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Gonzalo Rubalcaba: More Than Virtuosity by Peter Monagham Earshot Jazz November 2004

Make no mistake: few jazz pianists, today, or at any earlier time, could hold a candle to the brilliant Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s gigantic virtuosity. But, speaking from his home in Florida, the soft-spoken, thoughtful pianist says that he wishes critics would not be so fixated on that aspect of his playing. Jazz fans, he notes, have welcomed his music. “There have been many people supporting what I’m doing, people in connection with my career, looking for the next album, the next step,” he says. Their reaction, in his estimation from the bandstands and stages, has been to his music, in all its facets. “But on the professional side, with writers and critics – this is not true of everybody – but part of that professional side is that they’ve been insisting too much – this is my opinion – there has been too much emphasis on virtuosity, which is just part of my personality or my training or my development. It is not everything.” “It’s a delicate point,” he continues, “because there are a lot of people who really believe what the critics say, people who have the chance to see a bigger spectrum, not only about myself, but about musicians, in general. The references that people get from critics and writers have been very limited.” He wishes critics would better explicate his music in part because that might put it in better cultural context, he says. That cause was not helped, he says, by the attention that was given in the early 1990s to the outstanding Cuban musicians who were marketed as the Buena Vista Social Club. Says Rubalcaba: “We had to clarify to people that this is not the only side of Cuban music of the last 30 to 40 years. We’re talking about a moment – those musicians used to be famous in Cuba in the ’40s and ’50s.” Don’t get him wrong, he says. “I respect them a lot. 1know a lot of them, I learned from them since I was a teenager in Cuba. Many are friends of my family, especially of my father” (Guillermo, a well-known pianist, too). “But we have to say that they are not part of the contemporary life in Cuba, right now. “So, I see some disconnection in the last 40-50 years of the real evolution of Cuban music, in terms of what people outside of Cuba know about the music in Cuba. “The point is that sometimes when that audience followed Buena Vista and other popular things that became popular outside ofCuba, they don’t find any connection with what you [as in, musicians like him] do with Cuba. Sometimes they think you’re not even Cuban.”


One element of his music that both critics and audiences can miss, due to this lack of context, he says, is its spirituality. “I was influenced by a lot of Cuban folklore and all the music uses it in rituals. Everything in connection with AfroCuban music is totally in connection with AfroCuban religion.” Folklore and other religion-linked cultural forms “are things I have been listening to since I was a little kid,” he says. “When I went to school – and at home also – I heard all kinds of popular music to dance to.  And finally, I discovered jazz music” He says: “Those were the platforms, the first references that I had as a human being, in my life.” He suspects that it was much easier for Americans to relate to Cuba before the Revolution, and the U.S. embargo. Then, cultural commerce between Cuba and the U.S. was extensive. Thanks to that, jazz was well-known in Cuba during Rubalcaba’s childhood. He became keen on it at about the age of 12, he recalls. “At home we had some old recordings of Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Bud Powell, and Erroll Garner. Cuba has been in contact with jazz for a long time. Many Cuban musicians have been involved in a relationship with that musical idiom.” As a young man, he recalls, he avidly followed such players’ careers, and attended their performances. “A few people around me at school, older than me, were already improvising. And I found out that it was the perfect musical space to do some stuff with total freedom. I was very motivated by this.” At music school, he was thoroughly trained in many aspects of popular and Classical music. He possessed, already, the rhythmic command that is such a huge part of the Cuban musical ethos. That, thanks to early studies in both drums and piano. “Everyone involved in music should know a little bit about rhythm,” he suggests. At classical school, they force the students as part of the program to get piano as a complementary instrument. It should be the same with the percussion or rhythm stuff, because it definitely gives musicians more independence not only to know about harmonies, or phrases, or whatever. It’s also good to get into the rhythmic, complex conception, and I had that opportunity, and I think I brought that to my music, to my composing. “As a piano player, I feel totally in connection with what is happening in the rhythm part of the band, especially because I was a drummer.” On the drums, “you have to use your whole body to play,” he says. “The piano is also an instrument where you have to have good concentration in different lines, in different things at the same time, your arms, your legs… It’s like a small orchestra. You have to combine everything, taking into consideration accent, dynamics, everything.” And of course, he adds, “the piano is in some ways part of the percussion family. So we are not talking about two instruments that are far away from each other.”


