Pedrito Martinez: From The Streets To The Stars

Following the Monk Competition, Martinez was even more engaged in working with name players, like another famous reed player, Paquito D’Rivera. “Since I’ve been in the United States, I’ve been playing with so many people, and I’ve been recording many albums, different kinds of music,” he adds. “I’ve been playing with Paquito, and I learned how to play milongo, which is a folkloric music from Argentina. Paquito is very open-minded, very curious about a lot of different kinds of music.” And from there, Martinez eventually went on to tour with and open shows for name players such as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, and Dave Matthews. And, truth be told, he became, essentially, a “gun for hire,” a label that could be used today, in 2013, to describe someone with talent that anyone with a name could call to add that special something to their music. For example, the day after our interview, Martinez was heading to a recording studio to add his distinctive percussive touches to a new album by fellow Cuban expat phenom, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. But there are others, especially artists that come from the more Anglo side of the music world. “When you come from Cuba, a lot of people get curious about what you do as a musician. There’s a lot of respect there, if you are a musician. When you come here, they want a very different kind of music. Because in Cuba the only kind of music you play is Cuban music.”

The Life Beyond

That musical universe has also included Martinez orbiting TED2013, in California in February, the latest edition of the idea-driven, celebrity-laden conclave TED Talks. “He is simply one of the best musicians in the country,” TED music advisor Bill Bragin was quoted as saying. “As a musician’s musician, he leaves other musicians’ jaws on the ground.”

pedrito martinez

Martinez’ Setup

1 11.75" x 30" Conga
2 12.5" x 30" Tumbadora
3 14" x 30" Super Tumba

LP Bata Drums
4 9" Omele
5 6.75" Oconolo
6 12.5" Iya
7 LP Americana String-Style Cajon

For drum set, Pedrito Martinez plays a Yamaha kit, Zildjian cymbals, Gibraltar hardware, Remo heads, and Vic Firth sticks.

According to Martinez’ management, there were more than a few activities that had everyone on the go for days on end. Even though the event is called the TED Talks, they have a select number of musical performers. Pedrito and the Pedrito Martinez Group had been brought in to play, not to speak. On that Tuesday, Martinez played a bata solo and sang an Orisha chant in the main theater at TED in Long Beach. Then the Pedro Martinez Group was driven to the TED Active conference in Palm Springs, where the group played in Old Town Square. The next day they were shuttled back to Long Beach, where the group performed a song in the main theater. The next afternoon PMG did an informal performance at the Citibank Social Space. It all ended the following night when they played for the TED after-party at the Westin Hotel in Long Beach. Needless to say, with celebrity/artist-types like Cameron Diaz, Paul Simon, and Goldie Hawn coming up to him and thanking him for being there, Martinez was getting the message that he was connecting, and connecting in a big way.

In the midst of this swirl of activity, there is the current release, Rumba de la Isla, and the studio, a world far away from the “stars and bars,” so to speak. The arrangements, in particular, seem to benefit from Martinez’ focused attention on the music. “I did a demo, in my own studio in my house, where I put together all the rhythm tracks, all the vocals together, and I sent it to the cats,” he recalls. “And then when we got together to rehearse, a lot of great music came out from each of them, with great ideas, and we got to playing.” In fact, the arrangements and room for playing that allows guitarist and Pirana player Nino Josele and legendary Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fe (along with the vocals throughout) to shine help make Rumba de la Isla an exceptional listen. Also on board is bassist John Benitez, percussionist and vocalist Roman Diaz, and, with harmonizing vocals, Xiomara Laugart and Abraham Rodriguez. “Yeah, nobody did that before; it was very unusual combination, it was very simple to work with them,” he says, mentioning how the blend of flamenco and South American musical influences from these different artists from different countries helped to create a very satisfying mix. “They worked out all the kinks.” In a word from Martinez, it was “perfect.”

Beyond Beyond

“It’s crazy; it’s full of work,” Martinez says when asked what the rest of 2013 looks like. Referring to one very recent project with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, his love for his work is almost palpable when he says, “He is one of the greatest piano players in Cuba.”

As you read this, Martinez will have just been in New Orleans performing at the Congo Rhythms Festival, and, by invitation from Herbie Hancock and The Monk Institute, part of “Jazz Day” in Istanbul during late April and early May. From there, Martinez’ schedule continues – as he says – to be “crazy,” with appearances at the Brooklyn Bridge Park for Celebrate Brooklyn, the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in June, followed by shows at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, and the River To River Jazz Festival. Beyond that, there’s even talk of a possible Asian tour with new friend and colleague Steve Gadd.

And, of course, there’s the even newer album he just completed, to be released by Motema Records, date yet to be determined. Produced by Steve Gadd and Martinez, it’ll be simply titled The Pedrito Martinez Group and will mark the record debut of Martinez as bandleader. There’ll be songs composed and arranged by the group as well as songs composed by Martinez himself, with some of the material having been written and recorded by other Cuban musicians. Special guests will include guitarist John Scofield, chromatic harmonica player Gary Schriener, percussionist Marc Quinones and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. And who, exactly, is the PMG? Currently it’s comprised of Martinez on percussion and lead vocals, Ariacne Trujillo on keyboards and lead vocal, Alvaro Benavides on electric bass and background vocals, and Jhair Sala on percussion and background vocals. Incidentally, producer Gadd will also lend his unique drumming sounds to the proceedings.

“I just finished this new record with my quartet,” Martinez says, almost beaming. He adds that this most likely will be the group he tours the newer album with, a tour that likely will include special guests on guitar and violin, not unlike the Rumba de la Isla album. Referring to the band, he exclaims, “The rhythm section is killing.” If it’s anything like the rhythm section on Rumba de la Isla, listeners better hold onto their seats.

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