Whether or not you believe in fate, there are some pairings that just seem preordained. Consider Osiris (Ozzy) Molina and Adonis Gonzalez-Matos, who met in 2018 when Molina MGSA’96, a clarinetist, was looking for a pianist to accompany him on a CD of Cuban music. As it happens, Molina, a professor of clarinet at the University of Alabama, was judging a national competition for high school musicians when he heard Gonzalez-Matos MGSA’07, a professor of piano at Alabama State and a Grammy and Latin Grammy nominee, serving as an accompanist. Molina was impressed by Gonzalez-Matos’s polished classical style. “I thought he was wonderful,” Molina says.
He went backstage to compliment Gonzalez-Matos, and the coincidences began to pile up. As soon as Molina heard the pianist’s accent, he realized they shared a Cuban connection. While Molina was a first-generation American, his parents and older sister had been born in Cuba, as had Gonzalez-Matos. And then there was the fact that both musicians had ended up in Alabama—far afield of their birthplaces in Santiago de Cuba and Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Thanks to a University of Alabama exchange program, Molina had developed a familiarity with Cuba during six weeklong visits, made over the course of a decade, which felt more like a series of homecomings than journeys to a foreign land. On his initial trip, for example, he was instantly struck by the familiar sound of Cuban Spanish. “It was the timbre of the voices, the way they spoke, that just reminded me of everyone I knew growing up,” he says.
There, Molina made connections with clarinet players and composers while visiting the storied conservatory Instituto Superior de Arte, on the site of a former country club. It was an eye-opening experience: “The old country club gate is now manned by guys with AK-47 rifles,” Molina says. “And the musicians practice on the greens and sand traps of the former golf course.” But the caliber of their musicianship was startlingly high. He quickly determined that most of the extraordinary music he was encountering was written for clarinet and piano, so if he wanted to play or record it, he’d need to find a pianist fluent in the Cuban style.
And yet more coincidences: while growing up in Cuba, Gonzalez-Matos had studied classical piano before moving to the United States in 1997, at the conservatory Molina had visited numerous times, receiving his bachelor’s degree in piano performance in 1995. He also played the very style of Cuban piano that Molina was seeking out. “It’s rhythmically solid; it’s confident and aggressive,” Molina says of the music that Gonzalez-Matos absorbed through what he describes as a kind of cultural osmosis. “For me,” Gonzalez-Matos says, “it’s second nature. There’s a flavor that you acquire from being born in Cuba or listening to a lot of the music.” In fact, in his solo, mostly classical, performances, he usually throws in a few Cuban pieces, and for many years he played in the states with Paquito D’Rivera, the legendary Cuban-American saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer.
A scarlet connection
Two final coincidences emerged: Both men had lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and both had studied at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts—Molina as an undergraduate double majoring in music education and clarinet performance and Gonzalez-Matos as a doctoral student in piano performance. For the young pianist, Rutgers struck just the right chord, not only for its excellent professors but also for its proximity to New York City, where he took evening courses in conducting at The Julliard School. For Molina, who had always planned to go to school in his home state, Rutgers was simply at the top of his list, and he calls his choice “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” Rutgers, he notes, “prepared me wonderfully for the next stage of my career.”
Hitting all the right notes
Given all their commonalities—not to mention their award-winning musical talents—neither had any doubts about working together. And it should surprise no one that their work together felt, as Gonzalez-Matos calls it, “symbiotic.”
Their CD, on the Blue Griffin label, is expected to drop in December. It spans a wide variety of contemporary Cuban styles, from Latin jazz to Western classical to Cuban folk, and its title—Cuba, Alabama—is both a play on an actual town in Alabama and a reflection of the coincidences that brought them together in a most improbable place. Gonzalez-Matos refers to their collaboration as “a no-brainer.”
Some might even call it preordained.