Rubalcaba left Cuba in 1990, settling first in the Dominican Republic, then in Coral Springs, Florida, in 1996. His arrival in the U.S. was not free of contention. “There was some political reaction from a few Cuban people, part of the Cuban community. They reacted because they speculated about my leaving Cuba, saying I was in connection with the Cuban government, whatever. All kinds of crazy stuff that they used to say.” Despite that, he says, his memories of coming to the U.S. are happy ones. “I had a very warm reception from the American audiences, and that included from some Latin people in the audiences, too.” From musicians, too. “That was the beginning of my close relationship with people like Herbie [Hancock], Chick Corea, Paul Motian, Ron Carter, and there were many others. I was in touch already with Charlie Haden, since the first time he went to Cuba. Also Dizzy Gillespie, when we went to Cuba in 1994. People like Joe Lovano, too. I have a great memory about that.” Naturally, he misses Cuba. “We’re talking socially about two different countries,” he says. “The politics and the economy and social structure in Cuba are totally different from what we experience here in the United States.” But Cuba is different from the whole rest of the world, he says. ”I’m not saying that the way people live there is good or bad. It’s just different, with some positive stuff, and many things that never became what people in Cuba believed in at the beginning of the revolution.” There are “points that should be analyzed and changed,” he diplomatically notes. As a Cuban I would definitely like to see Cuban people have more opportunity to decide, simple things, to decide at any moment that you want to go to Cuba. You could decide to take a plane and go there. This is something that is very simple,  but we cannot practice it in that way.” That is a crucial matter, he says, “because we have family there; our roots are there: we were born there. I think this is not even a privilege; it’s a right.” But, he says, “this is just a side of the big complex Cuban problem. It makes you sometimes feel frustrated, to feel unable to make decisions about your own life as a Cuban.” He foresees a time when relations will be normalized. Then, the most important renewed exchange, he believes, will be cultural – artistic. “This is something that we have lost, unfortunately. And it’s probably the most important side”

Jazz Magazine-Italy-Sempre oltre i codici della musica


di Gian Franco Grilli

Su un vecchio numero di Musica Jazz ho letto che hai suonato, tra gli altri, con Los Van Van, Irakere e addirittura con Benny Moré. È vero?

Grazie per l’opportunità di correggere. Benny Moré è morto nel 1963, tre mesi prima della mia nascita; con Irakere non ho mai lavorato, mentre ho suonato con Los Van Van all’inizio del 1980, quando Juan Formell – il direttore della band – mi chiamò per sostituire temporaneamente César «Pupi» Pedroso, il tastierista del gruppo che si era infortunato. Giacché si parla di orchestre di musica ballabile, nel 1983 ho fatto parte dell’Orquesta Arag6n nella tournée in Congo e Zaire, con un salto anche a Parigi, interpretando pezzi di Rafael Lay e Richard EgOes, cha cha cha, danzan, bolero, guaracha, mozancha molto noti in Africa. Agli inizi ho condiviso un gruppo con Isaac Delgado, ho partecipato con José L. Cortés, German Velazco e altri ad alcune registrazioni di son moderno uscite a Cuba dall’Egrem con il nome Nueva Generaci6n. Inoltre ho inciso alcuni brani nei dischi del dominicano Juan Luis Guerra.

Ti destreggiavi con la tradizione dei ritmi afrocubani, ma il jazz? Era già il tuo linguaggio principale? Puoi farci un piccolo ritratto dalle origini?

Diciamo che vengo da una famiglia di musicisti. Mio nonno Jacobo era un famoso danzonero e mio padre Guillermo ha suonato il pianoforte per vent’anni con Enrique Jorrin, l’ideatore del cha cha cha, poi quando lasciò l’orchestra formò una band di famiglia, El Combo Los Rubalcaba, e io cominciai a suonare musica popolare nei cabaret e alla tv cubana. Lì ho avuto la possibilità di sviluppare il concetto dell’improvvisazione jazz che poi ho coltivato anche altrove, suonando la batteria. Infatti a metà dei Settanta, come batterista, creai Da Capo, un gruppo sperimentale tra latin jazz e fusion (mi rifacevo a Irakere), e con quello partecipai ai primissimi Jazz Festival all’Avana.

…quindi si inizia con la batteria e si finisce al pianoforte. Com’è successo anche a illustri tuoi connazionali: Emiliano Salvador, Omar Sosa e altri. Cosa c’è dietro?

Prima di rispondere tengo a ricordare che ho studiato contemporaneamente percussione e pianoforte. Sì, è un fenomeno curioso, quello di passare dalle pelli ai tasti, e oltre ai nomi citati puoi aggiungere Chick Corea, dalla batteria al pianoforte, mentre Jack DeJohnette fa il percorso inverso. lo penso che questo cambio sia dettato da necessità espressive: il pianoforte offre possibilità melodiche, ritmiche e armoniche senza eguali negli altri strumenti, e credo anche che questi strumentisti avessero in nuce la vocazione del compositore. Nel mio caso – anche se non pratico gli strumenti a percussione – continuano a crescere in me idee percussive che proietto sulla tastiera. L’evoluzione metrica, ritmica, le elaborazioni si svolgono mentalmente nella musica che si fa.

Quali sono stati i maestri della percussione che adoravi?

Erano diversi, ma i nomi più rappresentativi sono stati il multipercussionista José Luis «Changuito» Quintana, lo scomparso Daniel Diaz dell’Orquesta Ritmo Orientai (un timbalero molto innovativo soprattutto nella sonorità, con un set di percussioni molto particolare – timbales, cassa, rullante – e una fusione di stile nordamericano e afrocubano: in quel periodo quasi nessuno lavorava in quel modo), il conguero Tata GOines e il batterista Guillermo Barreto (ha suonato con l’Aragon). Questi erano per me i punti di riferimento più importanti.

