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Jazz Notes: Cuba’s Pedrito Martinez—Percussionist and Vocalist Extraordinaire

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, February 2, 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).


In July 2016, when asked what was going to happen at his record release party the next night at The Heath for his new album Habana Dreams, recorded in Cuba, percussionist extraordinaire/vocalist Pedrito Martinez laughed and said, “Well, one thing is the recording and the other thing is hearing it live. We’ll have fun. We’re going to grab the crowd’s attention right away. They’ll start dancing and then everyone’s going to go crazy. What we want to do is bring a lot of energy and do a show that people will remember.”

And remember they did. Low ceilings, tables pushed back to the Heath’s outskirts to allow for the frenzied dancing, Cuba-born, New Jersey-based Martinez and his longtime quartet—electric bassist Alvaro Benavides, clave-keeping percussionist Jhair Sala and newest band member pianist/keyboardist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman—delivered a high-voltage 90-minute set that felt like a community party. Boldly and lyrically singing—morphing into a hard shout in reaction to the crowd’s exuberance—Martinez played on the four congas located in front on center stage as well as accented bass notes on the cajón (wooden box) that he sat on. At one point, the muscular leader, with an array of bold tattoos of animals, fish, an eagle and one for his daughter “Daddy’s Little Girl,” left his command post and danced with women in front of the stage. Dozens of people rushed the CD sales table wanting a copy.

The mélange of music on Habana Dreams ranges from standard Afro-Cuban rumbas to grooved jazz to percussive pop. In the title track there’s even a conga break of Turkish music. This album and the previous Motéma Records release in 2013 (The Pedrito Martinez Group) are safely tucked into the Latin jazz category for marketing, awards and poll purposes. But Martinez’s unconventional approach (rhythmic stops/starts and acceleration within songs, synth voicings, rapping, four voices singing, no horn sections) and the spiritual rush for discovering new sounds has made him a mighty force to break out from the steadfast boundaries of the genre’s tradition.

While Martinez may be 42, the handsome batá virtuoso and champion conguero as well as dynamic vocalist looks like he’s in his mid-thirties and when talking sounds like he’s in mid-twenties, bubbling over with enthusiasm and keying on the word “beautiful” to refer to his life story and his slow-to-meteoric rise as a bandleader. He no longer has to play $1 per month gigs at a hotel in his homeland as a young upstart (“We were happy, we were learning, but we were struggling to survive,” he said) or even multiple-day slots at local clubs like the homey Cuban cuisine space Guantanamera in Midtown on 8th Avenue not far from Lincoln Center or setting up residence in 2015 at the upscale Subrosa nightclub in the trendy Meatpacking District.

“I’ll always continue to play the rumba tradition, but now to bigger audiences,” he said the day before The Heath show in a conversation at the David Rubenstein Atrium of Lincoln Center, a quiet meeting place with two leafy green vertical gardens and shallow pools and a 26-foot-tall fountain. “I want different people to listen, not just Cuban people, not just Latin people. I want the jazz audience, the pop audience, the salsa audience.”

For Martinez, wearing a dark BLVD baseball hat and an H&M white T-shirt with such rabble-rousing sayings like “Young Rebel” and “Rebel Soul” and a gold crucifix, the timing for his more visible rise outside of Cuba (where he’s a bona fide star) couldn’t be better. It seems like the U.S.-imposed chill on the isolated island nation has finally thawed with the President Barack Obama-President Raul Castro relax of nearly sixty years of political and cultural antagonism. Martinez took advantage of the embargo’s end on December 17, 2014 by recording the bulk of Habana Dreams for five days in mid-October last year at Havana’s renowned historic studio, Areito/EGREM—a stone’s throw from the Cayo Hueso barrio where Martinez was born and raised. “That was a thrill,” he said. “I grew up listening to all the music that was recorded there in the ‘60s, 70s and ‘80s.”

It was a welcome-home event that proved significant if only for Martinez (living in the States since 1998) getting the opportunity to collaborate with his three Cuba-based percussionist brothers for the first time on record on the folkloric composition “Recuerdos” (a rumba written by Muñequitos de Matanzas co-founder Juan Mesa). With Antonio Martínez Campos on quinto, Mario Martínez Campos on congas and Adrián Lázaro Martínez on claves and the group aided by the leader’s spiritual and musical mentor Román Díaz on congas, the band sparked while Martinez sang with elation. “These things happen only once in a lifetime,” he said. ”I hadn’t played with them since I was 25 years old. I taught all of them how to play. So when we went to the studio, it was energy off the hook. It was unique and spiritual. I never realized how talented they all were. When they started to play, I almost cried. It was a beautiful feeling.”

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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