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Jazz Notes: Cuba’s Pedrito Martinez Moves to the U.S.

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, February 6, 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 1: Percussionist and Vocalist Extraordinaire

Part 2: His Cuban Childhood and Influences

Part 3:  Once established stateside, Pedrito Martinez played gigs and santería ceremonies and quickly started meeting people in New York. In 2000, he received an email about the Thelonious Monk International Afro-Latin Jazz Hand Drum Competition. Martinez performed in the contest and won, with a prize of $20,000. Also in 2000, Spanish film director Fernando Trueba featured him in his Latin jazz documentary, Calle 54.

“The Monk award opened up so many doors for me, even with percussion and drum companies giving me instruments,” he says. “Then I started playing with Paquito D’Rivera and Bryan Lynch.”

Martinez quickly realized he had a lot to learn if he were to jump into the jazz world. Lynch became one of his teachers. When the percussionist joined a jam with him, he was befuddled by the irregularities in the music’s time. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “He was playing a song in 5/4 time at the Zinc Bar, and I couldn’t get it. That inspired me to learn the new things. But I knew I could because I was hanging with the right cats. I love Bryan Lynch. He taught me so much and gave me so much support. I recorded with him and toured a lot.” Martinez excitedly added, “We also have the same birthday, September 12, the same as Steve Turre.”

Meanwhile at Guantanamera, Martinez’s group was finding its own voice. They used to play seven nights a week, then he scaled it back to Monday through Friday, then further when his daughter was born to Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday. “Every day we played we were experimenting with sound,” he said. “We played a lot of our ideas, with breaks and different harmonies and melodies. One day I realized PMG had its own sound. We were playing music that normally requires three or four horns, but we were just a quartet. We had a powerful sound, and then worked on dynamics and became more careful of the lyrics so that they had a positive message.”

Then as luck would have it, one night producer Narada Michael Walden stopped by Guantanamera and after the set asked Martinez if he would be interested in performing at Carnegie Hall for the biennial Rainforest Foundation benefit concert that he was the musically directing. The organization, founded by Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, threw benefits that featured all-stars of the pop and rock worlds. In his first year Martinez met and played with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Mary J. Blige and Lady Gaga. “It was magical,” says Martinez. “I was so excited. They had a big set up of percussion for me and they let me play whatever I wanted. They let me be myself.”

The word quickly spread as different stars made their way to Guantanamera and watched in wonder as PMG tore down the house. Martinez linked up with Eric Clapton and James Taylor, performed a concert with Paul Simon at Jazz at Lincoln Center and worked on a project with Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa. “That Carnegie Hall show opened so many more doors for me,” Martinez says, noting that he has since appeared on more than 100 albums.

Martinez also made his mark in the Latin music world, collaborating with San Francisco conguero John Santos (who like Martinez is a rare percussionist who leads the band) and two Cuba-born pianists, Omar Sosa (“He’s so spiritual”) and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. “Gonzalo drove me crazy,” Martinez said. “I played with him a lot and I learned a lot. He’s soulful and powerful and his music is hard to play. He gave me musical nightmares, but I love a challenge, and I can identify with him.”

As a leader, Martinez has recorded five albums beginning with 2005’s self-released Mother Africa (recorded at his house with guests saxophonist D’Rivera, trombonist Turre and Colombian harp player Edmar Castañeda) and 2006’s Slave To Africa for the Japanese indie label Intoxicate Records. In 2013 he recorded the flamenco-infused Rumba De La Isla, a tribute to renowned Spanish flamenco singer, Camarón de la Isla, who died in 1992. In the same year, Martinez with PMG released their eponymous debut for Motéma, produced by drummer Steve Gadd and featuring guitarist John Scofield (a convert to the music after a visit to Guantanamera) and longtime friend and mentor Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. In addition to the Yoruban chants and straight-up Afro-Cuban music, the band gave its special sonoro treatment to Led Zeppelin’s “Travelling Riverside Blues” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

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: Pedrito Martinez; photo: Danielle Moir.


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