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The man sure can play-The Independent (London, England) August 29, 1995 Author: JOHN LYTTLE

In a jazz age still overshadowed by the Edmund Hillary-like heroes of the Fifties and Sixties, who scaled the peaks in mohair suits, with a cigarette in their mouths and a monkey on their backs, it’s rather alarming to come across a contemporary musician whose sheer genius announces itself from the off. But the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba – who plays Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on Saturday – demonstrated on his debut Blue Note album, Live at Montreux, in 1991, exactly the kind of brilliance that is not supposed to happen any more. With Charlie Haden on double-bass and Paul Motian on drums, he clearly had good taste on his side already, but from the opening notes of the first track’s reworking of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”, lights flashed, bells rang and the elusive jazz jackpot’s coins poured out in a flood. He began with a full-tilt vamp on the chords, Afro-Cuban rhythms driving manic repetitions, until Monk’s lop-sided theme emerged amid a welter of virtuoso effects, a double-time salsa chorus leading into a second ascent on the tune until it slowed down to a dirge before the appropriately Monkian plinky-plonk ending. His unaccompanied solo on the self-composed third track was even better, a playful cadenza that mixed the history of post-war jazz piano styles with a ferocious Cuban lilt. And then he played a ballad so tenderly it almost made you weep. He was 27 and suddenly the most exciting pianist in the world. Unfortunately for his career, he was also Cuban. The son of a renowned Havana musician, whose own father was one of Cuba’s most illustrious danzon composers, Rubalcaba entered the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory at the age of eight to be taught by his mother before studying composition at the Arts Institute of Havana. By the time of his Blue Note debut (actually leased to the label by the Japanese subsidiary Something Else, in order to circumvent the US economic blockade of Cuba)Rubalcaba had already recorded a number of albums and toured Europe. Indeed, it was his fate to be “discovered” over and over again, by Dizzy Gillespie, who played with him at Havana’s 1985 jazz festival; by Charlie Haden, at the same festival in 1986, and by the German label Messidor, who released albums by him in 1988 and 1989.

Now a genuine star, with a further four Blue Note albums behind him, Rubalcaba has remained a citizen of Cuba, although he lives in the Dominican Republic in order to practice his profession more easily than Cuba’s isolation allows. When he was invited to New York for a Lincoln Centre concert in 1993, a diplomatic row broke out, with the State Department considering him persona non grata, and exiled musicians like Paquito D’Rivera protesting his presence. He still managed to play, but critics carped that he was either too Cuban or not Cuban enough for the jazz tradition. His Edinburgh solo concert – a British debut – is something of a coup, but he will be back in the autumn for a tour with the classical pianist Katia Labeque.

I interviewed him in Germany, with his responses translated into English by his manager. Technique, which Rubalcaba is alternately praised and cursed for, is, he says, “something to which you don’t just have the key in your pocket, to use at your will. The more you have, the more you need to think about how you will use it, and in my case, I always have a sense of its limits.” His first musical influence was Cuban traditional music, especially the heavily African-flavoured music of the church. “After that,” he says, “was Cuban popular music – also very African – and the music I played in my father’s band. If I have a style of my own, it is because I have been using jazz as a reference while also taking in the Cuban and African background which was itself an important influence to jazz musicians in the US.” Rubalcaba is also a much more varied player than he is credited for – he even does a nifty version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The tune, he concedes, was suggested by his manager, but he remains a Fab Four fan, because, he says, he’s in sympathy with “the ideology of the time”. One fondly imagines Fidel himself grooving to Sgt Pepper in a natty camouflaged Beatle-jacket.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Jazz, Played in a Club but Suited for a Concert Hall-By BEN RATLIFF- June 29, 2006

You have heard that one of the charming things about jazz is its halfway position between nightclub and concert-hall music. That it amounts to serious art that can accommodate musical slang, casual reflexes, earthiness, humor.

That perception stops at the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. His solo set on Tuesday night at the Jazz Standard was totally, purely meant for the concert hall. And the concert hall might not have been good enough. A soundproof room, maybe. On the moon.

The weightless atmosphere of Mr. Rubalcaba’s performance didn’t come from looseness; it was brought to you by tension. In all of these pieces he used heavy rubato playing, and the fluctuation of tempo was no light matter; it was 75 straight minutes of sheer alert perception.

