Jazz Concert Review: Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba at Jordan Hall By Steve Elman

By Steve Elman

FEBRUARY 18, 2018















As far as I can determine, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock never toured together, but they did perform in a two-piano format several times from 1982 into the mid-1980s. Those meetings of two mighty technicians from different jazz generations must have been something to hear – as a concert recording available on YouTube demonstrates.

Since then, although there have been many piano-duo performances and recordings, nothing on that level of piano virtuosity has been achieved . . . until now. Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are currently touring together, and, much as Oscar and Herbie did, they provide listeners with a cross-generational keyboard conversation that defies belief. Except that this duo may be even more mind-boggling than the earlier one.

Being present for their concert in Jordan Hall on February 17, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, allows me to assure anyone who wasn’t there that hearing them in this tour (dubbed “Trance”) is an experience to remember. So, do not wait for a recording, because hearing these two pianists in three dimensions could never be duplicated electronically. If they come to your town (see “More” below), run to the box office.

Just as it was with the Peterson-Hancock partnership, the technical standards in this one are set by the elder pianist, and the younger player rises to the challenge admirably. By that measure alone, I think that this one comes to the finish line a nose ahead of the earlier combination. It may be that Peterson, whose ability remains legendary, could match Valdés note for note, but I can’t prove it. I heard Chucho play things at Jordan Hall that seemed to define the limits of what a human being can do with those hammers and strings. His arpeggios were so fast and clean, his two-hand independence so masterful, his imagination so unrestrained, his very sound on the instrument so powerful, that I, and many others in the audience, were gasping in astonishment. I’ve never previously been at a concert where standing ovations began after the second tune, but it happened at Jordan.

When a master like Valdés (who’ll turn 77 in October) is in the house, it would be hubris for any other pianist to try for a throw-down on the technical level. Rubalcaba (who’ll be 55 in May) is too canny a musician for that. What he brings to the stage, in addition to technique that would scare most living pianists, is the harmonic ingenuity of the post-modal generation. He was born in the same year as Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, and Marcus Roberts. Like them, he grew up knowing Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett as the standard-bearers of the last third of the twentieth century. He absorbed and incorporated the musical language they helped to create into his own way of playing. Whereas Valdés, like Peterson, always strives for harmonic resolution at the end of a line of thought, no matter how baroque and dense the previous decorations, Rubalcaba allows dissonances to hang in the air. He colors chords that should resolve things consonantly with a note or two that adds emotional ambiguity. When I heard his trio in a concert at the Cambridge Multi-Cultural Arts Center more than a decade ago, he was even more harmonically original than he was at Jordan Hall, so it’s clear that in this context he’s actually holding himself back.

What defines the core and the originality of the “Trance” concerts can be expressed in a single word: Cuba. Both men were born in Havana, both are the sons of Cuban musical legends, and both are steeped in the musical traditions of their homeland, where even the most junior keyboard player is expected to know the rhythms and motifs of charanga, montuno, mambo and salsa as a matter of course. The music they played at Jordan was not self-consciously “Afro-Latin.” Instead, it was Afro-Latin at its very soul. Even the slowest passages had a gentle dance pulse. A tiny feint towards a familiar rhythm by one pianist produced an immediate rhythmic shift in the other. And unlike pianists who work exclusively in the jazz tradition, they provided two extended passages of pure rhythm, where they repeated the kind of unison figures that might underpin a percussion solo from the timbalero or conguero in a Latin band, building intensity and volume until the two pianos were drums themselves.

No repertoire was announced from the stage, but that courtesy wasn’t really necessary, since the entire evening was built on improvisational interplay rather than song interpretation. It seemed to me that the first tune was a Rubalcaba original, with chordal shifts on the bar like “Giant Steps.” The second tune, a jazz standard, had a tiny theme statement from Rubalcaba, so fast that I barely had time to recognize it, much less name it. There were three tunes with distinctly Cuban flavor, one of which may have been by Valdés, since he led it off, quoting Chopin and “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” There were two solo features – Valdés providing a version of “Over the Rainbow” that was thick as cheesecake, and Rubalcaba with what sounded like another of his tunes, this one a lovely lyrical counterpoint to the older pianist’s feature. And there was an encore of the Juan Tizol – Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” bringing it back home to its Latin roots.

Was there too much of a good thing? Possibly. After an hour of complex interplay, even in the solo features, I began to hope for a still moment when both players would pull back to give us some spare thoughts, with a few seconds of air between the notes. In other concerts, I understand that they have played “Blue Monk,” and that tune may provide more of an opportunity to hear space as well as sound.

But that’s just a quibble. It was supposed to be an evening of sheer virtuosity, and that’s what it was. When the music ended, as they acknowledged the audience’s enthusiasm with warm smiles, the camaraderie and affection they showed toward each other sent nearly everyone into the night with a glow.


Upcoming dates in the “Trance” tour:

February 23: Symphony Center, Chicago
March 7: Konzerthaus, Vienna
March 10: Kölner Philharmonie, Köln [Cologne], Germany
March 13: Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Germany
March 15: Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow
March 19: National Auditorium, Madrid
March 20: Teatro Lope de Vega, Sevilla, Spain
March 24: Teatro Creberg, Bergamo, Italy
June 15: JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.

Live in Armenia – Yerevan Jazz Fest 2017 – Gracias!