E i tuoi idoli del jazz in generale?

Ho iniziato ad ascoltare Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, ma mi colpì il modo di suonare di Erroll Garner. Mi piaceva molto ascoltare altri strumenti e artisti come Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz e Dizzy Gillespie.

Dizzy è l’artista nordamericano che più di ogni altro ha dato dignità internazionale alla musica e ai musicisti di Cuba. Non credi che si meriterebbe un monumento o un parco pari almeno a quello riservato a John Lennon all’Avana?

Sono convinto che avrebbero dovuto farglielo, ancora prima della statua a Lennon, come riconoscimento non solo alla sua genialità musicale, ma all’intelligenza e sensibilità dimostrata a tutti i musicisti dell’America Latina. Gillespie nella sua band ha avuto sempre un musicista di origine latina: Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo, Ignacio Berroa, Danilo Pérez, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Giovanni Hidalgo, Lalo Schifrin, Claudio Roditi ecc. Ha sempre vissuto con l’inquietudine di conoscere e apprendere i codici che compongono la musica cubana, portoricana, argentina, panamense, brasiliana; voleva capirne gli elementi comuni, il suo progetto era quello di unire. E in questo senso una pietra miliare del suo lavoro è la United Nations Orchestra. lo Dizzy l’ho conosciuto quando stavo suonando al Cabaret Parisienne dell’Hotel Nacional dell’Avana, che era una sede distaccata del Festival 1985, e al termine dell’esibizione del mio gruppo venne sul palco e mi disse: «Sono Dizzy Gillespie, ti va di suonare con me domani?». Ovviamente accettai di andare con il mio Grupo Proyecto e così iniziò il nostro rapporto di amicizia e collaborazione.

Assieme a Irakere, negli anni Ottanta il Grupo Proyecto era l’eccellenza del jazz cubano, con uno stile originale che mescolava tradizione, elettronica, fusion. Hai mai pensato di riprendere quello scintillante progetto che hai portato in tutto il mondo e che ha fatto tappa anche in Italia?

È vero: ci siamo incontrati per un’intervista in una roulotte al Festival dell’Unità di Firenze, nel 1988, poi il concerto fu sospeso per maltempo. Di riunire il Proyecto non ho mai pensato, per la verità, anche perché i vari musicisti hanno preso diversi indirizzi e sono sparsi in giro per il mondo: Roberto Vizcafno vive in Messico, Felipe Cabrera in Francia, Reynaldo Milian a Cuba, Horacio «El Negro» Hernandez negli Stati Uniti, Julio Barreto (che sostituì El Negro) è in Svizzera e A breve credo non sia possibile, ma le vie del Signore .

La diaspora mi dà lo spunto per affrontare un argomento che cercai di sottoporre un paio di anni fa a un famoso musicista cubano, che si arrabbiò troncando l’intervista. Come si fa a mantenere la cubanità negli Stati Uniti, o in un altro paese, parlando inglese, mangiando, dormendo e sognando americano, non sentendo più il canto del gallo che ti svegliava all’Avana, la rumba di strada, i canti dei venditori? E tutto questo influisce nella musica?

Sono certo che incide nel nostro pensiero, e la musica ne risente. lo credo che perdiamo un po’ la quotidianità, ciò che accade ogni giorno, il funzionamento dell’intero quadro. È vero, non appartenere a un determinato ambiente sociale, ritmato in modo diverso, ti disconnette dal processo che definisce la cubanfa oggi, che è differente dalla cubanfa di quando ero piccolo. Quando ascolto qualcuno degli elementi del mondo che hai citato, per esempio la rumba callejera, in me si sprigionano emozioni e un’energia particolare, è un impatto forte che non sgorga, però, in un altro contesto, in un’altra realtà. Mi dai l’occasione di accennare alla diaspora: io prendo sempre l’esempio di Mario Bauza, che uscì da Cuba alla fine degli anni Venti (quando Fidel era appena nato) perché sentiva il bisogno di crescere soprattutto dal punto di vista professionale; a lui interessava vivere altre esperienze artistiche nel mondo, e sarebbe andato via con o senza Castro. C’è chi non ha varcato i confini e non uscirà mai da Cuba perché non è nei piani della sua vita.

Non è il tuo caso. Prima, un paio di anni a Santo Domingo; dal 1996 in Florida, dove i capi della comunità

cubana in esilio hanno boicottato i tuoi concerti, tempo addietro. Èvero? E ora, per essere accettato,

hai dovuto concedere qualcosa?

Alla prima domanda rispondo che è andata proprio così. Ma questo accade perché non si tiene conto che la mia (e quella successiva) è una generazione molto liberale, non appartiene a nessuna fazione politica, ama le cose equilibrate, una giustizia vera ma senza retorica, vuole che la gente possa esprimersi liberamente. E non si identifica con nessuna posizione estremista, un atteggiamento presente sia nel sud della Florida sia a Cuba. Quindi la nostra generazione ha dovuto far fronte a due problemi: a Cuba non poteva esercitare completamente questi diritti; a Miami trova qualcosa di analogo, non può dire tutto quello che vede, è una sorta di gioco degli specchi.