It would have all seemed excessive, or chilly, if it wasn’t so staggeringly beautiful. Mr. Rubalcaba can extract a chord from the piano with a shallow, trebly ring, as if playing the harp; he can play a bright, bony note or end a phrase in a chord as subtle as an aftertaste. During the performance, delivered without any introductions or microphone time, he slipped out of pieces unnoticed, ending some songs with faint chords and a whiff of irresolution, not giving the audience time to realize what was going on.

For the gig Mr. Rubalcaba partly followed the arc of his most recent record, “Solo” (Blue Note). He started with the first track, “Rezo,” a lovely slow piece of music at that seemed to move through the harmonic atmosphere of a Duke Ellington ballad. It wasn’t your typical set opener. In some pieces — like his “Quasar,” with a repeated two-chord figure in the left hand — there were steady anchors; in some improvised pieces, based on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” chord changes, there was just a kind of floating, signified by long, improvised right-hand phrases, accelerating and decelerating.

The set was so original that you didn’t feel you were hearing other people’s music. Yet you were: among the pieces lingered over were “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “El Manisero” and “Bésame Mucho.” It was also entirely within the limits of functional harmony, except for some agitated free playing on “Quasar,” yet it felt beautifully disorienting in its solemn and controlled musical rhetoric.

Mr. Rubalcaba won’t be doing this all week: by today, and through the rest of his run at the club, he will be joined by a bassist, Matt Brewer, and a drummer, Jeff Watts. It was generous to play such music in a place where people were actually drawing breath, let alone eating barbecue.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba performs as part of a trio through Sunday night at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232.

Meticulous Jazzman of the World-By BEN RATLIFF- Published: February 17, 2008- The New York Times

The Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who over the last 15 years or so has become one of the greatest musicians in jazz, is meticulous about music. You can tell this by the first unaccompanied notes of “Avatar,” his complexly beautiful new album. He has an almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were playing the strings directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries. He is also meticulous about ideas. He tends to classify music rather exactly, and he talks about jazz in terms of codes and information. He prepares his records — “productions,” he calls them — with conceptual rigor.

Mr. Rubalcaba has spent about a decade living in southern Florida in a quiet gated community about half-hour from Fort Lauderdale. His life looks more like that of a classical-music virtuoso than a jazz musician. He goes to the airport, tours, comes home and dives back into practice.

“I always wanted to have silence when I got home from working,” he said, sitting in the living room of his house last week, dressed entirely in white. Mr. Rubalcaba, who has a wife and three children, is 44, though he looks younger, and talks older. He is small and compact, with boyish freckles on his nose, but discusses his music with lofty self-assurance, almost professorially.

“Avatar,” which came out this month on Blue Note, represents his first serious interaction with the younger jazz musicians on the New York scene in his 15 years of playing in America. (He is to appear at the Village Vanguard, from Tuesday to next Sunday.)

New York can use him. An exciting recent undercurrent of music in the city has been a new kind of Afro-Latin jazz, with greater intellectual complexity, compositional ambition and cultural precision.

But Mr. Rubalcaba has mostly not been part of it. Instead he has been making his records and working around the world with his trio; he has also been involved in album projects with Charlie Haden and Joe Lovano, and has been devising a solo-piano repertory. Mr. Rubalcaba comes from a musical family in Cuba: his father and grandfather were prominent members of popular orchestras. (His father, Guillermo Rubalcaba, was for a time the pianist in the band of the violinist Enrique Jorrín, who created the cha-cha-cha.) Born in 1963, he grew up regularly seeing the best Cuban popular musicians playing in his house: Jorrín, the bassist Juan Formell of Los Van Van, the pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, the percussionist Changuito, the singer Omara Portuondo.

This was a perfect complement for Mr. Rubalcaba’s studies at Cuba’s musical conservatory, where he learned European classical music. “I had two schools,” he said. “The school that I could get in my house, the music of the street coming through my father and my family, and the orthodox school, the classical school, that didn’t want to hear anything about popular music.”

In 1992 he legally left Cuba and went to the Dominican Republic, where he lived for six years; he then he applied for permanent residence in the United States. (He is now a United States citizen; each time he returns to Cuba to see his family, he must apply for a visa.)

Last year Mr. Rubalcaba put “Avatar” together in a hurry, after trying and failing to tease out a concept for another piano-trio record. He decided he was tired of the format, having done it consistently for at least 15 years. (He has made more than 20 albums.) He heard a broader instrumental sound in his head, and enlisted a quintet, member by member.

