Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez and percussionist-vocalist Pedrito Martinez blend their affinities and differences on the recent disc, “Duologue” (Mack Avenue). Both Cuban musicians express a deep connection to African-derived rhythms but their music is also about including ideas from around the world. Their contrasting experiences help inform a shared globalist perspective: Rodríguez trained in Havana’s prestigious classical conservatory system, while Martinez grew up playing in that city’s streets.
Rodríguez and Martinez bring their distinctive sounds to Symphony Center on March 8 as part of a Latin-themed double bill with saxophonist-clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera.
“I expected that when we put the duo together, it would be something completely different in terms of compositions, interpretations of songs, sonority, lyrics, everything,” Martinez said. “We worked carefully to put together something unique.”
Both musicians followed distinct paths early on. Rodríguez, son of a popular singer of the same name, studied classical music from the age of 6, including at the Instituto Superior de Arte. To this day, J.S. Bach remains his favorite composer but he also embraced Cuban folkloric sounds that he heard while walking through the city. Martinez, who performed in such ensembles in the historic Centro Habana neighborhood, went through training that proved just as rigorous as the academy. He had to become initiated in the santería faith to learn its complex bata drumming patterns and chants. But they both also enjoyed such popular American bands as Earth, Wind & Fire, which the country’s authoritarian government discouraged.
“We had to listen at a very low volume so that neighbors could not hear,” Rodríguez said. “There was so much stupidity. Music is something that bings joy to people. When people say that you can’t listen to a certain kind of music, it’s crazy but we had to find our own way to keep going.”
That sensibility became one reason for their immigration to the United States and their first encounter on record: Martinez’s contribution to Rodríguez’s 2012 album, “The Invasion Parade.” Martinez, who lives in New Jersey, moved to the United States 20 years ago. Along with forming his own quartet, he also became a part of the popular global fusion group Yerba Buena. Now a Californian, Rodríguez has lived in America for a decade and leads a trio. He has also been a protege of Quincy Jones, who produced “Duologue.”
“Just listing to Quincy talk about Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and about life is so inspiring,” Rodríguez said. “He’s one of the most open persons that I’ve ever seen, he’s always talking and listening to everyone. He has a big heart.”
Rodríguez and Martinez include on Duologue an imaginative version of one of Jones’ famous productions: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” They infuse the piece with a rumba rhythm and album includes a classic Cuban son, “El Punto Cubano,” which is revamped through Rodríguez’s spacious keyboard lines and Martinez’s singularly expansive percussion arsenal.
For their original compositions, Martinez says that Rodríguez usually comes up with melodies and sometimes he would add lyrics. Martinez mentions that while some dance patterns may be identifiable — rumba or mozambique — they focus on “creating new patterns that eventually become their own patterns themselves.” No singular tradition is emphasized.
“When we play, we don’t think, ‘This is going to be Afro-Cuban, this is going to be classical,’” Rodríguez said. “We just play music — we want just want people to enjoy and get a message. Notes are not important for us at all. Everyone can play notes but not everyone can play your life and that’s what we want to do.”