Latin Grammy-winning drummer and bandleader Willy Rodriguez Unveils Debut Album Seeing Sounds on March 29, 2024


Drummer-composer
Willy Rodriguez proudly announces the release of his debut album Seeing Sounds, releasing March 29, 2024. Joining the Puerto Rico-born, New York based musician on his expansive debut is trumpeter Jason Palmer, saxophonist Hery Paz, pianist Leo Genovese, bassists John Hébert and Kenneth Jimenez, and special guest artist, saxophonist Dave Liebman, and sound designer Tehn Vega

Avant-garde philosophies provide precarious but often brilliant edges to how open or free improvisation function in Jazz. Complex, chaotic, and often dissonant, this sub-genre challenges traditional structures, and when transcendent, incorporates an advanced and unconventional level of mastery. Avant-garde artists travel to curious destinations using peculiar forms specifically designed for their mercurial adventures. In the process, audience engagement requires a nuanced understanding of tone, touch, voice and the fluid organic structures that creatively bind them all together. In this regard, drummer Willy Rodriguez has spent his entire professional career preparing to explore these unique types of musical relationships.

Born in Puerto Rico, the son of a timbalero, Rodríguez’s rhythmic journey also began on the timbales, developing hand skills by playing in Latin rock bands that made up his crash course on Puerto Rico’s remarkably diverse Afro-Caribbean musical culture. High school brought an introduction to the drums as formal training blossomed into an invitation to a coveted summer program at the Berklee College of Music in San Juan, Puerto Rico. By the time he left the island to attend Berklee, Rodríguez had already dabbled in pop, rock, metal and Latin Jazz. Humbled by Boston’s deep Jazz drum culture, Rodríguez dove head first into his studies absorbing the influences of legends like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette and Terri Lyne Carrington. Rodríguez eventually settled in New York City, where he currently resides. Over the course of his twenty-year career, including his decade in New York, Rodriguez has worked with an expansive list of jazz heavyweights including George Garzone, Melissa Aldana, John Ellis, and more. 

Concurrently, Rodriguez’s musical palette continued to flourish. In 2019, he recorded with Chilean superstar Mon Laferte, and earned a Latin Grammy for his contributions to her highly regarded album Norma. In 2022, Rodriguez stepped into the legendary drum chair of progressive rock band The Mars Volta for their much-anticipated, eponymous reunion album, following in the footsteps of great drummers Jon Theodore, Deantoni Parks, and Thomas Pridgen. Expanding his range and exploring new musical avenues, Rodriguez continued to hear the call of an odd opportunity – various invitations to explore free improvisation. Perhaps the most important voice aiding this momentum was Dave Liebman, the storied multi-instrumentalist whose career spans decades of innovation within and outside of traditional contemporary Jazz.

Rodriguez’s initial hesitation finally gave way as Liebman and others eventually persuaded him to dive into the deep end of their pool. Always striving to compliment his surroundings, Rodriguez quickly discovered a new scope of expression that would challenge his ability to listen while accentuating the diverse skill set he’d manicured throughout his burgeoning career. Suddenly freedom and adventure reigned supreme. “That sense of connection,” as Rodriguez recalls it, “continually searching for something. I became addicted to that and now it always shows up when I play.” And his search continues with Seeing Sounds, featuring many of his long-time collaborators. 

Two of the oldest key collaborators include Jason Palmer, with whom Rodriguez has performed with since his earliest days in Boston, cutting his teeth at the famous Wally’s Jazz Club. Palmer had a steady gig at the establishment, and Rodriguez would often run the jam sessions preceding Jason’s hit, leading to a long-standing musical connection that perseveres to this day, and is in full bloom on Seeing Sounds. Leo Genovese is another long-time musical partner dating back to 2009. Also a musical polymath, Genovese and Rodriguez have shared many musical settings together, from sets at Smalls Jazz Club to The Mars Volta.