He started with the saxophonist Yosvany Terry, a slightly younger Cuban living in New York, whom Mr. Rubalcaba knew from school days in Havana. He found Mike Rodriguez, a young trumpeter in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Matt Brewer, a bassist with Greg Osby’s  band. At the end of the process, at Mr. Brewer’s suggestion, he added the drummer Marcus Gilmore, whom Mr. Rubalcaba had never heard. Mr. Gilmore had the task of learning some ferociously complicated music in three days. Three weeks of performances followed, then the making of the album in New York.

In the context of Mr. Rubalcaba’s career the record is unusually cooperative. He asked his band members to contribute compositions; Mr. Terry wrote three pieces for the album, and Mr. Brewer wrote one. And the quintet is as up-to-date a jazz group as can be found.

Sizing up Mr. Brewer and Mr. Gilmore, both in their 20s, Mr. Rubalcaba spoke not so much of what they are playing — their techniques or licks — but the wide range of what they are absorbing, what they are listening to, where they’re getting their input. “They’re part of a new generation of musicians that has more hunger about other things outside of jazz,” he said. “And they don’t see those things as exotic. They see them as serious and deep.” Mr. Rubalcaba himself learned jazz in bits and pieces. Until the late 1970s Cuban musicians were severely discouraged from playing it, for political reasons. Beyond that was the problem of what he calls information. In the mid-1980s Mr. Rubalcaba used to listen to a half-hour jazz show on Cuban radio, but the music didn’t go past the early ’60s; the disc jockey kept replaying items in his limited library, Mr. Rubalcaba remembered. He also had the option of searching for the few American jazz records that had been licensed to record labels in Communist-bloc countries or learning about records from friends who had traveled outside Cuba.  Keith Jarrett, for instance, was not a big influence among Cuban musicians in the ’80s because his records were hard to come by. But Mr. Rubalcaba found his way to Mr. Jarrett’s solo album “Facing You” when a friend brought back a copy from America. And in 1983, when Mr. Rubalcaba went on tour with the dynastic charanga group Orquesta Aragón, someone in Paris gave him a copy of Mr. Jarrett’s “Survivor’s Suite.” To his amazement, six years later he would play with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, musicians on that album.

He has several things going now: his current tour with his new band; his continuing performances of solo-piano repertory, in which he bridges Cuba’s classical and popular music with improvisation and chilling focus; a collaboration with the Cuban-born singer Francisco Céspedes, his second; and a studio session with the French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano in the spring .

He has also been rehearsing in Los Angeles for an opera called “Revolution of Forms,” which may have its first performance in 2011. Set in Havana in 1961, it describes the planning of Cuba’s state art schools. The story tells how various architects and politicians — including Fidel Castro  and Che Guevara — argued about the correct way to fuse art with politics and history. (Mr. Rubalcaba, who attended the school, is working on the score with another composer, Anthony Davis; the libretto is being written by Charles Koppelman and the Mexican-born journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who taught dance at the school in the ’60s.)

Mr. Rubalcaba is a serious cultural syncretist: he talks analytically and philosophically about combining aesthetic elements from Cuba, America and Europe, of mixing ancient and modern. “We have reached a point in the evolution not only of music, but of the world, where people have less resistance to being mixed,” he said. “It is a time to be open and anxious to learn beyond your own space. And it doesn’t take anything away from you. In fact it brings rich things to you.”

But he disdained the idea of working according to a grand project. He applies himself to whatever is in front of him, he explained. “I work as if the thing I’m working on will be the last thing I do,” he said. “It’s much better than looking around it to see what’s ahead.”

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


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,

La espontaneidad de un virtuoso del teclado. (pianista cubano Gonzalo Rubalcaba)(TT: the spontaneity of a keyboard virtuoso) (TA: Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba) Article from:Américas (Spanish Edition) Article date:July 1, 1996 Author: Holston, Mark

La vida en el mundo del jazz puede llevarlo a uno a una nominación para un premio Grammy o a un prestigioso debut en el Lincoln Center. En el camino, si el viajero es un pianista cubano que se llamaGonzalo Rubalcaba, también puede significar un programa cada vez más recargado de presentaciones y apresurados viajes al aeropuerto más cercano para alcanzar vuelos a Tokio, Sáo Paulo, Toronto y otros numerosos destinos cosmopolitas.

Y también una visita al taller de reparación de carrocerías. El hecho de que este virtuoso de treinta y tres años resida en Santo Domingo, la bulliciosa capital de la República Dominicana, le ha significado un tipo de problemas que es improbable que hubiera tenido que enfrentar en La Habana.

“Lo siento, Gonzalo no podrá asistir a la entrevista”, me informó por teléfono José Forteza, el agente del pianista. “Surgió un viaje. Nos vamos al Japón, y camino al consulado tuvo un accidente”.