Insomma, tra incudine e martello.

Esattamente. A Cuba non vedevano di buon occhio un mio concerto a Miami, mentre qui i leader della comunità cubana hanno fatto di tutto per impedirlo. È stata una situazione complicata, ma poi ho acquisito la nazionalità americana (quella cubana non si perde), e comunque non sono mai sceso a compromessi per vivere in libertà la mia vita personale, pubblica e professionale. Èprobabile che questa mia equidistanza sia il fattore che infastidisce entrambi e francamente oggi non so se realmente sono accettato o meno in Florida, dove del resto non mi esibisco quasi mai: in dodici anni ci ho suonato tre volte.

Perché allora non hai deciso di trasferirti nella capitale del jazz?

Èvero che a New York ci sono più possibilità di accedere al mondo jazzistico, ma la mia scelta è di tipo unicamente familiare. Quando sono arrivato negli Stati Uniti avevo già una famiglia e dei bambini e mi sembrava difficile portarli a New York, con un tipo di vita più dura, a parte il clima. Non ho voluto esporre a un cambio così drastico i miei figli, il più grande dei quali è nato a Cuba, il secondo nella Repubblica Dominicana e la più piccola negli Stati Uniti.

Di movimenti significativi, invece, è costellata la tua vita artistica. Da Mozart ai Weather Report, dal danzan al bop, dal bolero jazz alla bossa, a John Lennon, e ora un’altra svolta. Cosa ti spinge a ibri ibridare il tuo pensiero con linguaggi sempre nuovi?

Non ho mai pensato ai generi musicali e non mi piace classificare la musica, perché ritengo che catalogare l’arte sia un aspetto più commerciale che creativo. Credo che il mercato – compresa a volte la musicologia tenda a fare categorie per la necessità di creare settori, tappe, periodi, tentare di spiegare il fenomeno e trovargli delle connessioni. Questo è un procedimento di ricerca e di analisi che non mi riguarda. Molto dipende da circostanze generali di vita: dalle persone con le quali ti confronti in un determinato periodo, cosa ricevi da quel rapporto, cosa leggi o studi, e ascolti.

Cosa ti ha spinto verso Richard Galliano? La voglia di confrontare le tue tradizioni fatte di danzan, habanera e tanqo-conqo con il jazz atipico di Richard che indaga tango, milonga e ehoro?

No, penso che gli artisti si cerchino senza volerlo, si chiamino, perché incontrano cose comuni. Questo progetto, raccolto nel Cd «Love Day», è il risultato di vari anni di lavoro individuale, dove ci sono vari elementi comuni a tutti noi: a me, a Richard, ma anche a Charlie Haden che vi suona il basso e a Mino Cinelu che suona le percussioni. Richard ha pensato ai musicisti che in questo momento ritiene più adatti per una certa direzione e sapeva che io, Charlie e Mino abbiamo lavorato sempre senza preconcetti e con differenti tipi di riferimenti culturali. Nel disco questo spirito viene fuori. Tutta la musica è composta da Galliano, con le influenze che lui ha ricevuto e i suoi punti di contatto con le varie musiche: la tradizione francese nell’ambito della fisarmonica, il tango argentino, i ritmi sudamericani, elementi della cultura francese passati a Cuba attraverso la contraddanza eccetera. Comunque questi sono incontri che fanno parte del destino.

Gian Franco Grilli

KEYBOARD Magazine Gonzalo Rubalcaba Redefines Jazz Piano

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Redefines Jazz Piano


Interview translated by Rebeca Mauleon-Santana

“This is only my second tour of the United States,” says Gonzalo Rubalcaba as we drive across San Francisco Bay. “We are just getting to know each other.” It’s astonishing to hear him say this – after all, he’s been amajor force in jazz piano and Cuban music for years. Ever since Discovery, his debut recording for Blue Note, it seems that all anyone can talk about is his phenomenal speed, articulation, power, and unique blend of Cuban and jazz styles – but it’s true. The world at large has had much more opportunity to become acquainted with Gonzalo than we have inthe States, thanks largely to the U.S. State Department’s ongoing embargo against the Castro government. But that’s astory we explored in our August 1991 interview with Gonzalo, and amoot point at that. He now resides in the Dominican Republic, and as he makes additional appearances in the States, his albums are becoming more readily available as well. One aspect of Gonzalo’s playing that we in the States have only experienced on disc is his writing for electronic instruments. Synths played amajor role in his work with Projecto, his pioneering fusion band, and they even make appearances on recordings of his current group, the Quartetto Cubano, such as Rapsodia (Blue Note). “I see technology as an extension of what you can do with music,” says Gonzalo. “I use a Yamaha KX88, aKorg T1, and an Akai S3200. I first compose with asequencer, and then of course record the natural band sound over the sequenced sounds. Then I try to reach abalance where you can’t feel the pressure of the live music on the sequencing, or the other way around. That’s the most difficult thing to reach when you’re working with technology.” With the release of Diz (Blue Note), the influence that Dizzy Gillespie had on his life became public. “I met Dizzy in 1985 at the Havana Jazz Festival,” recalls Gonzalo. “He was, is, and will be forever a vital reference, not only musically, but also spiritually. It was wonderful getting to know him and messing around with him. He was like my father.” Given the influence of Cuban music on Dizzy, it’s a touching tribute that his music would hold sway over Gonzalo. Indeed, over the course of a recent set at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California, the Quartetto Cubano used “Woody ‘N’ You” almost as a leitmotif, the familiar A section making brief appearances throughout the evening. At one point it was swinging. At another, it was the subject of a massive montuno that Gonzalo subsequently displaced by a sixteenth-note, then augmented, then diminished. Finally, they brought it back around to the familiar head, which brought the packed house to its feet. Once across the Bay in the Keyboard studio, we asked Gonzalo to show us how he achieves this remarkable synthesis of Cuban montuna and jazz. Since his reply is rather technical, you may find it helpful to refer to Rebeca Mauleon-Santana’s article, “The Heart of Salsa,” in our January 1996 issue.

