Erik Barden/Courtesy of the artist
In June, the pianist/drummer Julius Rodriguez released his debut album, Let Sound Tell All, a project so dynamic that even the umbrella of jazz couldn’t quite contain its essence. Though the genre was surely present, the songs “All I Do” and “In Heaven” showed reverence for R&B and gospel — the former a posh cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1980 song, the latter a piano-focused ballad rooted in the sound of Black church. It culminated in his ascendance from White Plains, N.Y., where Rodriguez studied classical piano and taught himself how to play drums, tagging along to jazz concerts with his father, who drove the then-11-year-old to clubs like Smalls while Thelonious Monk played on the car radio. Along the way he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, then Juilliard, before dropping out to tour with rapper A$AP Rocky in 2018.
Rodriguez is now a rising star at the intersection of jazz, soul, hip-hop and blues, playing alongside other multi-hyphenates like José James, Madison McFerrin and Meshell Ndegeocello. On Let Sound Tell All, through an amorphous blend that he simply calls “the music,” Rodriguez converged past and present with stellar results, showcasing himself as a torchbearer among a cohort of young New York players bringing history into the future. People like him, vibraphonist Joel Ross and flutist/producer Melanie Charles combine traditional jazz with contemporary rap, electronica and soul, nudging listeners to drop preconceived notions of what Black classical music is supposed to be. Like others before them, they’re showing that jazz can be edgy and expansive, not just the backdrop for sipping overpriced drinks in cramped nightclubs. Can Rodriguez play that scene? Sure. But his virtuosity is broader than that, transcending age and genre, making him one of the most well-rounded performers I’ve encountered in recent years.
I’ve seen Rodriguez perform three times this year — at a private taping in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (above), then twice at BRIC JazzFest as the leader of his own band and as lead pianist for José James’ headlining set. As leader, he’d switch between piano and drums, wading through the delicate “Where Grace Abounds” or pounding out the frenetic “Two Way Street.” Even when he wasn’t at the helm, Rodriguez still commanded the stage from the piano bench, playing superb solos without overtaking the show’s star.
“What makes him so special is his unique ability to go deeply into the music, whether it’s jazz, hip-hop, R&B, experimental, whatever,” James told me recently. “He really gets inside the concept of the song or project and creates from inside it, rather than adorning it from the outside. That’s a subtle thing but so important. Because it means he’s fully present in the moment and walking the edge of creation at all times.”
Indeed, there’s a fluidity to Rodriguez’s work, the feeling of defiance based in the renouncement of industry-crafted tags. Whether he’s retooling Erykah Badu cuts or building his own soundtrack, his artistry is limitless and Let Sound Tell All was one of the strongest statements of 2022.