La cita se cumplió un año después, cuando Rubalcaba, después de tentar la suerte sorteando las caóticas callejuelas de Santo Domingo, llega a la puerta de mi hotel en su nuevo Honda Prelude blanco. Pronto salimos para el barrio colonial pleno de historia para una charla en uno de los cafés al aire libre. Ya sea que ha mejorado sustancialmente su habilidad como conductor o que el tránsito es menos difícil en esta ventosa tarde de junio, Rubalcaba se siente cómodo y en control, al tiempo que relata su vida en esta colorida metrópolis y habla sobre su carrera cada vez más exigente.

Su habilidad en el volante me recuerda las cualidades de su interpretación: súbitos impulsos de energía mientras esquiva a toda velocidad un camión cargado de maderas, pausados interludios mientras atravesamos un campus universitario lleno de impetuosos peatones, una intensa concentración mientras atravesamos las impredecibles vueltas del laberinto de estrechas callejuelas adoquinadas.

Santo Domingo es en la actualidad el hogar del pianista, su esposa María, sus hijos Joao y Joan, de su agente Forteza y de su hermano Luis y sus respectivas familias. La cultura española y africana del país proporciona a los cubanos un entorno atractivo y les facilita las comunicaciones y el transporte que se han convertido en aspectos críticos para satisfacer las exigencias cada vez mayores de su carrera internacional.

El pianista, nacido en La Habana en 1963, es hijo de Guillermo Rubalcaba, conocido pianista cubano que tocaba en la famosa orquesta de Enrique Jorrin. Su abuelo, Jacobo González Rubalcaba, era un destacado compositor de danzones. Con semejante ambiente musical en su hogar, no es de extrañar que el joven Rubalcaba comenzara a estudiar el piano a los nueve años y obtuviera un título en composición musical en el Instituto de Bellas Artes de La Habana. Cuando aún era adolescente inició su carrera grabando y tocando, entre otros, con el trompetista y compositor de bebop Dizzy Gillespie, que se convertiría en uno de los grandes admiradores del pianista cubano.

Sentados en la majestuosa plaza España de Santo Domingo, frente a la ornamentada fachada del palacio de Diego Colón, analizamos su vida en la República Dominicana, sus opiniones acerca del inusitado interés actual en el jazz latino y sus planes para el futuro.

“El barrio colonial de Santo Domingo es el más dinámico, espiritual y arquitectónicamente importante de la ciudad”, comenta mientras observa un panorama que ha cambiado poco desde 1498, cuando Bartolomé Colón, el hermano del descubridor, fundó la que habría de ser la primera ciudad europea del hemisferio occidental y el centro de la cultura española en el Nuevo Mundo. “En la ciudad colonial verdaderamente “se respira esa época”, agrega.

También me gusta La Romana, porque allí todo fue construido alrededor de las atracciones naturales”, dice, pero a su vez reconoce que sus crecientes obligaciones le han permitido disfrutar muy poco su nueva residencia.

Pero otro lugar de la República Dominicana, poco visitado por los turistas, realmente despierta su admiración. “Santiago de los Caballeros (la segunda ciudad de la república, situada a una hora de Puerto Plata en la región septentrional del país) me llamó la atención porque me recuerda a la ciudad de Santiago en Cuba, sólo que es más pequeña”, dice Rubalcaba. “Los santiagueros son muy hospitalarios. Se preocupan por sus vecinos y la gente que los rodea, algo que en esta época muchas veces falta en las grandes ciudades. Son una gente feliz. Al igual que en Santiago de Cuba, siempre están dispuestos a organizar una fiesta, cualquier día de la semana, ya sea de día o de noche”.

Con sus antecedentes de jazz, música clásica y estilos cubanos, Rubalcaba es una especie de anomalía en la República Dominicana, dominada por el merengue. “Todavía no he grabado merengue porque no me han invitado a hacerlo”, dice con una sonrisa. En realidad, fue invitado a realizar una grabación con Juan Luis Guerra, la más famosa estrella pop del país, y participó en el álbum Bachata Rosa, que ganó un Grammy en 1990.

El hecho de que en 1995 lo alcanzara la fama de una nominación para un Grammy es otra indicación del interés que ha despertado este fascinante maestro cubano. “Definitivamente fue una gran cosa desde el punto de vista promocional”, admite pragmáticamente acerca de su exposición a la fama del Grammy. “Uno es visto por un número inimaginable de personas de todo el mundo. Nunca pensé en la nominación, sino en la interpretación y en la oportunidad de promover mi obra y mi imagen”.

