- July 12th, 2011
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Several years ago, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was touring Europe with his Cuban quintet. After a concert at the New Morning jazz club in Paris, the pianist and some of his bandmates repaired to a nearby restaurant for dinner. At some point, Rubalcaba became aware that a diner at another table was watching him. Finally, the man approached Rubalcaba and, in no uncertain terms, told him what he thought of his performance that evening, “You should play more of the music that represents you,” the would-be critic, also Latin American, admonished, “You’re trying to be an intellectual, like Keith Jarrett or McCoy Tyner, and you’re totally wrong,” “He made a huge statement about that,” says Rubalcaba, relating the event in May – just a few days before his 48th birthday – over dinner at YOLO, a trendy bar-restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, “Then I understood. The problem is that sometimes we, as Latin people, believe that [people from] other countries see us as minimal. It’s not the whole truth, The truth is splintered between how other countries see us and how we see ourselves,” Certainly, Rubalcaba’s most-recent recording – a gorgeous, heartfelt solo-piano meditation titled Fe (Faith) – won’t quiet critics who believe Latin jazz artists should play only danceable party music. After a long, successful run on Blue Note, and its Japanese affiliates EMI-Toshiba/Somethin’ Else, the pianist has newfound freedom to play what he chooses – he’s now releasing his recordings on his own 5Passion imprint. Pronounced “cinco pasion,” the label puns on the word syncopation, Rubalcaba’s business partner – and Fe’s executive producer – Gary Galimidi, is also on hand this night at YOLO. A Cuban who grew up in Miami, Galimidi translates into English some of Rubalcaba’s more complex thoughts, which the pianist feels more comfortable relating in Spanish. After some 15 years living in South Florida, Rubalcaba has a decent command of English, but he wants to be sure he’s completely understood, something that’s never an issue when he speaks through his music. Unshackled from the constraints of corporate bean counters, Rubalcaba has released a 79-minute recording of unaccompanied piano music. He improvises on selections from Coltrane to Caturla and composes his own highly personal musical expressions about faith and spirituality. Rich and complex, the music evokes AfroCuban roots as well as the modern-jazz idiom, even as it bespeaks Rubalcaba’s rigorous classical training. While he’s recorded without backup musicians before – notably, 2006’s Latin Grammy winning Solo on Blue Note -the pianist seems to be making a statement: He won’t remain confined by anyone’s claims on his identity, be they label execs, audience members or those who would use him to further their own political or cultural agendas.
Rubalcaba has wrestled with perceptions throughout his remarkable career. When the Cuban native first performed at Miami’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in 1996, members of the exile community vehemently protested, spitting at concertgoers, pelting them with bottles and literally beating them over the head with a Cuban flag. Expatriate Cuban jazz stars such as Paquito d’Rivera publicly scolded the pianist for not being a more vocal critic of the Cuban government. While Rubalcaba had since moved to the Dominican Republic – before relocating to South Florida – his mother and father still lived on the island under the watchful eyes of the Castro regime. Understandably, he feared for their safety. A resident of the sprawling suburban community of Coral Springs, where he’s raised three kids a county away from the madness of Miami-Dade’s exile inferno, Rubalcaba says the controversy has long since subsided. He performs infrequently in South Florida, and when he has appeared, protesters have not. “I haven’t seen any manifestations of that since that [first performance],” he says, mentioning trouble-free concerts at the now-defunct Hollywood Jazz Festival, the newly minted Arsht Center in downtown Miami and a CD-release/label-launch party this spring in Homestead. As one who’s felt the boot of the Castro regime on his neck, Rubalcaba fully understands the anger of the exiles, many of whom lost everything, not the least of which was their homeland. And yet, while he detests the oppression of the Cuban government, Rubalcaba points out that he truly developed as an artist on the island, “One of my best periods of creativity and energy was living inside Cuba,” he says, “Nothing is black and white, There’s always been this effort to paint everything very dark ‘” but things have nuance.” Understandably, Rubalcaba was shy about approaching the piano as a very young child. His father, the multi-instrumentalist Guilhermos Rubalcaba, was something of a legend, having held the piano chair in Enrique Torrin’s Orchestra, Jam sessions featuring his father’s superstar friends – Frank Emilio, Barbarito Diez, Tata Güines, and a pre-Los Van Van Juan Formell, among numerous others – took place regularly at the house. Then, there was his brother Jesus, eight years Gonzalo’s senior and a dazzling talent, whose daily practice routine included pieces by Liszt, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. Rubalcaba decided maybe he’d rather play drums, “The piano, for me, was for people with really amazing control of the two sides of their brain,” he says, “When I was a little kid, I asked my brother, ‘How can you read two thoughts at the same time?’ So, for me, drums, Afro-Cuban percussion, was really my pursuit.” As fate would have it, Rubalcaba’s dreams of becoming the next Chano Pozo were dashed when he was told by his instructors at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory that, at age 8, he was still too young to study percussion. They suggested he choose piano or violin. His mother swayed him toward the former, and after about two years, the 10-year-old Rubalcaba was hopelessly smitten -with the piano and with his teacher. “She was an amazing woman,” he rhapsodizes over the memory of Teresa Valiente. “A beautiful woman, She had that ability to make people fall in love with the instrument. She had the tools to seduce you.” Many of the advisors at the conservatory at that time hailed from Eastern bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Rubalcaba estimates about 60 percent came from the Soviet Union, whose technically and intellectually demanding methodology dominated the curriculum. Counterpoint, harmony, theory and solfeggio training were all part of the regimen. Another part of his training, no doubt, would have infuriated the Soviets. Officially, rock-and-roll was deemed “the music of the enemy” and impossible to hear on sanctioned airwaves. But, like many Cuban youths, Rubalcaba and his buddies would secretly tune in to “la voz de las Americas” – American radio. He remembers “American Woman” by The Guess Who as a particularly popular selection. Jazzy, horn-fueled bands such as Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, The Ohio Players and especially Earth, Wind and Fire also caught his ear. All these influences, plus his plundering of Dad’s collection of 78s – including sides by everyone from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Erroll Garner and Art Tatum combined to form a distinctive aesthetic, a sophisticated mix of indigenous Cuban and Latin styles with bebop, modern-jazz and fusion elements. Rubalcaba became exposed to more modern players, such as Keith Jarrett, through a Cuban radio program hosted by the father of percussion great Horacio “EI Negro” Hernandez. This expanded his horizons even further, as did a regular Sunday concert series held at the National Amphitheater in Havana. The series provided a showcase for complex new music by composers from Cuba, South America and Europe. By the early ’80s, while continuing his studies at the Instituto Superior de Arte, Rubalcaba was starting to gain attention as an artist outside the borders of the island nation. He had toured Africa and Europe with Orquesta Aragon, a Cuban musical institution that goes back to the 1930s. While they were greeted warmly – particularly in Congo and Zaire, where the pianist says audiences sang along with tunes from the group’s archival recordings – Rubalcaba would gain greater acclaim for playing his own music. In 1986, Gotz Worner, head ofthe German-based Messidor label, heard Rubalcaba perform with his seven-piece Grupo Proyecto at a festival held in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana, the results of which were recorded by the Cuban Egrem label Worner bought the rights to the recording, which he subsequently mixed and released on two LPs (Regreso Feliz, vols. 1 and 2, later released on CD as Live in Havana). The album created a buzz in Germany, and Rubalcaba was invited to tour the country. Another album for Messidor followed, Mi Gran Pasion, which highlighted the popular Cuban danz6n, a musical style with which not many Europeans were acquainted. Worner was undaunted. “He was really open-minded:’ Rubalcaba says of the label chief. “He decided to run that risk to do that recording. When I proposed the album, he said, ‘Let’s go.”’
Rubalcaba’s fortunes truly soared thanks to a couple of Jazz legends that recognized his brilliance right away.
