Juxtaposed in two-dimensional boxes on a videoconference screen, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez do not necessarily seem like brothers. Rodriguez, dressed in a plain print shirt, has a roundish face that complements a quietly intense mien. Martinez, sporting a hoodie and a baseball cap, is all bright smiles and fulsome expressivity.
Yet in conversation they profess to be “brothers.” And who’s to argue? When they hit the bandstand, as they will in a duo performance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, March 2, they give new meaning to “synergy,” effortlessly building on each other’s ideas in passionate exchanges that feed narratives both intimate and universal. It is as though they share DNA.
Maybe they do. Though key aspects of their backgrounds differ: Rodriguez, 37, is a conservatory-trained scion of show business royalty; Martinez, 49, is a street-schooled practitioner. They were raised in adjoining neighborhoods in Havana, Cuba. And though they did not know each other growing up, their shared experience as self-imposed exiles of that culturally rich city has yielded a unity of spirit.
“We connect on so many levels,” Rodriguez says from his home in Miami. “From the first moment, everything linked.”
Martinez, speaking from his home in North Bergen, New Jersey, declares: “We have a perfect chemistry.”
At the Lensic, that chemistry promises to be on display in a variety of vehicles. If past performances are any indication of what Rodriguez and Martinez will be presenting — and, by the duo’s own estimation, they largely are — the evening will be filled with spectacle and freighted with meaning beyond the merely musical.
In the hands of the duo, “Thriller,” the tune identified with Michael Jackson and now a signature of theirs, certainly goes beyond the musical. But that is where it starts, and in dazzling fashion. Operating at full tilt, Rodriguez and Martinez deploy highly articulated, pointillistic attacks that meld melodicism with percussive force. Mixing Cuban timba rhythms with elements of rock, funk, and gospel — and leavening the mix with strategically placed references to the original tune — they conjure a synthesis that is at once identifiable as that tune and a marked departure from it.
“It’s very new and fresh for the people,” Rodriguez says. “And it reflects our personalities in many ways.”
Beyond its sheer musicality, their treatment of “Thriller” functions as a platform for the musicians to demonstrate their theatricality. And, in Rodriguez’s view, that quality is innate. “We become actors in a way,” he says. “For me, the moment that you put the first foot on the stage, you are already being a performer.”
Onstage, he will typically rise from his piano bench and, gesturing in a manner that Martinez half-jokingly likens to Thelonious Monk’s famously eccentric gesticulations — Jerry Lee Lewis also comes to mind — he will launch into a fierce, sustained vamp as Martinez gamely slides out from behind his congas, cajon, hi-hat, and cymbals to perform a dance routine. Hardly Jackson’s rival as a dancer, Martinez is nonetheless a joyous presence who, on his best nights, whips the audience into a kind of frenzy before he moves back behind his percussion and the two end the piece with a flourish. The animation coaxes every last bit of entertainment value out of the performance, broadening its appeal beyond that of the piano-percussion format.
“It’s so hard,” Martinez says. “It’s just the two of us and we need to accomplish so many things together. It’s not just being a great musician. You need to have the charisma. You need to be brave.”
Apart from the music and the theater of it all, establishing “Thriller” as a mainstay in the duo’s sets serves as an homage to Quincy Jones, a champion of Rodriguez’s who produced the landmark Jackson album on which the tune is the title track. Jones became aware of Rodriguez’s prodigious gifts when he saw the young pianist in a solo turn at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival. In a 2019 email to this writer, Jones confirmed that, after that festival, he offered to take Rodriguez under his wing should the pianist ever manage to relocate from Cuba to the United States.
In 2009, Rodriguez made the move. While in Mérida, Mexico, appearing with his father, then a celebrated singer on the Cuban scene with whom Rodriguez shares a name, he left the troupe and hopped a flight to Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican border town, where he joined other asylum-seeking migrants walking the bridge to Laredo, Texas. Once he was granted asylum, a member of Jones’ staff booked him on a series of flights to Santa Monica, California, and gave him shelter. True to his word, Jones, who, in an email described Rodriguez as “one of the greatest piano players ever,” began a mentoring relationship that led to producing the 2019 album Duologue, a collaboration between Rodriguez and Martinez.
Like “Thriller,” the title tune from that album appears in nearly all the group’s sets. “Duologue,” an artfully organized, brilliantly realized mélange of disparate melodies attached to shifting Afrobeat, funk, and timba rhythms, grew out of casual interplay at the duo’s first gig, a weeklong residency in 2017 at the St. Louis club Jazz at the Bistro. While the two had previously sat in with each other’s bands — and Martinez had appeared on Rodriguez’s 2014 album, The Invasion Parade — the engagement provided an opportunity for them to form a band. It also presented a quandary.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Rodriguez says. “We said, ‘You know what? Let’s just play the duo.’”
That, as it happened, was easier said than done. After a bit of experimentation, they found that, despite their ability to create layers of sound through a combination of musicality and virtuosity, something was missing. The missing element emerged when Martinez added cymbals and hi-hat to his drum-heavy palette. By expanding the colors available to him, he lent the duo’s sound an orchestral dimension. The feedback was immediate.
“It was magical,” Martinez recalls. “Everything moved in the right direction right away. The audience reacted so powerfully. Then we went to the Jazz Standard, and it was even better.” The reference is to the now-defunct but highly regarded Manhattan club, where the duo cemented its claim to distinction. They have since played performance spaces to acclaim the world over. But there is one place they have never played together: Cuba. And they both find that a lamentable situation.
For Martinez, who defected in 1998 by staying over after performing with saxophonist Jane Bunnett — and returned in subsequent years to play with groups led by trombonist Steve Turre and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba — the music has more recently drifted away from its tradition. “When I used to go to Cuba, I was more on top of what’s going on,” he says. “But now it’s changed a lot. Reggaeton has taken control of the music. Timba groups are playing here and there, but it’s not close to what it used to be. In my opinion, it was better before.”
For Rodriguez, the alienation appears to cut deeper. Unlike Martinez, he no longer has family in Cuba and has not been back in four years. Because he has emigrated, he is made to feel unwelcome in certain official quarters. “Every time I go to Cuba,” he says, “I have this reflection: ‘Man, this is my place. This is the only place in the world I am from. But I don’t belong here.’ And I don’t want to be there anymore because there are so many things that have been transformed in my personality since living in the United States and traveling the world.”
Yet their music tells a more complex story. In “Yo Volveré,” which closes Duologue and is a staple of their sets, Rodriguez and Martinez suggest that the break has not been definitive. A minor-key ode that sometimes incorporates the plaintive West African Yoruba chants adopted by Santeria adherents in Cuba, the tune contrasts starkly with the energetic offerings elsewhere in their songbook. Both inspirational and aspirational, it finds the duo rendering the central cri de coeur in unison: “Yo volveré a mi tierra querida algún día otra vez” — “I will go back to my beloved country once again.”
“What we say in that song,” Rodriguez explains, “is that you leave your country, and you want to go back and play for your people and share with them who you are. Cuba is in our blood, our people are in our blood.”
The message, obviously, is a personal one, and the duo’s fans and compatriots take it to heart. At the same time, Rodriguez notes, experience has shown that it resonates deeply with a wider audience: “What we say is our life. When Cuban people come to the show, they feel very connected. But then, it’s very crazy: People who don’t know the lyric, don’t know the song — this is the first time they’ve seen Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez — they come to us crying.”