Julius Rodriguez Fuses Styles on ‘Evergreen’

Julius Rodriguez Fuses Styles on ‘Evergreen’

Sitting outside a bar in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn one recent Sunday afternoon, Julius Rodriguez spoke with characteristic straightforwardness describing music that is anything but. The composer and bandleader, who has played with the rapper ASAP Rocky and style-bending artists like Kassa Overall and Meshell Ndegeocello, articulated the central challenge of his work, an amorphous blend of jazz, funk, gospel and R&B he simply calls “the music.”

It’s not about the notes, he explained, it’s about the emotions behind them.

“How do you describe the color orange to someone?” Rodriguez said, his tone warm yet flat. “How do you describe the taste of salt to someone who’s never tasted salt? You don’t know that you’re there until you’re there. You don’t know what it feels like until you feel it.”

Rodriguez, 25, has been lauded for his tremendous sense of harmony and virtuosity across piano, drums, bass and whatever else he feels like playing any given week. He can hold his own at a psychedelic free jazz show in Brooklyn, a stadium-size rap concert in Los Angeles, a stately supper-club gig on the Upper West Side. “He’s what we call auxiliary,” Ndegeocello said in a phone interview. “He plays everything.”

On “Evergreen,” out Friday on Verve Records, Rodriguez funnels sounds into a 40-minute collage of electric-acoustic arrangements steeped equally in tradition and disruption, convention and audacity coming through in big, clean sound seemingly inspired by 1970s jazz fusion. It’s a sharp detour from “Let Sound Tell All,” Rodriguez’s 2022 debut album, which was indebted to the jazz and gospel he grew up playing in churches and small clubs.

Long before Rodriguez burst onto the New York jazz scene, he was a precocious kid in Westchester. When he was 3 or 4, he took piano lessons from a family friend, Audrey McCallum, the first Black student to attend the Peabody Preparatory, who gave Rodriguez his first keyboard and encouraged his parents to buy a piano. “At the same time, I’m learning about tempo and time signatures, how to read music on a staff, and where the notes are on a piano,” he said. “All that while learning how to read and write English.”

At age 6 or 7, Rodriguez began taking formal piano lessons from John Senakwami, a piano and vocal instructor, and a luminary in Rodriguez’s hometown. One lesson a week became two, then a few more, then just about every day. “When I first met Julius, it wasn’t his skill that I noticed, it was how hard he worked,” Senakwami said in a phone interview. “He would take it upon himself to do a lot of research and come up with things that you didn’t teach him.”

Rodriguez’s diligence was also fashioned by his parents. His father, Adlher, would play Thelonious Monk CDs as he drove his son to jazz gigs in the city. “On the weekend, we would go to Jazz at Lincoln Center to see the orchestra, and eventually my dad started taking me to jam sessions to sit in with people,” Rodriguez said. “We would do 1 a.m. jam sessions when I was 11, 12, 13 years old.”

He played his first show as a bandleader — at 14 — at Miles’ Cafe in Midtown Manhattan after the promoter booked him from an email sign-up form. Rodriguez posted fliers and invited people to the gig. “That’s a very ambitious thing to do as a 14-year-old, but my parents would let me do it because I’d made it happen,” Rodriguez said. “I got to see how the business side of it worked, how to get a certain number of people to show up, how much money you make out of it.”

As a freshman at the Masters School — still a “big jazz nerd” by his own admission — he discovered artists like James Blake and Chance the Rapper, “all the things I just wasn’t exposed to,” through a playlist of musicians set to play Governors Ball that year. Then he went to the festival and was blown away.

“It was the first time that I saw live musicians playing in front of crowds that big,” Rodriguez said. “I was used to going to jazz clubs, you know, the 60-seater, maybe a hundred, 150 at the most. For me to see huge crowds and people playing instruments live, doing what I wanted to do and touching that many people of my demographic and age, it was kind of eye opening. So I stopped being close minded to new music or popular music. I thought, ‘Let me try and absorb this and figure out what’s there and what I can do to be part of that as well.’”

Rodriguez had been a student at Juilliard for two years, playing in places like Smalls and Zinc Bar, when friends in the group Onyx Collective invited him to hit the road in 2018 as part of the backing band for ASAP Rocky’s tour.

The gig lasted two months; Rodriguez went back to Juilliard for a week before dropping out. “It was an opportunity I really wanted to capitalize on, and I really wanted to focus on having a career,” Rodriguez said.

In 2019, he started recording “Let Sound Tell All,” which included a fierce session with Morgan Guerin, a multi-instrumentalist, on the song “Two Way Street.” The engineer Daniel Schlett posted a clip from the studio to Instagram, using it to playfully nudge the Verve president, Jamie Krents, to consider signing Rodriguez. “I was like, ‘You definitely need to check this kid out,’” Schlett said in a phone interview. “‘This is the best piano player in New York. Don’t you guys need the best piano player in New York on your record label?’”

Dahlia Ambach Caplin, the senior vice president of A&R at Verve, who signed Rodriguez based on the recommendation and after listening to his music, called him “truly, truly brilliant in every setting, which is highly unusual.”

“Evergreen” has surprising moments even for someone of Rodriguez’s nonconformity. With just an acoustic guitar loop and bright synth chords, the track “Rise and Shine” evokes early ’70s Stevie Wonder albums like “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book,” on which Wonder centered the clavinet and Moog synthesizers. Another track, “Run to It,” is a brassy New Orleans-focused tune meant for second-line celebrations. “Mission Statement,” the lead single on the album, features upper-register synths and bouncy electronic drums that make it feel as breezy and jovial as the score of an old Sega Genesis video game.

Then there’s “Champion’s Call,” a riotous concluding track featuring the rapper, singer and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow. Against cascading drums and keys, Muldrow repeats the song’s title, turning it into a mantra for Rodriguez’s life and career. It’s a fitting rallying cry for a young artist with expansive aspirations.

“What makes this record forward pushing is that, yes, I leave space open, but I have all these instruments,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not just the jazz guy. It’s not just acoustic music. The definition of an evergreen is a plant whose foliage remains functional in all seasons. With all the different genres on the record, it’s still my voice, still me doing myself.”

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