me up before they started bringing up musicians, and try to introduce me to different people. I got to meet Bernie Williams, actually. He would come to the jam session because he studied guitar.
TJG: Which session?
JR: I think this was the Lazy Boy in White Plains. I guess he was friends with Gil. He would come every week when he was in town and just play.
TJG: And you were how old when you were playing these sessions? Was this over the course of a few years?
JR: This was a couple of years—I was probably 10, 11, 12. And once I turned 12, I started discovering the jam sessions in the city. My first jazz piano teacher officially was Jeremy Manasia. I was going to Manhattan School for precollege, and I was there for classical. Then I auditioned for the jazz program and I got in. My dad was very active in my musical studies, so he was researching Jeremy, where we could go see him play, talk to him and introduce ourselves. We saw that he was doing a jam session, and I loved to go to jam sessions. So [my dad] said, “Why don’t we go to Smalls this Friday at 1 a.m. and meet Jeremy?” I said, “Let’s do it.” And I went to Smalls at 11 years old and I got to meet Jeremy and play at the jam session.
I remember vividly Chelsea Baratz was playing; Alex Norris was there; Stacy Dillard was there. It was the first time I got introduced to the New York scene, so anytime I was off from school or during the summer, I would always ask my dad to take me to jam sessions. I remember being there and Russell Malone got up, and he called “Love For Sale.”
TJG: Did you know it was Russell at the time?
JR: I knew it was Russell. I was like, “Oh wow, Russell Malone… I’m going to play with him.” He was like, “Do you know it?” I was like, “I don’t really know the bridge,” and he was like, “We’ll get someone else who knows it.” And that was it [laughs].
TJG: That was it!
JR: Got replaced on the tune.
TJG: You do have this ever-expanding collective of musicians whom you play with, and I did want to talk about the guys you’re bringing with you to the Gallery for this performance.
JR: Yeah, I met Giveton [Gelin] when he started visiting during the summers. He was at Oberlin, I think. And of course, no one knew this young kid coming to town who was playing all the sessions and blowing everyone away. We started going to Juilliard and then we started working together a lot more frequently after that. Giveton is great. He’s probably one of my favorite trumpet players to play with.
TJG: Why is he one of your favorites?
JR: He’s got amazing dark tones on the trumpet, and just his melodies. He’s coming out of the whole Roy school.
TJG: And you have some experience with Roy.
JR: Yeah, I got to work with him a little bit when he was around. I met him through Evan Sherman and his band. Every time I’d see him, he’d say, “Wassup youth?” He’d invite me to sit in sometimes, play some of his tunes. I learned a lot.
TJG: I interviewed Giveton a while back for his gig at the Gallery, and we talked about how he has a real orchestral sensibility just in bandstand arranging, on the spot, as well as orchestration of his tunes when he writes them out. Have you noticed that about his expression?
JR: Oh, for sure. For sure. When I play with him, it’s usually my stuff, so I’m always getting different suggestions from him. And his willingness to follow me wherever I’m going — it’s really cool to have that around.
And Phil [Norris] is an incredible bass player. Ben Wolfe puts it this way, he says, “Phil can literally do anything with the bass.” His technique, impeccable. And he’s very rooted in swing and just classic—well he’s a big fan of Ray Brown. I love that sound and love to have it in my music. He also knows how to—how do I put it—just do other shit. He’s always coming out with great ideas, and I love the way he sounds on my music. It’s nice to have someone who really knows their way around the bass.
And Brian [Richburg] is a drummer from New Orleans. He’s currently at Berklee, but I bring him down as often as I can to play with me here. New Orleans drummers are amazing. I love having that sensibility to groove at any time, but he also has that moderness to his playing.
TJG: Are you headed into the studio with any of these guys or the folks we’ve mentioned?
JR: They will all be, and have been a part of the process of recording. I don’t want to do the conventional jazz record where one day everyone just gets in the studio and you lay everything down and that’s it. I’m a big fan of utilizing recording techniques. I’m a huge fan of Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan, The Beatles, Meshell Ndegeocello. The way they made their records wasn’t everyone goes in one day and you play everything at the same time. Sometimes they start with the shell of that; sometimes they start with demos and play something as they go along. But I feel like there’s an art to recording music that not a whole lot of jazz artists have tapped into that I wanna get together.
TJG: Shots fired.
JR: I didn’t mean it like that [laughs].
TJG: I wonder if anyone is going to read this and be like, “…I don’t know…I think I’ve done that already…”
JR: A lot of jazz artists have done it. I wanna do more of it.
TJG: When I interviewed Kassa [Overall] about his record, he talked a lot about that process.
JR: That’s another one of my big influences for recording. His record, and the EP we did together, they both sound amazing. He has some very unconventional ways of recording. The first record I did with him was for his Drake It Til You Make It EP. He had me come over to his friend’s house and his friend had an old beat up piano that hadn’t been tuned in years. He dangled a mic over it from a hook in the wall because he didn’t even have a mic stand. And he said, “Okay, put the headphones on and play along to this.” And that was it. The next time I saw him, he’d turned it into the tracks that came out of there and I was like, “Whoa. You can do that?”
TJG: What are your favorite programs these days?
JR: I work mainly in Logic. I’ve been trying to learn Ableton.
TJG: Do you find it’s pretty user friendly or kind of complicated?
JR: It depends. I guess I’m used to Logic, so that’s what I know. But Ableton has a lot of different shortcuts where you just have to spend time to learn them all to learn what you can do. But once you know what it is, there’s a lot possibilities.
TJG: Do you find getting into production software has had an impact on how you think about your live playing, or compelled you to stretch in different ways when you’re playing live?
JR: It’s definitely a different mindset when you go to recording. Say you’re recording MIDI which means it takes all the data from each note you play, and after you do that you can go in an tweak every little thing to make it perfect. Having come from a jazz background, I was always in the mindset of play it perfect the first time, but Ivan [Jackson] has gotten me to think more, “Leave the mistakes in there.” Rather than trying to fix it, put an effect on it to make it sound like you did it on purpose. Kassa’s all about, “Yeah that piano’s out of tune, but whatever.”
TJG: Yeah he’s about amplifying your mistakes. That’s his crowd work technique.
JR: Yes [laughs]. But going back to thinking about production software, there’s always a million different ways to do it. I like to go in not thinking about what I want the final product to be, but thinking about what I have in front of me and what I can make.
TJG: Are you pretty consistently surprised about where the process leads you?
JR: Definitely. Technology is great [laughs]. You always discover things by mistake. What’s nice about the computer is you can always go back to something and redo something if you need to. If we were back in the days of recording to tape—which I do like to do, too—it’s kinda like, what it is is what it is.
Whoever ideas come to me, I try to get to an instrument and hum it into a voice memo. So I have like two years’ worth of random voice memos, and every now and then I’ll just go through them all.
TJG: How often do you sort through them?
JR: I’ve been doing it a lot more lately because I’m trying to get on myself about creating, writing new songs. I used to just do it every couple months. I would always surprise myself — “I’ve really got something here,” or “What in the world was I thinking?” The other thing is, sometimes you hear something the way you play it, and then go back and hear it differently. It’s almost like you do something and then two years later you’re a different person so you think about it differently and it makes you feel a different way. That’s a cool thing about this music. Even though I am where I am and I’ve accomplished whatever it is I’ve accomplished so far, I have a lot more to go. And I feel like these songs are going to evolve more as I continue playing them and discovering new ways to play them.
Julius Rodriguez plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday September 13, 2019. The band features Mr. Rodriguez on piano, Giveton Gelin on trumpet, Philip Norris on bass and Brian Richburg, Jr. on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.