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Jazz Notes: Cuba’s Pedrito Martinez Returns Home to Record

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, February 7, 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: Moves to U.S.

Part 4:  For the new album, Habana Dreams, the headline is that Martinez recorded the bulk of the album in his homeland. The subhead is the impressive cast of guests that the leader assembled, including fellow noteworthy Cubans: songwriter/vocalist Descemer Bueno (who was a band mate in the group Yerba Buena that Martinez had co-founded in his early New York days), rapper/spoken word artist Telmary Díaz and Cuban superstar Isaac Delgado on the title track. “Isaac is another hero,” Martinez said. “He’s recorded so many albums and is one of the most successful singers in Cuba. I met him years ago when I was traveling with Román to the Canary Islands. We were sitting close by in the plane, and we talked. So, when I knew I was going to record the new record in Cuba, I called him up and asked him if he wanted to be a part of it. He replied, ‘I’ve been waiting for your phone call.’” Even though Delgado had played two concerts the night before and showed up at the studio with a hoarse voice, Martinez reports that “he warmed up for about 30 minutes and then sang so perfectly.”

Also appearing as a marquee artist is singer Angélique Kidjo, who sings in fiery Yoruban on “Tributo A Santiago De Cuba,” a song Martinez wrote to show how much he loves the people of the other major city in Cuba. “Havana and Santiago have a little jealousy going, so I wanted to make sure Santiago knows how much I appreciate it,” he said. “Hey, we’re all Cubans. I thought this was a fit for Angélique who is from Benin where a lot of slaves in Cuba came from. So I sent her the song, and she replied, ‘I got your back.’ She’s so powerful and yet so humble.”

Marsalis returns again for another round as guest on two tunes, including the leadoff ”Mi Tempestao” (the only song with a few lines in English). “I wrote that for my wife,” Martinez said. “It’s like going on a trip. It starts as a timba, then goes into a very romantic salsa and goes into a folklore place with Telmary’s jazz poetry. As for my dear friend Wynton, he recorded the trumpet line in New York. He just kills it.”

While they have known each other since he arrived in the U.S., Martinez developed a special relationship with Marsalis when the trumpeter asked the percussionist to teach him how to write with authenticity music for a new suite of Cuban folkloric and santería Afro-Cuban orchestral music. Ochas premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2014 and featured the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, pianist Chucho Valdés and a three-batá percussion section led by Martinez, who also contributed ritual chants. What did he bring to the maestro? “Wynton wasn’t familiar with Yoruban music and how to transport that into jazz,” Martinez said. “And he said, “I’m your student Pedrito. Tell me what to do.’ Well, what he did was amazing. He changed the history of Afro-Cuban jazz. He showed me how humble he was and how much respect he has for the music tradition.”

Also featured is New York-based Panamanian singer/composer Rubén Blades who animatedly converses vocally with Martinez on the traditional tune “Compa Galletano” and contributes a composition to the album, “Antadilla.” He’s been a major supporter of Martinez’s career. “To say Rubén is a mentor is too little,” he said. “My uncle in Cuba used to teach us how to dance to his music. And there he was telling me how much he fell in love with me from Calle 54. He came to the Jazz Standard once when I was playing and told me he wanted to be on my next album.”

Martinez went to his house and Blades played him a song on the guitar about a fisherman who is so tired but everyday has to go to the river or the sea to catch fish to feed his family. The lyrical beauty “Antadilla” opens with a piano intro then plays into a son montuno zone with the two singing, again sounding like they were together in the studio while in reality Rubén added his part in New York. “Rubén is the deepest songwriter,” said Martinez, who puts him into the select company of Argentine composer Juan Luis Guerra and Spanish pop artist Alejandro Sanz. “His lyrics have a deep message that grab your attention. He’s so smart—he’s a lawyer you know—and he love politics.”

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: Edgar Pantoja-Aleman, Alvaro Benavides, Pedrito Martinez, Jhair Sala; photo: Danielle Moir.


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