While staying at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Dizzy Gillespie wandered into the bar and heard Rubalcaba performing with his band. After the set, Gillespie invited the young pianist to join him and his big band the next day during their set at the 1985 Jazz Plaza Festival. He even proposed the pair perform a duet. When Diz asked Rubalcaba what they should play together, the young pianist answered immediately: “Con Alma.” Just the week before, he had discovered the song in a borrowed fake book, a precious commodity in Cuba. Following the performance, Gillespie declared Rubalcaba the best pianist he’d heard in 10 years. “I fell in love with the tune:’ Rubalcaba says of “Can Alma:’ which he’s recorded several times, including on Fe. “The name was in Spanish, and I saw the composer was Dizzy Gillespie. A week later, I met him.” Gillespie made arrangements to bring Rubalcaba to New York and present him at a Latin jazz festival in Central Park, but politics reared its ugly head. Rubalcaba’s request for a visa was rejected by the U.S. government. “Diz was really upset,” Rubalcaba remembers. “He wrote a letter that was published in The New York Times talking about how at this point, in this century, we still have these problems. We’re talking about a guy who’s 20-something years old, who loves American music.” Fortunately, Rubalcaba was able to capitalize on another fateful meeting with a jazz heavyweight. Thunderstruck by Rubalcaba’s talent, Charlie Haden, like Gillespie, immediately proffered an invitation to the pianist after hearing him play at the Jazz Plaza Fest in 1986. In the liners to Live in Havana, the bassist enthuses about Rubalcaba’s “unbelievable touch and command of the lower register…. The way he uses the bass of the piano reminds one of the way Rachmaninoff uses basses in an orchestra.” The very next day, Haden brought Rubalcaba to the famed Egrem studios, also in Havana, to record. The results must have been impressive. A few years later, Haden brought a cassette of the session to Blue Note Records chief Bruce Lundvall, who was inspired enough to travel to Cuba to sign Rubalcaba in 1990. Once again, politics intervened, as U.S. policy wouldn’t allow an American company to do business with a Cuban artist. Their solution? Have Rubalcaba sign with Blue Note’s partner in Japan, EMI, and allow them to introduce his music in the United States. A concert with Haden and drummer Paul Motian was arranged for the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1990, as a way for EMI execs to evaluate Rubalcaba. Needless to say, they liked what they heard. An album of the Montreux concert, Discovery, was released. Rubalcaba had played with this dream rhythm team before, in Canada, which is far friendlier to Cuban artists than is the United States. So, when he was given the chance to select his bandmates for the concert in Montreux, Rubalcaba requested Haden and Motian. “At that moment, I felt a lot of pressure,” admits the pianist, who has since performed with Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, among many other jazz greats. “You feel like you have to be at the level of expectations. You have to complywith the ideas they have about you, and you feel it when they look at you. But it’s part ofthe respect. You feel that because you are respected by those people, and the history behind those people, and the history they represent. It’s a blessing. It’s a major compliment.”
Eventually, when the political rhetoric had cooled down and Rubalcaba was no longer living in Cuba, he officially joined the storied ranks of Blue Note.
