In conversation with pete rodriguez
By Tomas Peña
Congratulations on the release of El Alquimista / The Alchemist, a superb recording.
Thank you so much.
Tenor saxophonist, David Sanchez really shines on this recording. Has he been a mentor to you?
Definitely! He started playing jazz much earlier than I. When I was in the military my father told me that he saw an article about David in the newspaper. David doesn’t know it, but that was what motivated me to pick up my trumpet again. Also, I attended Rutgers University on David’s advice.
Given the fact that you are the son of the late Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, I assume that you grew up in a musical environment.
My father listened to a lot of Cuban music so I grew up listening to a lot of rumbas, Miguelito Cuni and Beny Moré, who was my dad’s mentor. He actually performed with Beny when he visited New York. He was a different kind of band leader and one of the nicest people I have ever met. The band members hung out in our apartment, it was a great environment to grow up in.
Did your father encourage you to pursue a career in music?
He never told me to pursue a career in music but it fell into my hands.
You sing as well.
I used to sing in the house. Do you know that my father never took a voice lesson? He just sang from the heart. I don’t know how he did it; he had such great tonality.
Did your father like jazz?
He respected jazz but he was into his own thing. He liked Miles and Monk. He told me that he used to see Monk walking down Amsterdam Avenue, staring at the sky. He had a lot of respect for Monk. He also saw Dizzy Gillespie back in the day.
Typical Monk! You began your musical career at the age of eleven.
As a child I used to play the maracas but it was just for fun. It wasn’t until we moved to Puerto Rico and I attended the Escuela Libre de Musica that my musical career really began. Being there was like being in music heaven.
It’s a very prestigious school.
You had to test to get in. We had free trumpet lessons every week, played in bands and were taught music theory from the seventh grade on and everything was free! My father wasn’t making tons of money; people often confuse big names with big money.
As I understand it, your father never received the recognition he deserved.
There are a few musicians from my father’s era who did well for themselves …
Unfortunately it’s more the exception than the rule. Nevertheless your father was a class-act, a gifted sonero, excellent dancer and a sharp cat!
That was that whole era; even the jazz artists were sharp dressers.
After Puerto Rico you attended the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship.
Yes, I had a full ride there but things didn’t go as planned and I joined the U.S. Army in 1988.
After your discharge you attended the jazz program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
A few days after my discharge I was a freshman at Rutgers! Two months later trumpeter, Charlie Sepulveda called me and told me that Eddie Palmieri was looking for a lead singer. I thought he was messing me with me because he is such a prankster, but he was serious. Prior to that I had never sung but I went to the audition and got the gig! Afterwards, José Clausell gave me a cassette tape with eleven tunes to memorize. Our first gig was in Venezuela, and to make a long story short, the only rehearsal that we had was a sound check. So my first gig as a vocalist was with no rehearsal and no experience!
How did you make out?
All things considered, I did a great job. I was singing tunes that Lalo Rodriguez and Ismael Quintana made famous with no prior experience! I was with Eddie’s band for about two years; it was like being in heaven.
Did you ever play the trumpet in Eddie’s band?
I alternated sets with La India. When she came on I played trumpet and sang coro (chorus). Touring with that band was great experience because I had a lot of mentors: Richie Flores, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch, who gave me my first trumpet lesson, Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch, one of my favorite trombone players, and Juancito Torres, he was another mentor.
Did you ever record with Eddie?
Not as a lead vocalist. However, my dad and I participated in La India’s first recording, Llego La India via Eddie Palmieri (1996, RMM Records). My father played the guiro and I played the maracas.
What prompted your interest in jazz?
When I was in the military I was a member of the Army band. I remember watching the lead saxophone player and thinking to myself, “This is a lot more fun than playing classical music.” Then I started buying CD’s. The first CD I bought was John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. When I heard it for the first time, I thought to myself, “I have to sound like that?” I didn’t even know anything about chord changes.
At the time I was in the military and dealing with Desert Storm and Rutgers was the only university that accepted auditions on tape. So I sent Rutgers a tape and they accepted me. Then I got discharged, took my entrance exams, and before I knew it I was in school full-time.
Rutgers is where your jazz education took flight.
It was intense, because I was 22 or 23 years old and I was really behind. I was classically trained and had absolutely no foundation in jazz. I took some okay solos and I played from the heart, but when it came to the chord changes I was terrible.
Who mentored you at Rutgers?
In school it was Ted Dunbar and Kenny Barron; in the street it was David Sanchez, Charlie Sepulveda and Brian Lynch.
What year was that?
