Mondays With Morgan: The Rodriguez Brothers (new album ‘‘Reunited: Live at Dizzy’s Club’’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and pianist Rob Rodriguez; together, they comprise the Rodriguez Brothers. 

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Their latest album, ‘Reunited: Live at Dizzy’s Club’ was recorded at the venue of Jazz at Lincoln Center; a link to stream it in full can be found at the bottom of this article.

Rob and Mike Rodriguez. . Publicity photo suppled

If straight-ahead jazz is your thing, the Rodriguez Brothers have got you; since their debut album 20 years ago ago, they’ve been devoted to all things swing. 

If you also feel a kinship with the various tributaries of what’s often consolidated as Latin jazz — well, you’re doubly in luck.

“It’s part of the way we hear music: we want a really good balance of melody and harmony,” pianist Rob Rodriguez tells LondonJazz. “And the rhythmic component we bring from the Afro-Cuban diaspora — and all the Latin rhythms we incorporate.

“They’re pretty straightforward tunes that could involved, but we don’t want it to be heady at all,” he continues. “We want it to be from the heart.”

Their new live album, Reunited — released on their joint RodBros label — is just another manifestation of that heartwork. Rather than forge ahead with new material, the blazingly talented brothers opted to plumb their shared history. 

From “Gitmo’s Groove” to “Guayaquil” and beyond, the fraternal trumpeter and pianist tie a bow on their two decades of output — while drawing a bridge to untold future alliances.

If anything, I gathered more patience as a performer. I’m listening more,” trumpeter Mike Rodriguez adds. “Our bond as brothers has gotten tighter over the years. It plays into what we’re doing as artists, in our music. The RodBros are in their 40s, so we’re more patient and aware.”

Read on for an interview with the Rodriguez Brothers how Reunited came to be — and their highly personal blend of straight-ahead jazz with the sounds of the Latin American diaspora.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

LJN: Tell me about the road to Reunited. Why did the time feel ripe to release a live record at Dizzy’s at this juncture in your careers?

Rob Rodriguez: We took a little hiatus because of the pandemic, and we didn’t really see each other. Did we see each other before this gig, Mike? Was this the first time we saw each other after the pandemic?

Mike Rodriguez: That’s a great question.

RR: Physically, we weren’t in the same space for three years, or whatever it was. We hadn’t been playing. We used to do these weekly Zooms — Mike and I, and musicians from Lincoln Center and around the world.

MR: Even Wynton jumped on one.

RR: Those were nice, but not being able to play for three years [was challenging]. And then, talking about, “Hey, should we do a record?” since our last record was in 2015 — Impromptu.

We had been working on music individually as composers. But we thought it would be a good idea, once we did have a gig — which ended up being at Dizzy’s — to not do new music, but do music we had been doing for the last 20 years as a band. To take selected works and use that as a springboard to get reacquainted with each other.

What ended up happening was, Dizzy’s asked us if we could livestream and record it. At first, we were a little bit hesitant, because we hadn’t played in a long time, but we ended up recording it. So, what you hear is the first time we’d played together after three years. 

The idea was also to commemorate the fact that it was 20 years since our first record as the Rodriguez Brothers. So, that was the idea behind Reunited.

LJN: What are your memories of recording that debut album 20 years ago?

MR: I have fond memories of that. That was our first record date as the Rodriguez Brothers. I remember the jitters, the nervousness. I also remember feeling very proud, and I’m sure my brother did as well. Kicking off our career as this brother group that we’d always dreamed of having.

Here we were, documenting all this music we had written over the years until then. Robert had written a bunch of tunes while we were in college. I only had one tune on that first record [“Sundance”]; I was starting off as a writer as well. Just being able to document up until then was very special for us.

I still have the music from that session. I found it in my bookcase. It brought a lot of great memories, looking at that sheet of music. Even looking at the notes and the writing, it brought out that feeling that I had when I was first looking at it.

RR: That first record really established the group, but also got out into the [jazz] world. People like Charlie Haden and Gonzalo [Rubalcaba] — Mike got to work with Charlie because he heard the record. It opened some doors for us early on, which was pretty cool.

LJN: What was the New York jazz scene like back then, as opposed to now?

RR: Mike got to New York in the summer of 1999; there was a transition going on. 

Clubs like the Zinc Bar were open all night. It had a back room that was called “the Vortex,” basically [laughs]. Cats would just come in and hang. All different kinds of musicians, and even some actors and celebrities.

When I got to New York in 2000, there were a lot of fresh new players on the scene. Guys from Texas, Miami — where Mike and I grew up — and California. I still keep in touch with all the musicians who came through during that generation.