Siempre cuidadoso acerca de la forma en que invierte su tiempo y su energía artística, Rubalcabase esfuerza por no ser calificado como artista de jazz latino. En efecto, su último álbum exhibe las distintas facetas de su personalidad artística a través de solos, interpretaciones con su cuarteto cubano y con sus frecuentes colaboradores norteamericanos de jazz, el bajista Charlie Haden y el baterista Jack DeJohnette. Imagine: Gonzalo Rubalcaba in the USA, su séptimo álbum para la legendaria marca Blue Note, incluye originales interpretaciones de un ecléctico programa que va desde “Imagine” de John Lennon, a “Woody’n You” de Dizzie Gillespie, el bolero “Perfidia” de Alberto Domínguez y obras originales grabadas en vivo durante una reciente gira por los Estados Unidos.

“No creo que sea prudente clasificar mi carrera sólo como intérprete del jazz latino”, señala diplomáticamente. “En la actualidad, en el movimiento parecen estar surgiendo nuevos talentos que están renovando el lenguaje original del estilo. En realidad, deberíamos pensar en darle un nuevo nombre”. Un poco alienado por lo que percibe como una tendencia a comercializar el estilo,Rubalcaba esboza algunos consejos para quienes pretenden izar el estandarte del jazz latino. “Estamos trabajando con una cultura seria y profunda”, señala. “Todavía hay estilos vírgenes que deben ser tratados como tales y no a través de un enfoque puramente comercial. No me gusta la idea de que todos se metan en el jazz latino, en interpretar la música folclórica al estilo del jazz. Hay que hacerlo de una manera seria”.

Entonces, en la misma forma en que su música puede cambiar dramática y espontáneamente de rumbo, se torna filosófico, subrayando su profunda pasión por la música a la que ha dedicado su vida. “La nueva generación debería pensar más acerca del valor de la música, debería poner la música primero y pensar menos en sí misma”, sostiene. “No quiero que nuestra música sea una cuestión de moda. Aún cuando ello requiera un lento proceso, el producto final debe ser algo permanente, parte de la historia. Para mí, lo importante es avanzar en esa dirección”.

Por el momento, le interesa la idea de producir un álbum clásico. El proyecto puede involucrar dos pianos y una orquesta e incluir algunas composiciones originales que ha preparado. “No es algo nuevo para mí”, dice, reflexionando sobre sus primeros tiempos en el Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán de La Habana. “Así me eduqué. Por diferentes razones, no seguí y practiqué ese estilo: decidí ser un tipo distinto de músico, más popular. Pero ello no quiere decir que sólo voy a tocar jazz”.

Ya sea en la música clásica o el jazz o en algún estilo híbrido de improvisación afrocubana que aún falta definir, es seguro que Rubalcaba permanecerá por muchos años en la vanguardia de los pianistas contemporáneos. “Depende del tipo de transición que atraviese”, dice. “Eso determinará el tipo de música que toque”.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: a Bud Powell for the 21st century-The Boston Globe -Fernando Gonzalez, Globe Staff

July 19, 1992 MONTREAL — Gonzalo Rubalcaba might be the best pianist jazz audiences in the United States can’t see.

Blue Note Records and the German label Messidor introduced the Cuban pianist on disc a few years ago, and by now many jazz fans know of Rubalcaba‘s astounding technique and capacity for invention. They know of his vocabulary, a language of Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, but also Cuban masters such as Chucho Valdez or Peruchin — blues and bop and rock but also danzon. This is a Bud Powell for the 21st century.

Rubalcaba was discovered by Dizzy Gillepie at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana in 1985; they recorded an album together, and the trumpeter invited Rubalcaba to join him in New York. In 1989, two days before Rubalcaba was scheduled to play at the Festival Latino in New York, his visa was denied. Word was out, though: Bassist Charlie Haden had also discovered Rubalcaba in 1986, and this led (after some legal contortions) to the recordings on Blue Note.

But the State Department has so far refused Rubalcaba a visa. Apparently, the Cold War is over except in some areas of Miami and the District of Columbia.

So when Rubalcaba plays in North America, he plays in Canada. And he was hours late for his recent appearance at the International Jazz Festival of Montreal because, when his connecting flight from Jamaica was aborted due to engine trouble, Rubalcaba could not be rescheduled on just any other flight. According to festival organizers, he was denied permission even to stop in US territory. A private jet, capable of flying direct to Montreal without need of refueling, had to be found.

