Born in Havana, Cuba, the son of a popular singer, television presenter and entertainer of the same name, Rodríguez began his formal music education at seven. Percussion, not piano, was his first choice. “But…to choose what I wanted I had to wait until I was 10,” he explains. “So I picked piano. By the time I could actually switch to percussion, I knew the piano was my path.”
He graduated to the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, and then to the Instituto Superior de Arte. But while his formal musical education was strictly classical, he also learned music “on the street,” or more precisely, on stage. “I didn’t play with many dance groups, but I played in my dad’s band since I was 14,” he says. “And my dad presented a daily TV show and many famous Cuban musicians came through it and we had every type of music. I was still a kid but had a chance to perform every day, and write arrangements for all kinds of music: boleros, rock ’n roll, dance music—you name it. It is where I learned the discipline of being a professional musician. That was another great school for me. I was very lucky.”
The momentous discovery during that formative period, however, came packed on a CD. “When I was 15, my uncle gave me Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert,” he recalls. “That’s when I began to explore the idea of improvisation. Up to then it had been all Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and I’m thankful to my teachers for it because without that I wouldn’t be the same pianist. But up to that point I didn’t know anything about improvisation. The Köln Concert changed my life. I realized that was what I wanted to do: just sit and play. And not only musical ideas; music doesn’t come only from music. It can reflect and speak to what surrounds us.”
In 2006, Rodríguez was selected to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival. While there, he was invited to a gathering at the house of the festivals’ founder and director, Claude Nobs, who asked him if he would play for Quincy Jones.
“And of course I said yes,” recalls Rodríguez. “I remember I played an arrangement I had written of ‘I Love You,’ by Cole Porter. And when I finished, Quincy said he liked it a lot and that he wanted to work with me. That was amazing. That someone I admire so much would be interested in doing something with me was incredible. But I’m a realist, and while it was a nice idea I thought it would be difficult. And it was.”
Still, a month later, back in Cuba, he received an email from Jones’ Vice President Adam Fell. “Then I knew this was serious. That’s when I decided I was coming to the U.S.”
In 2009, while in Mexico after playing some engagements with his father, who has lived there since 2008, Rodríguez made his move and flew to Laredo—where he was arrested and held by the border police.
“I had nothing: a suitcase with a sweater, a pair of jeans and my music,” he says. “And when they interviewed me I told them the truth: I was coming to stay. I wasn’t doing planning to do anything illicit. I was coming to write and play music, work with Quincy Jones and start my career. And I told them: ‘If you turn me back, I’ll be back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, until I can make it through.’ They talked among themselves, put me in cab and sent me on my way. That’s how I started my life in the United States.”
Few artists get to make their public debut professionally in the United States at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, opening for Wayne Shorter. And Rodríguez also made appearances at events such as the SXSW Music Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival and the San Francisco Jazz Festival, as well as performances at international festivals such as the North Sea Jazz Festival (Netherlands), Umbria (Italy), Montreux (Switzerland), Mawazine (Morocco), Mundo Latino (Brazil), and the Tag Heur Shanghai Jazz and Blues Week (China), among others.