Your montunos occur on unexpected divisions of the beat. Tell us how you work with them.

This idea of augmenting or diminishing the rhythmic presence of the montuno really has to do with the percussive elements at that moment. Everything having to do with the montunos is not written or notated. There may be some general harmonic framework as a guide, over which one might feel free to create spontaneous rhythmic cells. Historically, the montuno has always been a part of the ABC’s of Cuban music, stemming mostly from the son, the danzon, and from other traditional forms, including the bolero-cha, the boleromontuno, etc., combined with other Latin musical influences such as the cumbia, samba, bachata, Puerto Rican rhythms, and so on. So here we see that the signature of our music is the montuno, which is also played outside of Cuba, sometimes with different results. The most important thing is that any instrument can play the montuno, not only the piano, but the guitar, a trumpet, the bass, even a harp! I have also been interested in playing a little less simply, with slightly more harmonic complexity to the montuno. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s [in Cuban music] that the harmonic aspects of montuno playing became more advanced – influenced of course by early Impressionist harmony – with musicians like [Antonio] Arcano, [Israel Lopez] Cachao and his family, Enrique Jorrfn, and Rafael Lay, among others, who took it upon themselves to expand the harmonic possibilities of the tumbao, not only with the obvious harmonic instruments such as the piano, but the bass in particular. From that point on, the harmony became increasingly complex, and rhythmically, the accents begin to change. What I have tried to do is “re-create” myself with all of this history, and take on not only these aspects of Cuban music, but of jazz as well, even from the sometimes obviously strong elements of pop and rock, which of course also have many of the same ancestral roots as American and Latin music. In a nutshell, I’m not trying to make any qualitative statement with all of this that any style is better or worse than another; rather, they are transparent, and are the result of varying degrees of rhythmic development, particularly the popular styles that are closely linked to folkloric music. For example, in “Woody ‘N’ You,” where the basic harmony is [as in Example 1, page 491, I tried to transform or invert the harmony. That is to say, I look for a different harmonic space that functions with the theme [Example 2, page 50]. Then in the bridge, we try to play with the rhythm, such as when the melody is in eighth-notes, we try to put triplet figures in the rhythm section to create an echo to the tune. Then we repeat the head with yet another harmonic texture [Example 3, page 50]. That same harmonic framework can be outlined in montuno-like phrasing as well [Example 4, page 52]. This can have any number of possibilities or versions according to the musician’s imagination. It’s interesting how certain cultures – such as the North American – “know” (or need to know) where the “one” is, as opposed to other cultures who “feel” where the beat is. There is a difference; sometimes we can understand or learn a concept without feeling it, when it’s explained.

How can one learn to feel it?

I think it’s a generic problem.For example, a while back I went to Brazil to do a series of solo concerts. I played also with some Brazilian musicians, and later one night they took me to a dance club to see a pianist who plays Cuban music. She said she had learned through recordings, but wanted to know how she could play with a more Cuban feeling. I told her the only way was to go to Cuba. It’s important to be surrounded by the cultural codes which provide you with certain required ingredients: interpretation, diction, behavior, communication, which – as a true artist – one adapts or converts into his or her art, whatever that may be. I don’t doubt that there are people who have an easier time than others assimilating aspects of a foreign culture. This is certainly a function of individual talent, or perhaps geography.

