Alfredo Rodriguez: 'Crossing The Border' To Meet A Legend The Cuban jazz pianist was arrested and nearly deported after entering the U.S. from Mexico. Rodriguez's debut album, Sounds of Space, is a collaboration with his idol, Quincy Jones.

Alfredo Rodriguez: 'Crossing The Border' To Meet A Legend

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And if you're just joining us, this is Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


RAZ: You're hearing pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. And if the Border Patrol at Texas had their way, you probably would never have heard this music. This is off his debut album. It's called "Sounds of Space," and it was produced by Quincy Jones. Rodriguez is a 26-year-old Cuban immigrant. While playing a gig in Mexico in 2009, he made his way to Laredo, Texas, to seek amnesty. There, he was arrested and on the verge of being sent back to Cuba. And I'll bring in Alfredo Rodriguez for the rest of the story. He's in our Southern California studios. Welcome to the program.

ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ: Hi. How are you? Thank you for having me.

RAZ: Thanks for being with us. So you're under arrest in Laredo. I imagine, first of all, that you did not have many things with you. You were probably traveling very light.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, it's true. I had, you know, like my music, of course, which I always try to keep it with me. So I brought my papers, and, you know, I just have, like, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. So not a lot of things.

RAZ: You arrived to the border, and you say, I'm here to seek amnesty. And what did they say to you?

RODRIGUEZ: They kind of arrest me and start, you know, like, asking me questions. At the end, what they wanted to have from me was money. So I didn't have any money. As I told you, I had my - another kind of paper, which was my music, and they were not really, you know, interested in that kind of paper. So after speaking four hours with them, they understood my situation, and they let me go at that time.

RAZ: They let you go through to the U.S. border.

RODRIGUEZ: Through the U.S. border, yeah.

RAZ: And once you were in the United States, that was it. I mean, you, as a Cuban, are entitled to seek amnesty.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, it's true. As a Cuban - a lot of Cubans have done this - like the same like I did, a lot of, you know, in the same situation. And once you are in the United States, you are kind of safe.

RAZ: Alfredo, you were a prominent jazz pianist in Cuba. Why did you want to leave Cuba? Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?

RODRIGUEZ: When I was back in Cuba, I was elected to be one of the 12 pianists to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006. So I went there, and I met Mr. Quincy Jones, and I had the opportunity that day to play one song for him. And after that, I was really fortunate that Quincy told me that he wanted to do something together with me and he like my music. So that moment kind of completely changed my, you know, kind of my life, because I knew that in order to work with Mr. Jones, I had to come here to the United States.

RAZ: So from that moment in 2006 when you went to the Montreux Jazz Festival and you met Quincy Jones, up until the time you sought amnesty in the U.S. in 2009, you were sort of plotting this. You were thinking, how can I get back to see Quincy Jones?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, definitely. I knew that the decision was in my side - on my side. So I decided in 2009, while I was playing a concert with my father in Medellin, Yucatan, that I had to come here to the United States. And, well, we just started a conversation, speaking about my, you know, my crossing the border.

RAZ: It seems like that experience you had at the border is told in a song on this record called "Crossing the Border."


RODRIGUEZ: I composed this song, "Crossing the Border," the first week when I came here to the United States. And as I always say, what I wanted to transmit with that song was my distress, was my situation, was my feelings, which is more important than notes or harmony or melody or whatever. For me, music is more about life, is more about movement, more about feeling. It's not - it's more about who we are.

RODRIGUEZ: You know, sometimes, music is not just coming from happiness or sadness, you know? Some music is coming from, I don't know, movements or walking or crossing the border.

RAZ: I'm speaking with jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. His debut album is called "Sounds of Space." Alfredo, as a student in Cuba, you studied primarily classical music at first.

RODRIGUEZ: It's true. I started at 7 years old at the Manuel Samuell Conservatory, which was very close to my house at that time. And, yes, it's true what you said. I was in the last year of the university in Havana studying classical music.

RAZ: I mean, when I read about that, I was amazed, because I also read that while you were studying classical music, you happened to stumble upon a Keith Jarrett CD, of course, a famed jazz pianist. Which one was it, by the way?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, "The Koln Concert."

RAZ: "Koln Concert" is a classic one. What - I mean, what did you think when you first heard it?

RODRIGUEZ: I got very emotional. And that was a great experience for me because in classical music, you are performing some music that was written maybe one day, maybe one month, maybe years or centuries ago. And in improvisation music, you just play whatever is coming to your mind all the idea that you're having. You are just creating, composing at the same time you are performing.

So I couldn't do that for 10 years. So when I got the CD of Keith I knew from that moment that that was what I really wanted to do in my life, which is just sit at the piano and play whatever is coming to my mind.

RAZ: Quincy Jones has obviously become a mentor to you. As you mentioned, he discovered you and now works with you. You wrote a piece, actually, in his honor. I hope I'm pronouncing it right, it's "Qbafrica," which is actually Q at the beginning.


RAZ: Talk about what kind of advice Quincy Jones has given you as a musician. I mean, he, of course, originally, was a jazz composer and a trumpeter too. Presumably, he had a lot of things to say to you.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah, definitely. Not just about music. We have a great relationship. And we speak. And I learn always that I am with him about everything, you know, about his point of view, about life, about how people act. He's one of the most open-minded musicians that I know. He like all kind of music, and I am in the same - kind of the same page.


RAZ: Is the sound of Cuba in this album?

RODRIGUEZ: Definitely. Definitely, it's there. I am Cuban, and all my roots are there. It's - some people - you know, some people sometimes ask me because this is - for them, this is not like the traditional music, which, of course, it is not traditional music from Cuba. This is me, which is a 27-year-old Cuban pianist, with a different point of view, with different things to say. But definitely, it's Cuban music. It's just - I don't know, my love for this bebop jazz and my love for this classical contemporary composer, maybe, in my CDs, you know, a little more contemporary, we should say, I don't know exactly. But what I really know is that this is Cuban music.


RAZ: That's Alfredo Rodriguez. His debut album is called "Sounds of Space." You can hear a few tracks at our website, Alfredo, what a wonderful story. Thank you so much for being with us and sharing it with us.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much, you guys, for considering me.


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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