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Rodrigo y Gabriela: "With any kind of cover we play, we make it our own just by the fact that we play it with two guitars"

Rodrigo y Gabriela
(Image credit: Camila Jurado)

Rodrigo y Gabriela don’t consider themselves jazz heads – or even jazz guitarists. However, the guitar duo can’t think of a time when the genre didn’t influence them. 

“I love listening to it,” Rodrigo says. “I have a few friends [who are] serious jazz players, and they recommend bands. I own a couple of restaurants and I love jazz being played in the background.”

During the past two decades, Rodrigo y Gabriela have seemingly run the gauntlet of musical styles, from flamenco to heavy metal. But they’ve recently taken their love for jazz to the next level, with the release of the aptly named Jazz EP. It features covers of three songs that have stuck in their heads of late, opening with a spirited rendition of Kamasi Washington’s Street Fighter Mas. They became fans after hearing the saxophonist’s 2018 album, Heaven and Earth.

“We decided to work on that song while we were in Chicago having dinner at these great vegan restaurants on Michigan Avenue,” Rodrigo says. “Suddenly that Kamasi track came on in, and we found ourselves really grooving with the song… I said, ‘We should record this one’ – but we didn’t know we were going to put out a jazz EP at the time. We just wanted to record it.”

They enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to expand the project, adding a cover of Snarky Puppy’s Lingus to the mix. After becoming a Snarky Puppy fan in 2019, Rodrigo initially decided on a whim to cover the song on his own as a bit of a joke. Finding the song to be fairly accessible – he admits that jazz sometimes overwhelms him because of its complexity – he brought it to Gabriela, who shared his enthusiasm for the song.

To round out the EP, they selected Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. Their version features contributions from flamenco-guitar legend Vicente Amigo. “Oblivion isn’t really a jazz piece, but I thought the solo was at some point,” Rodrigo says.

Despite not being jazz players, they wanted to put their signature on songs they loved while respecting and honoring the structure and essence of the original versions.

“With any kind of cover we play, we try to recreate kind of the same defined structure, respecting the solos done so far,” Rodrigo says.

“I think we make it our own just by the fact that we played it with two guitars… We added more instruments, but it’s still based on guitars and on all the things we could actually play live. For us it’s really paying tribute to the music that inspires us to keep going and to make us feel… that we can share this language with the artists we consider a very important part of our growth as musicians.”

One of the biggest hurdles was finding a way to transcribe all the different instruments and sections of the original songs.

“It’s difficult to transcribe everything they do, especially if you don’t read it [or] speak the language of jazz,” Rodrigo says.

“We needed to learn a lot and to use more than our ears, because I use my ears to understand, since I don’t read music. So I listen to the song a lot, and then I just play it. I just pick it up by ear and I start to get the sounds right. Then you start just learn-ing the chops for the guitar. We were just jamming along and trying to come up with the right sound.”

For example, on Lingus, Rodrigo found it difficult to capture the keyboard solo on guitar. Initially, he thought about cutting it out entirely and replacing it with something else. However, after a few days of tinkering, the revised solo started coming together. 

“After the first four bars came out, I said, ‘I think I can do eight bars,’ and then it was like, ‘Well, I think I can do 12 bars’,” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, maybe I can do half the solo; I can just get the best solo’, but then I just said, ‘Fuck it, then I’m going to do the whole thing’… When I hear that track now, and I hear everything we did, how we really transcribed all the music, I said, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ It was a big, massive challenge, musically speaking, for us to record that track – and we’re happy.”

A variety of guitars – including a nine-string Yamaha, a ’57 Fender lap steel, and a ’67 Jaguar – helped them recreate the notes of the originals’ instruments such as trumpet, saxophone and keyboards. Rodrigo estimates they used 10 different guitars, although he admits he lost count. Lap steel was particularly important on Street Fighter Mas and Lingus.

“I used the lap steel in the Kamasi track, miming the trumpet, because it was the only thing I found that could give me the very long notes that the trumpet in that solo uses,” Rodrigo says.

Despite the complex and lengthy nature of the EP’s songs, Rodrigo y Gabriela hope to perform them live in some form.

“Since we don’t have a band that we can use to play all the parts, we can’t really cover everything on our own,” he says. “But we will do some versions that can be suit-able, and we can put a couple of references to the tracks.”

They’re also open to collaborating with the three artists they covered on the EP. They’ve already discussed potentially collaborating with Kamasi, who seems keen to the idea. “Kamasi likes to contribute a lot with other musicians. The same with the others,” Rodrigo says. “So I’m sure at some point we’ll do something.” 

They’re also eager to play music from their next album, which they’ve worked on during their unexpected free time off the road the past year.

“We are happy because the demos are sounding great, and they are giving us a lot of new ideas,” Rodrigo says.

“And I wouldn’t say it’s a continuation, like a second part of Mettavolution [Rodrigo y Gabriela’s 2019 album]. I say it’s all in the same line, but it’s much more concrete. Mettavolution was a departure from the previous album, 9 Dead Alive [2014], and pretty much all we had done until then. And this is the natural evolution from the new sound, and we are pretty excited.”

  • The Jazz EP is out now via ATO Records.