Of course, Cuban culture is very rich and varied. Cuban musicians tend to be quick, very able, and perhaps this is due to the richness of our music, and its rhythmic complexity. Cubans seem to easily assimilate other styles of music, perhaps due to this concept of rhythmic independence which is so prevalent in our music. You see this with classical musicians in Cuba, although perhaps they haven’t achieved the notoriety or recognition. But nevertheless, there has always been a high level of artists, both composers and performers, that have maintained a fluid connection with new developments [in classical music]. The same appears in Cuban popular music, where – despite the fact that these musicians have been cut off from many sources of information and resources – they have been able to develop their skills with influences from beyond Cuban geographic boundaries. We also see this in the last century, where Cuban classical and nationalist composers such as [Manuel] Saumell, [Ignacio] Cervantes, Amadeo Roldan, [Alejandro Garda] Caturla who were always in step with the latest in European musical innovations – never became “Europeanized” composers. They were always very nationalistic, but not in a limited or closed sense; rather, it was a responsible nationalism, dedicated to the exploration of all of our codes, as well as the search for other sources of inspiration. What can I say about this Cuban – rather, this Latin American (but especially Cuban) music? Perhaps North Americans have a clearer understanding of the Cuban clave, for example, which has not only a metric but a spiritual meaning and connotation, and has so many variations which affect the dance, the harmony, thousands of things. Now, many musicians feel the concept of clave without having to adhere to such a strict relationship. You could say that early styles utilized the clave as a type of leitmotif, and you had to play (or compose) without altering it. Now there is more freedom to break the rules, to add an odd measure here and there; the clave disappears and re-appears. Perhaps the u.s. hasn’t been as in touch with these new developments in Cuban music.

Melodic variation is an essential part of your style as an improviser. How do you approach the concept of variation?

The concept of variation is of course an elementary aspect, particularly as a method of composition stemming from improvisation. There are various possibilities: melodic, metric, dynamic, expressive, generic (where the actual genre or style may be changed), or mood. There is really no music which doesn’t have within it some structure of variation. I think this is an essential human quality, notto repeat constantly in the same way, but rather to vary. We can’t precisely reproduce the same thing the same way – you may be precise in the interpretation, but it still has some sort of variation in its message. Perhaps the most important thing is to develop a larger harmonic plane – more than rhythmic – from which to proceed. Cubans tend to build on rhythmic foundations, and this has often limited us in terms of composition. Ideas such as form, dynamics, structure, voicings, use of exotic scales – these have been my concerns as a composer and as an improviser. I like to look at all of these aspects. Within popular music there is a problem: It is rare to find a wide range of dynamics in popular music. There might be one dynamiC level for the beginning [of a tune], and another for the vamp section. Whereas, in something by Beethoven, for example, you may find everything from pppp to fffff, and everything in between. This is a necessary expressive tool, one that perhaps hasn’t been as explored within popular music, but it is one which is very important. The other things to take into consideration when you’re improvising are pre-conceived ideas and extensions of the actual theme, or independence from it. I use both approaches. There are some tunes which have such strong themes that the resulting variations are easy and flowing. There you can use the obvious tools, or decide not to have such obvious restrictions. I like to consider a complete break from the rhythm, moving it ahead or behind – not by accident, but with purpose with a consensus between the musicians, who embellish behind the improviser. There is communication without limitations. Sure, we all have individual experiences – sometimes you feel the strong presence of [drummer Julio] Barreto, of [bassist] Felipe [Cabrera], or Reynaldo [Mel ian, trumpet]. But we are all working toward a common goal.

How did you develop your extraordinary hand independence?

You have to get away from the left-hand role of pop music, which is usually more sedentary – just using block chords. In time, this causes the “death” or lessening of the role of this hand. The idea is that we work to take away these barriers and utilize both hands, not only for chordal accompaniment, but we expect the same technical requirements of the left hand. Music is music, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea of left and right. But I am right-handed, so I have to develop the left hand more. If we are conscious of this, then we can break away to other ideas such as other scales, which may have other fingering (or technical) requirements, as well as broader (or artistic) requirements. I think we should have this exposure at an earlier age, instead of [being taught] the obvious chronology of major scales, then minor scales, then, at a higher level, the modes. In other words, we want to bring to non-classical music the same diverse palette of scales and other requirements so essential to musical creativity. For example, a normal major scale could be used to develop a different hand position, as well as a different musical mood. You can experiment with the fingering, which poses a series of other possibilities. Changing the starting point within the scale, or transposing it, forces you to select a different mental structure, as well as fingering, touch, and articulation. The average pianist tends to play with the hands very close to the keyboard, similar to the old German school which requires you to keep phrases and fingerings within a smaller spatial range. Then came the Russian school, which stipulated one should articulate more, flexing the fingers as much as possible for increased strength. Of course, this doesn’t mean you use the same techniques for all music. jazz pianists tend not to articulate as much, perhaps because many have a strong classical background. They may have a harder time with more legato passages, as they tend to play more staccato. The more you can vary your articulation, the more colorful and varied your expression. Perhaps for pop music this variety is unnecessary. But it is necessary if it will be used for the sake of the music.

How do you develop your dynamic power?

