Anyone who saw Jay Rodriguez play the last time he was in town will have tripped over themselves to catch him again last week. Rodriguez is a talented and engaging improviser and when he steps onto the bandstand he wins hearts from the get-go. This seemingly innate ability arises from a keen understanding of what will work best with a particular audience. He picks ups on and feeds off the energies in the room. He is also a skilled technician, but he is not there to show off his undoubted chops. His purpose is to involve and to engage at the deepest level; offering musicians and audience alike an unforgettable musical experience.
These days, dozens of talented musicians pour out of the prestigious Jazz schools and as good as they are, they often have a similar approach and sound. Over time the best of them shake this off, but it takes work and road experience to do so. While Rodriguez attended music school, he also gigged from a young age; cutting his musical teeth on the bandstand and learning his craft at the feet of masters (Tito D’Rivera, Phil Woods and Joe Henderson – playing lead alto with Tito Puente at 15 years of age). Those early days shaped his trajectory and enabled him to move effortlessly across the breath of the Jazz world – and later – traversing the wider music scene (Elvis Costello, Prince, Ribot etc). You gain the impression that every day on the road added a certain something to his sound. He can channel a raw Texas tenor sound in the same gig as he has people swooning over a ballad. Once this was a commonplace accomplishment, but as the old road warriors pass, we hear this stylistic breadth less and less.
Here I must offer a disclaimer; I was involved in this Auckland gig. Rodriguez had reached out and generously suggested that we could join forces, adding some spoken word into his show. We had a number of exchanges while he was touring with Marc Ribot (the Songs of Resistance project). Various ideas were canvassed – unlike many improvisers, he is experienced in working with poets as he has associated with many including the late lamented Amiri Baraka. From across the time zones, we explored possible rehearsal times and as is often the case, a quick rehearsal just before the gig was the only possible option. When it came to hiring the band, he made another generous suggestion; he was happy to have some younger and freer spirited musicians on board – in fact, he welcomed that. Crystal Choi and Eamon Edmundson Wells joined Ron Samsom as the core group, with special guests Jonathan Crayford and myself appearing on select numbers.
Rodriguez is proficient on multi-reed and wind instruments and he frequently travels with most of them. This time he arrived with one flute, a soprano, and a tenor saxophone. When rehearsal time came he unpacked dozens of charts and spread them around clock fashion. My favourite author does this, slowly walking among short stories until an order is fixed. So it was with Rodriguez. We had been pre-warned that what was rehearsed would not necessarily be what was played, as he often changed things around as he read an audience (and often mid-tune by way of signals).
The setlist had a few well-chosen standards and of course, tunes from his critically acclaimed ‘Your Sound’ album. Although he amended the setlist as the gig progressed and extended numbers, fusing the tunes into a heady new amalgam, the performance had a flow that was preternatural. Working with a musician like this and trusting his instincts to guide you forward is exhilarating. I know that the band enjoyed themselves – the gig became bigger than the individual musicians and that how good gigs should work.
I have posted a longish clip from the gig, one which demonstrates the energies flowing between the musicians. The clip reminded me of the early Alice Coltrane projects. Deeply spiritual and unafraid to move with the vibe. Choi delighted the audience with her wholehearted engagement, moving from minimalist figures to crystalline arpeggios as the moment demanded. Edmundson Wells, like Choi, often appears on the avant-garde scene and was perfect for the gig. Samsom, the other experienced hand, offered solid support, creating a cushion and a heartbeat. Last, but not least was Crayford, a generous enabler, a mentor to musicians like Choi. He would normally have appeared as the listed keyboardist, as he and Rodriguez have a deep friendship and they collaborate when they can. This time he was heavily engaged in a project of his own and arrived back in town hours before the gig. He waited out the first set, respecting the established line-up, joining the band with keys for the second. This added a whole new dimension to an already great gig – creating the broader palette that Rodriguez thrives on. The capacity audience reacted to every facet of the gig with enthusiasm and Rodriguez return is eagerly anticipated.
In my case, the overall experience was particularly rewarding – a true learning experience – note to self – let my spoken lines breathe more at the start. When you fit words around live music quick decisions are required, Sometimes you have mere seconds to judge the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune. An opportunity like this is rare and precious and I’m glad I took it.
Jay Rodriguez: (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion), – guests Jonathan Crayford (keys), John Fenton (spoken word) – at ‘Backbeat’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 27 February, 2019 – Jef Rodriguez recent album ‘Your Sound’ is available on Amazon, through record stores or go to jayrodriguez.com