Though he’s only 21 years old, New York jazz pianist Julius Rodriguez has already made a powerful impression on the West Coast. He was still a teenager at his impressive Bay Area debut accompanying vocalist Jazzmeia Horn in the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab in the fall of 2018 as her star rapidly ascended. He returned last August with local-gal-made-good Jackie Gage, bringing his pointed intelligence and beautiful touch to the vocalist’s sensational show celebrating the legacy of Nancy Wilson at Café Stritch as part of San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest. And in November he was back in the Joe Henderson Lab for four nights with the inimitable Carmen Lundy, displaying real versatility and emotional acuity on her book of original songs.
Even with all that sideman work as prelude, Rodriguez was a revelation Friday night at San Francisco’s Black Cat, where he made his Bay Area debut as a bandleader with a poised young quintet of New York up-and-comers. The second set on the second night of a four-night run opened with a spacious arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” a delicate tune that can wilt under heavy hands, but the young ’uns gave the fluttery melody a graceful new shape. Like a calling card from jazz’s future, these self-possessed players sounded like a band.
The stereotype, too often earned, is that young jazz musicians live to burn, taking any opportunity to accelerate into hyperdrive. Rodriguez’s music is all about balance and restraint. His original pieces were built on sturdy, memorable melodies, and the solos engaged and elaborated on his themes. With a warm, bronzy tone sometimes reminiscent of Kenny Dorham, trumpeter Giveton Gelin, a recent Juilliard grad, sounded particularly composed on Rodriguez’s marching “Gift to the Moon.”
Rodriguez’s music also gracefully ignores distinctions between electric and acoustic modes. Morgan Guerin played “Butterfly” on tenor sax and switched to EWI (electronic wind instrument) on “Gift,” while Daniel Winshall traded his double bass for an electric bass. But plugging in didn’t mean the band moved into funk or fusion mode. The sonic resources just expanded the band’s textural palette, particularly Guerin’s careful blending with Gelin. New Orleans drummer Brian Richburg Jr., in the midst of a full four-year scholarship at Berklee, played with expert dynamic control.
The band was at its most melodic on Rodriguez’s “For Cameron Boyce,” an episodic elegy for the late actor that also made effective use of EWI and electric bass. Keying on an ascending four-note phrase that echoes a line from Hancock’s “Butterfly,” the tune gave the set a sense of welcome coherence. Rodriguez mentioned that the band is honing the new material before heading into the studio to make his debut album. After this show, I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.
He’ll be back in town on Feb. 29 at Oakland’s Spirithaus Gallery playing with innovative drummer, vocalist, and producer Kassa Overall on a hip-hop inflected show with Paul Wilson on keyboards and electronics. Rodriguez and Wilson will also be playing some drums, and Oakland trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire will be joining the proceedings as a special guest.