There are different ways of sending or manipulating strength or power, which have nothing to do with politics! [Laughs.] One way is from the wrist, another from the forearm, and another from the entire arm. Of course, you have to consider your own particular techniques and guide yourself according to your own strength. I use all of these approaches, depending on the song and the force required. Now we are working mostly in an acoustic format, although, of course, we are being amplified, and this has a great effect on the dynamics. The ideal acoustic format would have the drums and piano on the same level, which is impossible, ofcourse. Technology may help to create the sensation of balance, which really isn’t a balance, but rather, amplification. Notwithstanding, the music written today, it seems, tries to put the dynamic levels of the piano and the drums on the same plane. Then you have to – consciously or unconsciously – search for a certain amount of power or strength in the interpretation. This can create problems by establishing an unwanted competition for volume between the instruments, which can also hurt you physically. So, we propose to achieve a level of dynamics within the ensemble – regardless if the music is loud or simply very strong (which is different than just playing hard). We wish to play music that is strong and powerful, not to play with excessive strength and force. You have to take into consideration all of the instruments and their possibilities, and it has taken me quite a bit of time to reach this conclusion now with my quartet. We have a trumpet, drums, and electric bass – which could easi Iy have a much louder dynamic range in the ensemble – with an acoustic piano. So we have spent these years trying to polish this sound, to tame that youthful zeal and desire to play and convince everyone that you can play, in order to get to a calmer and more confident place. Coming back to the aspect of power, as I mentioned. It is not only from the wrist and the arm, but rather from the abdomen. Sometimes I lean back so as not to put so much pressure on my arms.

Do you find that audiences in different countries react differently to your music?

Every audience reflects a culture, a collective experience, a tradition, and I think this is an important learning experience, not only for the audience, but for the performer as well. What I could say is that sometimes it is easier to appear in a particular context as opposed to another. For example, Germany is one context, not necessarily because they simply don’t accept everything at face value, but because of Germany’s enormous history and pioneering of so many musical traditions. They are very prepared, well-trained, and highly critical, which makes them an excellent audience. It has been very beneficial to us to play all over Germany – East and West, in clubs, concerts, festivals, and schools. Of course all European countries have a particular significance; we’ve also played in Eastern Europe, which for many years had been somewhat lim ited or separated, perhaps, in its variety of musical propositions. Some of this had to do with the political situation. But now you see an enormous number of festivals and concert halls are opening their doors to many styles of music. japan is a medium without comparison. There is an audience there for everything! There’s so much going on all the time, every day. You ask yourself, how do they fill the venues? On a given day there will be a circus act, ballet, jazz, rock, and theater, and everything is full. The japanese are an active audience, not merely because of their large population. They go to events. And of course we’ve had important recording work in japan. It has been a very healthy experience for us to work for the japanese public. The United States is new for us, but we feel we belong here. There is a common code here, a feeling of home, and the reactions have been positive. You know when you’re being heard, when you’re being understood. In these concerts we’ve had here at Yoshi’s, I really feel our music has been accepted and understood, even through all of the subtleties and nuances of performance. It has been a wonderful experience. ~

Special thanks to Jose Forteza for his patience and assistance with this interview.

El pianista cubano Gonzalo Rubalcaba cierra el ciclo de jazz de la Universidad Pública de Navarra


11 de abril de 2008 [CULTURA]

El pianista cubano Gonzalo Rubalcaba cierra el ciclo de jazz de la Universidad Pública de Navarra ante 400 personas Más de 1.300 personas han asistido a los cuatro conciertos organizados dentro del ciclo Jazz en la Universidad . El pianista cubano Gonzalo Rubalcaba cerró ayer el ciclo de jazz organizado por la Universidad Pública de Navarra con un concierto al que asistieron cerca de 400 personas. La actuación, que era abierta al público, se desarrolló a las 19 horas en el edificio de Comedores del Campus de Arrosadia. Gonzalo Rubalcaba (La Habana, 1963), ganador de dos Grammys de Jazz, es uno de los grandes músicos cubanos de jazz. Pianista versátil, instrumentista hábil y elegante, Rubalcaba es una de las grandes figuras contemporáneas emergentes representativas del jazz afro cubano. Más de 1.300 personas han asistido a lo largo de esta semana a las cuatro actuaciones programadas dentro del ciclo Jazz en la Universidad. Además de Gonzalo Rubalcaba, que ayer cerró el programa, han actuado el guitarrista de EEUU Stanley Jordan, Roman Filiú Quartet y la Big Band del Conservatorio Superior de Navarra.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, durante el concierto ofrecido el lunes en la Universidad.

GONZALO RUBALCABA QUINTET Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes Sala Teatro Experimental “Álvaro Valentín” (Valladolid)


Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes Sala Teatro Experimental “Álvaro Valentín” (Valladolid)

20 de noviembre de 2010 – Crónica por Borja Sánchez Mayoral

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano

Yosvany Terry: saxos alto y soprano

Mike Rodriguez: trompeta y fliscorno

Matt Brewer: contrabajo

Ernesto Simpson: batería y percusión

Contar en la programación de conciertos de Valladolid con un músico de la talla de Gonzalo Rubalcaba ha sido todo un acierto. Con 47 años, Gonzalo Rubalcaba –de nacionalidad cubana y americana- es un pianista destacad de la escena jazzística internacional de las dos últimas décadas, poseyendo una carrera sólida donde se combinan tradiciones musicales de Cuba y Estados Unidos. Potenciadas sus inquietudes y habilidades desde pequeño porsu padre –el pianista Guillermo Rubalcaba-, Gonzalo despuntó desde jovencito. Sus primeras grabaciones datan de comienzos y mediados de los 80, llegando a firmar en 1990 un LP extraordinario con Charlie Haden y Paul Motian, ‘Discovery: Live At Montreux’.

