Alfredo Rodriguez makes his Berkeley debut on Sunday at Hertz Hall

As Cuba’s latest piano sensation, Alfredo Rodríguez knows he’s walking in exalted company. A graduate of the Manuel Saumell Conservatory, the same Havana institution that launched Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Manuel Valera, Rodriguez found out early on that prodigious talent could be a passport to an illustrious musical career.

“Knowing that Gonzalo had gone there, it’s a very big deal,” says Rodríguez, 26, from his home in Los Angeles. “In the school, they just teach classical music. It’s on the street that you play popular music and discover jazz. In my case, I love classical music and jazz too. Improvisation is the most important thing to me in the music. It’s my passion.”

Rodríguez makes his Berkeley debut Sunday when Cal Performances presents his solo recital at Hertz Hall. While he often tours with a trio the pianist is completely at home alone at the keyboard, a setting that allows him to fully explore his virtuosic technique and boundless imagination.

Even with his prodigious talent, Rodríguez never imagined that he would rocket to international acclaim so quickly. The journey started when he earned a spot as one of 12 international pianists featured at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Quincy Jones, whose track record as a prescient talent scout dates back more than half a century, happened to catch his set, and made it his business to unleash Rodríguez upon the world.

It took several years, but Jones helped the pianist leave Cuba and settle in the US. In addition to giving him his imprimatur (Rodríguez’s shows are often billed as “Quincy Jones Presents”), Jones has composed music with the pianist, and used his considerable influence to land him the highest profile gigs, including the South by Southwest, Monterey, Playboy, and Newport Jazz Festivals.

Rodríguez discovered jazz at 15, when his uncle gave him Keith Jarrett’s classic solo piano album “The Köln Concert” (ECM). Drawn in by Jarrett’s obvious classical training, he was seduced by the spontaneous flow of ideas sustained throughout the course of a long recital.

“The difference was he was improvising all the time,” Rodríguez says. “I said this is another world. I told myself I’m going to start to do that stuff. We often cannot speak about love or sadness. He’s doing whatever he feels. I want to do that.”

Bay Area raised, Brooklyn-based bassist/composer Todd Sickafoose returns to the East Bay for a gig Friday at the Jazzschool with his loose aggregation known as Tiny Resistors. Featuring the galvanizing pianist Myra Melford and trumpeter Ara Anderson, the band’s latest incarnation explores Sickafoose’s undulating anthems, which combine elastic grooves with long, engagingly episodic melodies.

An impressive cast of poets and musicians come together on Sunday at La Peňa to raise funds for a wheelchair accessible van for Avotcja, the poet, musician, DJ, and longtime muse to an expansive community of improvisers. As Linda Tillery wrote in her liner notes to the album “Live at Yoshi’s,” Avotcja delivers “rapid fire words of truth woven skillfully through a musical tapestry of sometimes gut bucket blues, sometimes jazz at the edge.” Sunday’s concert features the Bay Area Blues Society, the Musical Art Quintet, Genny Lim, Tasha Kame, Umoja, Pablo Rosales, Little Brown Brother with vocalist Myrna Del Rio, Manny Martinez, Hector Lugo, and Avotcja & Modúpue, her Afro-Caribbean-inflected band with violinist Sandi Poindexter, vibraphonist Yancie Taylor, Nigerian-born bassist Babá Ken Okulolo, and Val Serrant, a steel pan player and traditional African drummer from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....