MR: During the ‘90s, there was a whole young lion’s movement, and record companies were just throwing money at these young players and whatnot. 

By the time I got to the New York scene, I was very young; I was only 20 years old. I wasn’t really looking for a record deal; I felt like I had nothing I could contribute yet. My game was always that I wanted to grab some life experience so I could have something I wanted to say as an artist.

I remember a lot of those record deals were starting to wane. It wasn’t as common anymore. Some cats were getting signed for one record, and then they would be dropped.

RR: CDs were dying out. People weren’t going out to buy music; they would get it for free, unfortunately, because of Napster and all these things that were happening simultaneously.

We came at it with the attitude of Let’s self-produce. Let’s create our own thing. With an entrepreneurial spirit of things, we established RodBros Music.

Early on, we would both sign CDs; I would take them to Tower Records in boxes and sell that way. It was kind of an on-the-ground, grassroots organization that we started.

Rob and Mike Rodriguez. Publicity photo suppled

LJN: How would you characterize your 20 ensuing years together?

MR: The amount of experience we’ve accumulated up until now — hopefully it’s been conveyed through the music. All the stuff we’ve been playing through the years, and working with other artists. Just gaining that information and knowledge.

Hopefully, what’s coming out is just pure heart and honesty. That’s what we hope audiences take away from listening to the music.

RR: Roughly every five to seven years, we do a record — but between then, we’ll do some tours, or perform at some nice festivals. But we also have the time for us to develop our own careers. So, it’s been a nice ride, and I’m looking forward to more.

LJN: Out of your vast well of music, how did you land on these seven tunes?

MR: Like Robert mentioned, we picked certain selections from previous records — which ones we thought would be not too strenuous, since we hadn’t played for such a long time. We picked ones we liked playing, and didn’t really think about how many tunes were going to be mine or Robert’s.

We played a bunch of other tunes that aren’t on the record — we played them on the live stream — but we decided to go with the selections we enjoyed playing and sounded comfortable on.

We also didn’t want the listener to get bored with the same kind of rhythm over and over and over. 

Like, let’s switch it up here; let’s do a cumbia here, maybe slow it down for a cha-cha-cha. Go with a samba, maybe a bolero. Just keep it flowing. We felt like those selections, in that order, flowed nicely.

LJN: Can you delve deeper into the cultural streams that flow into Reunited? I know your Ecuadorian heritage is integral to this music.

RR: That piece, “Guayaquil,” I wrote for my mom, who is from Guayaquil, Ecuador. Natively, the cumbia rhythm is actually from Colombia, but it’s very much appreciated in Ecuador.

I had this cumbia rhythm in my mind, which I mixed up with some Cuban elements as well. There’s a lot of overlap there, but that’s one example of a rhythm that’s native to South America. Another rhythm that we delved into was the samba; obviously, that’s from Brazil.

Mike and I are great lovers of different kinds of rhythms from all over the world. We really try to find an organic way of incorporating rhythms within the style and spirit of jazz that we like to play. 

MR: That’s partially because of our father, you know. He’s a drummer, so we grew up listening to all these types of rhythms and whatnot. It was instilled in us just by being around it as kids growing up, and listening to him practice.

LJN: Can you talk about your accompanists on Reunited?

RR: They’re all fantastic. These are gentlemen that we’ve played with for many, many years.

They’re from different groups and outfits. [Drummer] Adam Cruz was actually the drummer on our first record 20 years ago. It’s funny, because we mentioned it on the gig: out of 20 years, this was the first gig he ever made [laughs]. He was so busy with [pianist] Danilo Pérez and other people.

He’s a catcher’s mitt, you know? He’s going to catch you wherever you land.

MR: He also comes from the tradition of both Latin and straight-ahead playing.

RR: On bass, we had Ricardo Rodriguez — no relation, but we call him our long-lost brother. 

I got to meet Ricky maybe 10, 15 years ago when we started working with Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit group. We were there at the same time, and we just became good buddies. He played a lot of gigs with the Rodriguez Brothers over the years.

And then, on percussion, was Anthony Almonte. He’s a gentleman that we got to play with in the last four, five years, who we started playing with with our brother, [bassist and composer] Carlos Henriquez, in his group.

Incidentally, [Anthony is] on the road now with Bruce Springsteen, so he’s off the market for a couple of years.

LJN: Now that you two have rejoined forces on record, what’s next?

MR: Hopefully, we’ll line up some performances and get back out on the road and get this music to the listeners, and see where it takes us from there. Another record in the works: sure, why not? But for right now, we’d like to get back out there and play this music live.

LINKS: The Rodriguez Brothers’ website

*Stream Reunited in full

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