Jazz Notes: Cuba’s Pedrito Martinez Looks to the Future
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, February 8, 2017
In anticipation of percussionist Pedrito Martinez collaborating with pianist Alfredo Rodriguez at Jazz Standard (February 9-10), the following is the life-story bio of the Cuba-born maestro of the beats (in five parts).
Part 3: Moves to the U.S.
Part 4: Returns Home to Record
Part 5: With all the high-profile guests, the fact that the PMG operates as a collective could easily be lost. Even though Martinez pretty much directs the repertoire, when the band hits, it’s an organic experience, said 5-string bassist Benavides, who’s been a PMG band member since 2008. “Pedro’s drive is very strong,” he said. “He’s a virtuoso, a magician with his hands on the congas, he’s got an incredible vocal tone, he’s handsome, fit, has a great smile. He’s the leader, but he doesn’t have this organized mentality. He’s compassionate, loyal and not selfish. He leads by letting the flow take over, so that each of us can show who we are and bring our own ways of playing to the table. He’s a perfectionist; he’s obsessed but not crazy. It’s all about having the attitude to get a good sound—to make it the best it can be.”
Benavides was born in Venezuela, moved briefly with his family to England before returning to his birth land, then came to the U.S. when he was 22 and now lives in Astoria. “I’m a real New Yorker,” he said. As for his take on the group blending Latin music with the variegated New York sounds to create a new chapter of the idiom, he said, “At first we didn’t really notice because it all seemed so natural as we were going for the passion,” he said. “It was a huge element of luck that had everything to do with our chemistry. It was weird when we became popular with musicians from the rock, jazz, Latin, African worlds. That’s when we began to notice that our originality was actually changing the face of Cuban music.”
He says that PMG is redefining how Afro-Cuban music is perceived. “We’ve gone from the world of big band music to a quartet without losing any of the power,” said Benavides. “We all double and triple the sound to get that power. When I first started with Pedro I was playing the four-string bass. But I added the fifth string bass to give the music that extra bass-note depth.”
Martinez added, “I love the quartet sound. It’s better than a big band because it’s fewer people. The big bands use a lot of horns, but I don’t want that. Certainly it’s easier financially as a quartet, but with too many people in a band it’s harder to be a family. With the exception of Edgar, we’ve been together nearly ten years. With Edgar coming on board two and a half years ago, he’s added a sound, a touch and an attitude on the piano and keyboards and synths. He also plays mambo sections and doesn’t do the horn sounds.”
At The Heath PMG hit the ground running, which frankly surprised Benavides who said, “It was a special happening. For years we played almost every day, which was how we all became so tight and got our sound. But while we used to play 300 days a year, that’s diminished in the last few years. Before this show we had gone a month without seeing each other. But all that rime it was as if we were accumulating energy. PMG is like an addiction. When we haven’t played together for a few weeks, we need a fix. And then we unload and get huge energy. It’s a great feeling.”
Guests came along for the ride, including Román Díaz for a conga romp and in jam mode young trumpeter Kalí Rodríguez-Peña, who’s a Wynton protégé, dropping in echoes and accents on a couple of tunes. Plus, guitarist Bernie Williams—who had just graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with a degree in jazz composition—showed that he could swim in the flow Pedrito brewed up. “Wow, I was impressed by Bernie,” Benavides said. “I’m a big Yankees fan and I saw him hit a lot of home runs, but I never knew he could do this on the guitar.”
Martinez was more than pleased. He was ecstatic and credited PMG for the success. “They’re the important part of how it all works,” he said. “And look at this group. Alvaro is from Venezuela. Jhair, who I taught how to play percussion when he was 9 years old, is from Peru. And Edgar is from Santiago de Cuba. We could call ourselves the United Nations Band, though Dizzy Gillespie already used that term and it was United Nation Orchestra. But PMG is no orchestra, though oftentimes we sound like one. As a quartet, it’s beautiful.”
Editor’s Note: A portion of this text originally appeared in truncated form in ‘DownBeat’ magazine. This is the long-form version. Like in film, there’s the director’s cut; consider this the writer’s cut.
Pedrito Martinez performs with Alfredo Rodriguez on February 9 and 10 at Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street. For more information and to purchase tickets click here.
Cover: (l. to r.) Jhair Sala, Pedrito Martinez, Alvaro Benavides, Edgar Pantoja-Aleman; photo: Danielle Moir.