Este álbum, donde su enorme virtuosismo tuvo una mayor proyección, supuso el espaldarazo definitivo en una trayectoria que presentó en su siguiente trabajo, ‘The Blessing’ (1991), también en formato trío –en esta ocasión con Charlie Haden y Jack DeJohnette-, otro hito de unas dimensiones artísticas equivalentes. En el resto de la discografía de Gonzalo Rubalcaba también podemos encontrar numerosos surcos interesantes, entre otros los contenidos en ‘Mi Gran Pasión’ (1987), ‘Rapsodia’ (1992), ‘Inner Voyage’ (1999), ‘Supernova’ (2001) y ‘Avatar’ (2008), trabajos en los que el pianista demuestra asimismo una versatilidad notable. El quinteto de Rubalcaba llegó a la sala Teatro Experimental del Auditorio Miguel Delibes con la intención de interpretar ‘Avatar’, el penúltimo trabajo del pianista si tenemos en cuenta que hace muy poco ha publicado ‘Fe’ (2010), un extenso disco en solitario lanzado desde su sello 5Passion, recientemente fundado junto a Gary Galimidi.

De las siete composiciones de ‘Avatar’, solo “Infantil” está firmada por Gonzalo, “perteneciendo” al saxofonista Yosvany Terry “Looking In Retrospective”, “This Is It” y “Hipside”, y al contrabajista Matt Brewer la misteriosa “Aspiring To Normalcy”. “Peace” de Horace Silver y “Preludio Corto No. 2 For Piano (Tu Amor Era Falso)” del cubano Alejandro García Caturla completan el listado. La formación que vino a Valladolid, salvo el batería Ernesto Simpson, fue la que grabó el disco, y en la actuación el pianista dedicó a los músicos unas palabras, diciendo que era un álbum que recoge capacidad y fantasía compositiva. Madurez, contención y visión de conjunto pueden ser términos que definan también este trabajo, en el que las ejecuciones acrobáticas de Rubalcaba no tienen la presencia de antaño. Perspectiva, expresividad y libertad para un jazz con ecos neoyorkinos, intrincado e imaginativo, que se mueve con naturalidad por distintos terrenos y no puede circunscribirse a una etiqueta como la del latin jazz.

Durante el concierto, Rubalcaba y sus socios elaboraron un discurso musical sin fisuras a través de composiciones largas. Dotado de una técnica asombrosa y una gran sensibilidad, el pianista enfocó y dirigió la actuación sin sobresalir demasiado del conjunto siendo, como hemos insinuado al hablar de ‘Avatar’, un elemento más dentro del esquema. Desde algo más de una década, tiene una mayor propensión hacia la melodía que hacia la complejidad rítmica, y su estilo tampoco olvidó la meticulosidad, la velocidad con las teclas y el pulso preciso. Combinó destreza con emotividad y templanza, y determinadas travesuras próximas al free, quiebros y filigranas con pinceladas concisas, todo ello con mucha seguridad. Le respaldaba en esta aventura un grupo que se articulaba y amoldaba en función del desarrollo y el momento de la pieza. La sección de vientos contaba con Yosvany Terry, un saxofonista que soplaba con sentimiento y decisión y dejó valiosas aportaciones, especialmente con el saxo soprano. Asimismo Terry se movió en ciertas ocasiones dentro de unos registros más libres, sin perder las coordenadas. El trompetista

Mike Rodriguez tenía una sonoridad limpia, luminosa e incisiva, manteniendo la comunicación y colaborando en la formación de texturas. El contrabajista Matt Brewer contribuyó al espacio común manejando su instrumento con plasticidad, defendiendo bien su parcela y apoyando en varios pasajes la construcción de un poderoso groove, siendo secundando por Ernesto Simpson, batería contundente, ágil y creativo, que no escondía sus influencias latinas.

La sencilla pero eficaz pantalla de fondo, que podía tener como motivo unos círculos concéntricos con colores que giraban o una iluminación más neutra, acompañaba bien la evolución de una música densa, de diferentes ambientes, logradas transiciones y brillantes cambios de ritmo, llevada a cabo con soltura y elegancia. En los bises, Gonzalo tuvo el protagonismo con dos interpretaciones en solitario,

sobresaliendo la adaptación de “El Manisero”, en la que dio una de sus mayores exhibiciones aquella noche, al revisar de manera poliédrica este clásico de la música cubana.Antes de esto, en el momento de presentar a los músicos y agradecer al público y a los promotores, manifestó sus ganas de volver a Valladolid: “Ojala se repita pronto y en verano”. Deseamos que así sea.

Texto: Borja Sánchez Mayoral

Fotos: Antonio Macías

“Fé” Recording Sessions Hit Factory Miami

PALME D’OR, Music Academy Paris, France

Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Francisco Cespedes, Ignacio Berroa,

Allan Tucker and Gonzalo Rubalcaba discuss the Mastering Process

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