MORE ABOUT SEEING SOUNDS:

The dawn of Seeing Sounds, which features the striking imagery of Cuban painter Angel Borroto as its cover, rises with Rodriguez’s musical perfect storm “Beyond the Struggle”. Inspired by John Coltrane’s “Psalm”, the composition explores the “growth and wisdom one gains from failure,” as Genovese, Jimenez, and Rodriguez provide a salient backdrop for Cuban saxophonist Hery Paz to probe all parts of the song. Eventually clouds clears as sonic enlightenment serenades the tune towards its peaceful resolution. Informed by numbers charting the course of the complex meters used within the composition, “Roy’s Masterplan” unfolds as Rodriguez’s angular nod to the ingenious influence of a former Berklee colleague, featuring fascinating interplay between Palmer and Paz. Rounding the corner into straight ahead Jazz is the swinging “Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way”, Palmer’s ode to Rodriguez and their fifteen years of playing together.

“Guani”, named after the long beaked hummingbird found in various parts of the  Caribbean, lumbers above a 3/4 waltz pattern but with a 4/4 feel, as the band improvises on five phrases drawn out by composer Paz. Here “each musician gets to be a drummer in the band,” Rodriguez describes, as the group collectively paints a colorful picture of the bird anointed by Taino Indians as their animal teacher in the spirit world. The rarely recorded “Fixed Goal” manifests the kind of odd tension you’d expect from a Ornette Coleman composition, as the tune swings with angular chord progressions, neatly placed Monk quotes by Paz, and stair stepping sequences that finds the band in full form.

Living up to its name, “Waltz Dilemma” dances between time signatures with Jimenez’s bass anchoring Rodriguez radiant drum work behind Genovese’s sparkling phrasing. After a rigorous climb through the melody, everyone agrees to disagree harmonically as Paz muscles the tune back to 3/4 before the impasse is eventually resolved. Depicting a kaleidoscope of emotions, “The Infinity of Your Love” is Rodriguez’s exposé on the varied nature of affection. Pensively circling each other while flowing in and out of harmony, Liebman and Palmer finally punctuate the song’s end as if to say, “Sorry Dorothy, love’s not a Hallmark card anymore.”

Making matters even more delightfully bizarre is “The Red-tailed Hawk is Going to Eat Your Babies”, featuring field recordings by music producer Tehn Vega. Here Rodriguez shines anthropomorphizing the aviary chaos that routinely played out in backyard mango trees during his time in Puerto Rico. “Un Pequeño Desahogo (A Little Relief)” takes the form of a temperamental amuse-bouche, cleansing our pallets while showcasing the remarkable amount of polyphonic information Rodriguez can squeeze into a sub three minute song.

Splashing cymbals announce “Self Love”, the muscular but also sensitive display of Rodriguez’s technical creativity when allowed to play by, and just for, himself. Celebrating the spirit and deep influential impact that drummers Ralph Peterson Jr. and Bob Gulloti have had on Rodriguez the album concludes with “Praise”, a rollicking composition by Genovese reminiscent of the compelling styles and the elite musical traditions these master drummers sustained throughout their careers.

Listening deeply allows for the gentle displacement of artifice, ego and traditional expectations. It creates the space required to appreciate music for what it is, as opposed to anything we might want, or need it to be. As with anyone who’s ever struggled with meditation, emptying one’s mind like this can be exhilarating, surprisingly peaceful and thoroughly educational. Seeing Sounds is a deep listening bonanza, a special album using the inquisitive nature of free improvisation as an artful form of musical inquiry. Surrounded by close friends doubling as agile musical agents, Seeing Sounds finds Rodriguez introducing his impressive range of talents while challenging us to listen deeply, with heightened awareness, to this remarkably impressive achievement.

  1. Beyond the Struggle 
  2. Roy’s Masterplan
  3. Where’s There’s a Will There’s a Way
  4. Guani (feat. Dave Liebman)
  5. Fixed Goal
  6. Waltz Dilemma
  7. The Infinity Of Your Love (feat. Dave Liebman)
  8. The Red-tailed Hawk is going to Eat Your Babies (feat. Tehn Vega)
  9. Un Pequeño Desahogo
  10. Self Love
  11. Praise (in memory of Ralph Peterson & Bob Gulloti)

Liner notes by Michael Ambrosino, who writes about music, and culture, producing and hosting a variety of Jazz programs on 33third.org.

 

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