By the time he arrived, Rubalcaba had to go directly from the airport to the stage.

The following morning, he shrugs off the incident.

“I think we have better times, easier times ahead,” says Rubalcaba, 29, speaking softly in a gently cadenced Spanish. “We are living a very difficult moment historically. Even art is suffering. I think letting political dogma get in the way of artistic activities shows lack of vision and perspective.

“But we have something in our favor: Music is a universal language and moves about freely — even if one’s presence is not there.”

Still, playing in the United States “is important,” he adds. He says that, as a musician, he needs to have “direct contact with the public, the professionals, the specialists of my world, jazz. The US, New York in particular, is a very important market — obligatory for any artist in the world, but much more for those linked with jazz.”

The contrast between his gentle, measured speech and the swagger and exuberance of his playing is striking. In conversation, he seems to compose each answer, carefully choosing not just the words but the rhythms, the pauses. At the keyboard, when he’s in full flight, the serpentine single-note lines, the implacable left hand and the instant reharmonizations wash over the pieces in waves — a tropical downpour of variations and ornamentations.

Rubalcaba was born in Cayo Hueso, a neighborhood of Havana, into a family of musicians. His father, Guillermo, played piano with the orchestra of Enrique Jorrin, the creator of cha-cha-cha. His grandfather, Jacobo, was a conductor, composer and educator.

“We always had people coming to the house either to listen to music, talk about music or be part of a descarga {the Cuban jam session} or a rehearsal,” says Rubalcaba. “And the best thing about it was that we heard just about every kind of music. Mainly we heard Cuban music. But my older brother — we are three brothers — was very advanced in classical piano, so I was constantly listening to classical music. And Cayo Hueso is immersed in popular culture. We had many activites, both parties and religious events of black, African roots.”

He was initially interested in percussion, especially the drums. But when he started formal music education, at 8, he was told he was not ready physically for the drum kit. “So they suggested I try piano,” he recalls. Five years later, he started to study percussion as well, pursuing “a double major.”

He began working as a musician while still in his teens, playing both drums and piano. “Even though I was in school, I was never far from professional musicians. It was intense. I did cabarets, nightclubs, hotel shows, classical music, studio work. Back then it was not out of financial need — I was living with my parents and my education was free. What intrigued me was learning the different styles, the different ways to make music. It was a discipline, a sort of parallel school.”

He started touring outside Cuba as a sideman in 1980 and formed his group Proyecto in 1984.

Proyecto seemed to move in several directions at once, with stunning energy. It updated the sound of Irakere — the extraordinary Afro-Cuban jazz group of the 1970s that featured Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval — while hinting at fusion bands like Return to Forever and Weather Report.Rubalcaba‘s original compositions drew from jazz, European classical music and Afro-Cuban ritual music, but the repertoire also included arrangements of jazz standards (check the breathtaking “Green Dolphin Street” on “Live in Havana,” a 1987 release on Messidor).

The overall sound suggested, at times, a sort of improbable Cuban Third Stream.

“Yes,” says Rubalcaba, “but I didn’t think of it as a new thing but rather like something that has been going in Cuban music for decades, specifically in danzon.” A Cuban ballroom style created in the 19th century, danzon blends elements of European classical music, American pop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Rubalcaba paid homage to the form in his album “Mi Gran Pasion” (1988, Messidor), perhaps his best work on record to date.

He says his main influences as a pianist are Bud Powell, Monk, Evans, Keith Jarrett and, especially, Chick Corea. He sounds almost amused by the infatuation of some critics and fans with his technique and speed.

“Anyone can develop the technique; it’s a matter of years of training, methods, teachers, discipline. For me, it’s not that important — it’s just one more resource, a means to get at certain things.

“I know there is a fascination with the aerobic thing,” he adds with the slightest smile, “but at the end, the truth comes out — and it comes down to musical ideas.”

For Rubalcaba, improvisation, especially on standards, is not just a chance to show off but an opportunity as a composer and arranger. This comes through in his work on “Discovery,” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and the more recent “The Blessing,” with Haden and Jack DeJohnette (both on Blue Note).”All the baroque musicians were improvisers,” he explains, “and the best written works are just notated improvisations, after the fact. For them, improvisation was not different from composition. That’s why I love Monk — you can’t just play on his tunes. They are written in a way that forces you to think of the piece as a whole. When you improvise, you become a cocomposer.”

“For me, it is important to get at whatever is at the center in a piece of music. That means knowing it from its first version,” he continues, and being aware of “the transformations that have happened over time. . . . If you lose that connection with tradition, with the history of the music, your music will not transcend. It will became a circus act, something merely physical, and it will end with you.”