London jazz festival/Barbican Hall – The Guardian – Cuban wizards conjure a pulsating piano stampede –

London jazz festival/Barbican Hall
This wonderfully well-matched pair laid on an evening of dreamy improv that underlined the festival’s eclecticism and earned them a rapturous ovation

etween Friday morning’s opening shows and the arrival of Cuban piano maestros Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba at the Barbican on Saturday afternoon, some 40 events of the EFG London jazz festival’s 2017 programme had already hurtled by, with 300 or more still due in the coming days in venues all over the city. Valdés and Rubalcaba are in the league of stars with roots in both African and western tradition – able to thrill listeners anywhere, regardless of background or expectation – that this now huge and eclectic festival has been consistently pulling for 25 years. But the LJF has also nourished newcomers, music education, cultural fluidity and the understanding that jazz is buzzing somewhere every night, not just for 10 days in London. The standing ovation for Valdés and Rubalcaba felt like gratitude for that, as well as for the two Cubans’ immensely vivacious show.

Over two decades separate Valdés, the towering 76-year-old father figure of modern Cuban jazz, and the slight and nimble Rubalcaba. But the younger man is a virtuoso of comparable flair and drive – and there lay an absorbing contrast between Valdés’ rugged, drumlike sound and Rubalcaba’s blend of a softer touch and diamond-bright precision. They opened their single-set duet on two facing Steinways in dreamy rumination; Rubalcaba stoked the embers into a flame with silvery runs over a gathering groove, before they sprinted simultaneously into a polyphonic swinger that built to the first of the show’s slam-stop climaxes. Valdés then introduced a dancing Cuban son pulse, Rubalcaba teased it with banging chords and a churning left-hand vamp, and the two played a long double-taking game on various potential endings. They steered a quiet meditation towards a jazz waltz into which Rubalcaba neatly spliced Chopin’s Op 64 No 1, turned a playfully strutting chordal theme into a slinkier tango with Flight of the Bumblebee muttering through it, returning eventually to their signature collective-swing stampede.

If the show had a flaw, it was only that this pair’s astonishing virtuosity and the nowhere-to-hide exposure of a two-piano improv eventually brought overfamiliarity to those story arcs. But an encore on the Duke Ellington classic Caravan, introduced by Rubalcaba drumming on his piano, loosely sketched by Valdés at first and then turned breezily into salsa, was a masterful and a consummately musical gem.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Igor Butman Live in Russia!… Gracias!

Photos by Павел Корбут (Pavel Korbut)

Bösendorfer Factory – Viena 2017

I want to thank Bösendorfer for all their support, love and dedication. I want to introduce you to the new generation of the Vienna Concert 280. Really amazing! Thank you Mira and Ferdinand for these wonderful days……

Visit the Bösendorfer Website!

Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Pedrito Martinez Live! in San Francisco 2017 – Gracias!

Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba Asian Tour 2017 – Gracias!

Live in Havana 2017 – Recorded in Surround Sound by Jim Anderson – Gracias!


CHUCHO VALDES ET GONZALO RUBALCABA – STS Evenements (L.3-1083215) présente

LE LUNDI 20/11/2017 À 20H30  –  LA SEINE MUSICALE  – BOULOGNE BILLANCOURT –***ouverture des portes à 19h30***

Il y a peu de duos de pianos dans l’histoire du jazz et des musiques afro-caribéennes. L’exercice présente le risque de la surenchère de notes, de l’empiètement intempestif, d’une écoute de l’autre insuffisante. Dans ce mikado passionnant qui unit deux protagonistes et 176 touches réparties égalitairement sur deux claviers, les élus doivent être humbles, inspirés et respectueux. C’est à ce prix là que la rencontre peut s’avérer magique. Tel est le but poursuivi par deux maîtres du piano, deux étoiles incontestables du latin jazz : Chucho Valdés et Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Comme son titre le laisse deviner, « Trance » est une collaboration profondément liée aux forces spirituelles qui traversent la musique. Le titre évoque également l’art de la conversation musicale que possèdent ces deux improvisateurs et compositeurs dont l’amitié -et l’admiration mutuelle- remontent à plusieurs décennies.

Plus connu sans doute pour avoir été le fondateur, leader et compositeur/arrangeur du célèbre groupe de jazz-rock afro-cubain Irakere, Chucho Valdés s’est depuis 2005 concentré sur sa carrière solo, révélant ses talents de pianiste et de meneur de petits ensembles. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, qui a grandi en écoutant Chucho, a fait irruption sur la scène jazz internationale dans les années 80 avec Grupo Proyecto, un groupe de jazz-fusion afro-cubain explosif. Au début des années 90, ses performances époustouflantes en tant que meneur d’un trio mettant en scène le contrebassiste Charlie Haden et le batteur Paul Motian l’ont établi parmi les pianistes de jazz les plus inspirés. Par ailleurs, ses duos avec le contrebassiste précité figurent parmi les bijoux les mieux ciselés du jazz moderne, salués encore récemment par la critique.

« Notre duo entretient une relation historique avec la tradition cubaine du piano, fait remarquer Chucho ; c’est ce qui donne à ce projet quelque chose de très particulier, tel un son qui a émergé naturellement, organiquement. Nos deux pianos jouent déjà comme un seul. »
De son côté, Gonzalo ajoute qu’« il aurait été facile de prendre quelques classiques et de les interpréter, mais nous voulions quelque chose de spécial. Nous écrivons tous deux de la musique pour piano et aimons réinventer des airs qui vont des succès populaires et classiques du répertoire cubain à la musique de Thelonious Monk. »

Ce duo de seigneurs est présenté en exclusivité et pour la première fois en France à l’auditorium de La Seine Musicale.

Gonzalo Live in Russia!

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