A string of critically and commercially successful albums ensued, starting auspiciously with 1991’s The Blessing, a trio recording with Haden and DeJohnette. His first U.S. concert took place at Lincoln Center in 1993, which opened the way to more Stateside bookings and international stardom. Along the way, he also participated on a couple of Haden’s high profile projects: 2001’s Grammy-winning Nocturne (Best Latin Jazz Performance) and 2004’s Land of the Sun, both for Verve. Rubalcaba played an essential role on both recordings. He helped Haden assemble the multicultural ensemble for Nocturne – including his good friend, Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa, Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez and South Florida-based Uruguayan violinist Federico Britos – and introduced the bassist to Mexican and Cuban boleros sung by Pablo Milanes. Rubalcaba reprised his role as arranger on Land ofthe Sun, and scored another Grammy. On albums such as 1999’s Inner Voyage and 2001’s Latin Grammy winning Supernova, Rubalcaba was given sparkling showcases for his extremely personal, genre-defying style. On the former, he included a track titled “Blues Lundvall,” a tribute to the Blue Note mogul who had played such an important role in his career. While he truly appreciates the enormous boost the venerable label provided, the pianist says he started to chafe at what he perceived to be commercial constraints, particularly as they related to expressing his Latin identity. “When I joined EMI, the Japanese loved what I was doing before,” he explains. “So they asked me to keep doing what I was doing. When I jumped from EMI to Blue Note, things changed a little. Bruce and the people around Blue Note believed that I should do an American repertoire and I started to play American music.” This was reflected on 2008’s Avatar; Rubalcaba’s last record for Blue Note. Utilizing a sextet including the Cuban saxophonist Yosvany Terry and New York drummer Marcus Gilmore, Rubalcaba dived into straight-ahead waters, with nods to hard-bop and funky, neo-trad NewYork-style jazz, which alternated with his quieter, more thoughtful ruminations. The album went to No. 11 on the Billboard charts, but Rubalcaba says he felt somewhat compromised. Now recording for his own sPassion imprint, the pianist can present himself the way he feels is right. That includes his own way of exploring his Latin roots, affording them the respect and dignity he believes they deserve. “It’s basically festive, happy music,” he allows. “But there’s another side.” Rubalcaba plans to follow Fe with a trio recording that will include Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke and Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Rubalcaba had introduced Loueke to Haden, when the bassist was seeking a distinctive guitar sound for Land of the Sun. He’s been looking for an excuse to work with Loueke ever since. He’s also been badgering Berroa for years to put together a group and material for a recording session under his own name. The drummer finally consented, and will also release an album for 5Passion. Agreeing that there have been some fairly remarkable developments in Cuba as of late – Castro-critical blogger Yoani Sanchez and the demonstrators Las Damas en Blanca would have been unthinkable a decade ago, as would certain economic reforms – Rubalcaba is cautiously optimistic about real change on the island. It’s ongoing, he says, but slow. Progress will always be impeded by the old men who don’t want to relinquish power. But freedom, as a citizen or as an artist, is the only way for people to advance, he says, even if there’s a price to be paid for swimming against the mainstream. “I think it’s very important to do everything possible to keep developing yourself,” Rubalcaba states. “When you do that, sometimes you have to renounce what the majority of the people want from you, in order to go where you think you need to go.” …
The Shortest Concert I Ever Did
Searching for nonstandard material to record, Charlie Haden turned to his good friend Gonzalo Rubalcaba. At Haden’s request, Rubalcaba compiled boleros by Cuban singer Pablo Milanes and sent a recording to the bassist. A few days later, Rubalcaba remembers, Haden called him and said, “We gotta record that.” The results can be heard on Haden’s 2001 Grammy winning album, Nocturne. A selection of Cuban and Mexican boleros are delicately interpreted by the bassist and pianist along with saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Sanchez, guitarist Pat Metheny, violinist Federico Britos and drummer Ignacio Berroa. Naturally, playing this hushed, often-sublime music live would require careful vetting of venues and audiences. So, someone screwed up big-time when the group was booked to perform at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami during an outdoor music festival in the fall of 2001. Haden, Rubalcaba, Sanchez, Britos and Berroa went on as scheduled, but the blare from a salsa band on a competing stage drowned out their quiet, meditative music. Midway through the first song, a disgusted Haden walked off. “It was the shortest concert Iever did; Rubalcaba says, laughing at the memory. “Ignacio started cracking up. It was about three minutes on stage. Three minutes! I know Charlie and I knew that wasn’t the accurate place to do that kind of concert orthat kind of music. The band got paid anyway.” Fortunately, the group had another opportunity to present this sophisticated music to South Florida audiences when they played to a full house at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2002. This time, Haden made sure the sound was pristine, “the best I’ve heard at a South Florida jazz concert,” raved Sun-Sentinel arts writer Matt Schudel. By all accounts, the show was a huge hit with the audience, who rewarded the musicians with a thundering ovation. “I was really happy to see that; Rubalcaba says. “It was a moment to show people how flexible [Latin] music is.” – BW