But pursuing those historic connections while living through profound political and social changes, not to mention a continuing cultural blockade, has not been easy. The Cuban Revolution brought on a dramatic break, says Rubalcaba: “It wasn’t a logical, `normal’ historical process. The past disappeared almost overnight. We had to wait for a generation to grow. For a while our schools were full of foreign instructors — now they’re almost all Cuban.”

And then the flow of music and musicians between Havana and New York, an exchange that once had been so rich, stopped. From the Cuban point of view, this severely diminished flood of information and recordings — along with the out-of-date technology and the lack of regular direct contact with US musicians — might have been a blessing in disguise.

“Leo Brower was once asked about the development of Cuban guitar,” Rubalcaba says, referring to the noted classical guitarist, “and he said that if there existed a Cuban school of guitar it was by default — meaning it was shaped by what it was missing rather than what it had. There have been people who have said that, perhaps, this lack of contact these past years has encouraged originality in the Cuban arts. I think there’s some truth to that, but it’s not the whole story.

“Even at the time when the connection between Cuba and the United States existed, Cuba always maintained its originality. We enjoyed what we got from the US — but I like to think that the Cuban world also influenced the culture in the United States.”

Forget politics: Cuban pianist Rubalcaba is Brilliant – By Howard Reich – Chicago Tribune Oct 9. 2005

The control (Rubalcaba) had over the instrument allowed him to do things that seem nearly impossible, rhythmically.’

– Danilo Perez, pianist

‘Paseo’ sums up much of his work

Sixteen years ago,  when  the phenomenal young Cuban pianist tried to perform in the United States, the State Department set off a small media firestorm denying him a visa on the eve of a scheduled concert in New York.  Since then, Rubalcaha has become one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists and – – during a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations in the 1990s- moved to the US .But, lately, history has been repeating itself, with Cuban, musicians finding it nearly impossible to obtain visas to perform in the States. leaving Rubalcaba dismayeed at the seemingly endless political battle between a superpower and an island nation, and its toll on both cultures. “It’s really sad and very horrible,” says Rubalcaba, who plays Chicago’s Auditorium theatre Saturday, speaking from his home outside Miami.