Eventually you started sitting in with groups and gigging around town.
I started gigging in downtown New Brunswick. Believe it or not, I started out in the mess hall and in downtown cafes.
It’s a great way to hone your chops.
Then I got a gig at a big Pizza Hut. They didn’t pay us but they let us keep whatever we made at the door. We charged $3 per person and promoted the heck out of it. On some nights we made $50 a man! Also, I used to come to New York and perform at the 55 Bar.
At what point did you start performing with more prominent artists?
In 2000 I performed with Carlos “Patato” Valdese’s band. That was a jazz gig and it was a lot of fun. At the same time I was the musical director for my father’s band. I also played the trumpet and sang coro with my sister, Cita. My father’s band was killin’!
You and your sister recorded an album with your father.
Generaciones (Generations). It’s a great album.
Who else did you perform with?
I was doing a lot of different things. I was a background vocalist for Johnny Rivera, Frankie Negron and La India.
You also toured with Bebo Valdés?
That was in 2005. The funny thing is how I got the gig. I called trombonist, Louis Bonilla and told him that I wanted to check out the Mingus Big Band and he told me that Bebo was looking for a trumpet player. At first, I thought he was pulling my leg, but it turned out to be true and I got the gig. That’s the gig that got me back into the jazz scene. When my father died in 2000, I was so depressed that I stopped playing the trumpet for three years, so that was a very important gig. From there I moved to Texas and I started working on my Doctorate’s Degree.
In 2006 you recorded Mind Trip, your first recording as a leader. By all accounts it was well received. Your former mentor, Kenny Barron described you as, “An amazing composer.” What were your thoughts as you created your first project?
I was just trying to put out a CD. Prior to that I kept telling myself, “I am not ready, I am not ready.” So I wanted to overcome that and put out a record because I needed something to generate work. All of the band members were professors at the university and colleagues so the project was very inexpensive. I actually turned a profit! And it was a great way to document where I was (musically) at the time. What’s interesting about the recording is that we did a two hour rehearsal and went right into the studio. The majority of the tracks are first takes. It’s the next best thing to listening to the group live.
Most of the tunes are original compositions.
All except for two tunes: Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” and Coltrane’s, “Soul Eyes.”
What’s the jazz scene like in Austin, Texas?
There’s a good jazz scene there. When I first showed up I told myself that I was going to concentrate on my jazz career. I really believe that if you ask the universe for what you want you will get it, so I started doing local gigs and getting myself in shape. I performed a lot at a venue called the Elephant Room; it was Austin’s Village Vanguard. In 2006 I performed 67 local gigs.
In December of 2007 you moved to New Jersey. What have you been up to since then?
My wife and I started a record label and we used the money I made from Mind Trip to make La Alquimista. I also released Triangulum with saxophonist Paul White and drummer Rob Kazenel.
Let’s talk about the repertoire for El Alquimista.
All the songs have a history. The suite is dedicated to the university where I worked. If you look at the titles, “Who Do I Trust?” “Patience,” etc, it tells a story. Enough said! "El Indio" is dedicated to my dog that passed away. He was a 120 pound bull mastiff who acted like a human being.
I read that (the tune) "Scorpion" has an interesting back story.
Believe it or not, I was practicing in front of my fireplace and a scorpion crawled into my jeans and bit me! Thankfully, the bite was not poisonous.
"Por Si las Moscas, Roberto." That's an odd title.
The tune is based on the chord changes of Miles Davis’s "Solar." A friend described it as "Solar" on acid!
What about “Shambala”?
It’s about inner peace and starting over. "El Alquimista" is a tune I wrote about fifteen years ago. The title comes from the book, The Alchemist by Paul Cohelo. It’s the story of a man who travels around the world in search of himself, only to find that he is back where he started
Yes! But I had to go through everything I went through to be where I am today. In hindsight, not playing the trumpet for three years is the best thing that ever happened to me. At the time I didn’t think I would ever pick up a horn again. I was so convinced that I would never play again, that I sold most of my instruments.
To hear you play, one would never know it.
A lot of people think I am just a singer, or that I play salsa jazz. When I was in the salsa scene I wasn’t considered to be a good trumpet player because I don’t play like a salsero. I played more like my mentors, Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little.
How’s the recording doing thus far?
It’s doing well, I am really excited.
Is there a CD Release Party and future performances in the works?
I would like to have my CD Release Party at the Jazz Gallery, I am working on it.
Good choice, the Jazz Gallery is one of my favorite venues. Good luck! I hope to see you there.
Thank you, Tomas.