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A Pianist Happy to Let Others Do the Driving-By NATE CHINEN-The New York Times

MUSIC REVIEW | GONZALO RUBALCABA

About a year and a half ago the redoubtable Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba took a new band into the studio. He had broken in his sidemen, a clutch of young New York progressives, with a weeklong run at the Jazz Standard. It was minimal preparation, given the demands of the music involved, and yet it produced strong results: “Avatar,” released on Blue Note last year, is one of his warmest and most rewarding albums. Mr. Rubalcaba and his crew are back at the club this week, as part of a programming blitz tied to Blue Note’s 70th anniversary. Their second set on Tuesday had all the spark and sophistication of “Avatar,” from which it drew exclusively. But every aspect of the music felt hardier and more intuitive, more fully absorbed into the metabolism of the group. The front line, with Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Yosvany Terry on saxophones, fell into sync with exacting ease, sounding bright and sleek. The rhythm section, anchored by the perceptive bassist Matt Brewer and the astutely nimble drummer Marcus Gilmore, fed a sort of jet-stream propulsion, shifting among styles and tempos without a perceptible hitch. (Mr. Gilmore is scheduled to play again on Friday; his replacement on the other two remaining nights, Justin Brown, has some difficult shoes to fill.) And Mr. Rubalcaba was scrupulous and terse with his pianism, more so than on the album. He allowed himself just a few effusive, bulletlike runs, choosing elsewhere to play concise figures at a medium-soft volume. Focusing his attention on an exceptionally precise touch at the keyboard — at times he seemed to be weighing the physical properties of each note — he willed himself into the background. During one brisk, searching solo by Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Rubalcaba laid out almost entirely, providing little more than punctuation. The goal behind such restraint is to shape the action ever more subtly, and in that sense Mr. Rubalcaba was ahead of the game. The band seemed charged by the acuteness of his listening, poised to respond to his slightest signal. Some of the most astonishing playing of the set took place in the stir behind Mr. Terry and Mr. Rodriguez, who responded by elevating their level of performance (especially in the case of Mr. Rodriguez). When things took a turn toward extroversion — on Mr. Rubalcaba’s radiant closer, “Infantil” — the band was ready. Intense but mindful, it reflected an evolving standard, fulfilling its promise but not its potential, which is good news all around.

The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet performs through Saturday at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232, jazzstandard.net.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quinteto – Hip Side (fragm.)

Gonzalo and Chick “Improvisation”

Live 2010 Courtesy of Simon Sounds

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