Cuba, U.S. at odds…

“Sometimes you can see the Cuban determination to do something positive, and then  the American response is a disaster. Then you see an American administration with a good position to help the situation, and then Cuba comes back with something wrong. It’s like a never ending struggle.  Perhaps no jazz musician has been more visibly positioned at the center of the contest than Rubalcaba, who– by dint of his outsize talent, has inspired intense reactions from both sides of the American-Cuban divide. When he played his belated U.S. debut, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1993, he attracted a capacity audience and extravagant critical praise. When he played Miami, three years later, more than 200 protestors demonstrated , some spitting on concertgoers, objeing to what they claimed was the pianist’s close relationship with fidal Castro’s government (Rubalcaba had neither neither condemned Cuban authorities nor renounced his Cuban citizenship). Worse, Rubalcaba faced harsh criticism from prominent Cuban musicians who had defected. “He is letting them(the Cuban Government) use him, the Gonzalo Rubalcaba & New Cuban Quartet (Blue Note).  For a  while some observers have been bickering over Rubalcaba’s delicate position on the tightrope of American-Cuban politics, he gradually has transformed himself as an artist, as “Paseo” shows. Listen to the powerhouse pianist who erupts on “Live in Havana” (recorded in 1986 but recently reissued in more complete form on Pimienta Records), and it’s clear that a keyboard giant was emerging. “The control he had over the instrument allowed him to do things that seem nearly impossible, rhythmically,” says Dani- 10 Perez, the fonnidable Panamanian pianist. “He was also able to bring out a lot of the subtleties of Cuban music into his jazz playing in a very original way,” But if Rubalcaba once sounded as if he possessed four hands, his playing has become considerably more refined on “Paseo,” the pianist effectively distilling his work to say more, with fewer notes. Listen to the sleek pianism and exquisite instrumental dialogues between Rubalcaba and his sidemen throughout “Paseo,” and it’s clear how far he has come. “When I started out, people were hearing a very young guy with a lot of stuff to say, with a lot of fantasies, with a lot of dreams, but not with enough experience” Rubaicaba says. “What you need is time, to make the discrimination of how to say things. I cannot exactly say that I play less now, but I can say that I am more conscious what I am playing, and that probably will make the results different. ” Moreover, with “Paseo” Rubalcaba in effect sums up a great deal of his musical experience, from the distinctly Cuban folkloric elements of the opening track, “El Guerrillero,” to the classically tinged elements of “Preludio En Conga #1”: from the high lyricism of the aptly titled “Sea Change” to the rhythmically volatile, utterly contemporary jazz feel of”Meanwhile.·’ Rubalcaba considers this music a sign of his maturation – a measure of what he has been through politically, of his role as husband and parent, of his natural evolution as an artist. Yet it’s also a kind of summation of an already remarkable life in music. Born 42 years in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana into a distinguished musical family, he was blessed to have as a grandfather Jacobo Rubalcaba. who wrote some of the most admired danzones of Cuban ballroom culture, while his father, Guillermo, played piano in the orchestra of the innovator Enrique Jorrin. In effect, Rubalcaba practically breathed music since his infancy, eventually studying classical repertoire in Havana’s famed Amadeo Roldan Conservatory and spending his off-hours marveling at the piano wizardry of the American jazz pianist Art Tatum and other bebop pioneers, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. By age 20, Rubalcaba was touring the world with the celebrated Cuban band Orquestra Aragon. After Gillespie first encountered him, in Havana in 1985, he anointed Rubalcaba “the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years” and began agitating for Rubalcaba engagements in the U.S. A year later, the revered American bassist-bandleader Charlie Haden also laid ears on Rubalcaba for the fIrst time, during a Havana jazz festival. “I fell on the floor and asked, ‘Who is that guy. his solo was so unbelievable,” Haden once recalled “He was 23 at the time, I, but it was like hearing a combination of Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans.” Still; the pianist repeatedly was turned down by the State Department when attempting to play for an American public increasingly eager to hear him. But music of this caliber never could be kept out of the U.S. by mere politics, Rubalcaba’s recordings surfacing here through licensing agreements with European countries that finessed the American embargo on Cuba. So by the time Rubalcaba made the aforementioned U.S. debut at Lincoln Center, American listeners were poised to expect greatness and were not disappointed Since then, Rubalcaba has played with far-flung players such as the genre-crossing Haden, the adventurous tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the Brazilian melodist Ivan Lins and a variety of classical ensembles. That breadth of experience radiates throughout “Paseo,” no two tracks conforming to any particular style or genre. As for Rubalcaba’S political status these days, he puts it this way: “If you want to know about my immigration, I have an American passport,” he says.  “If you want to know about my soul, I’m Cuban.”

JAZZiT Magazine Jan/Feb 2005 Intervista a Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Intervista a Gonzalo Rubalcaba di Vincenzo Martorella – Foto di Stefano Sapora

Atre anni da “Supernova”, esce l’atteso nuovo lavoro del prodigioso pianista cubano. Un disco complesso etrascinante, denso earticolato. Un’opera totale, ma anche un omaggio ai ritmi della sua terra. Lo abbiamo intervistato.

?) Supernova è uscito nel 2001. Dopo tre anni pubblichi un nuovo disco, ·Paseo·. Cosa hai fatto In questi tre anni?

!) Ho lavorato’ e l’ho fatto in diversi contesti. Ho suonatu con Joao Bosco. con il quale ho avuto concerti in Europa, Brasile, America e Canada. Allo stesso tempo ho suonato spesso in piano. Poi ho aiutato Charlie Haden nella realizzazione di ‘Land Of The Sun’. Ho suonato con lui in giro per il mondo. E devo ammettere che sentivo la necessità di realizzare un nuovo album. Sono convinto che si debba incidere un nuovo disco solamente quando i musicisti con cui suoni sono entrati in confidenza con il nuovo immaginario musicale. Quindi, è molto importante andare in tour, suonare il più possibile e crescere musicalmente concerto dopo conceroto. “Supernova” è stato un album fortunato, che abbiamo avuto l’opportunità di presentare in giro per il mondo. Allo stesso tempo, il precedente album con Haden richiedeva che io suonassi in giro per il mondo con il suo gruppo, così mi è capitato di essere in tour con band diverse contemporaneamente: in trio, con Haden e in piano solo. Poi, finalmente, ho trovato il momento giusto per incidere il nuovo disco. E devo riconoscereche mi sono sentito un po’ sotto pressione perché erano passati tre anni dall’ultimo cd e tuttele etichette discografiche, in linea di massima, pretendono un disco ogni anno. Ma vedendo la cosa da una prospettiva diversa posso dire che questo èstato un fatto positivo perché aver trascorso questo tempo lavorando, confrontandosi con musicisti diversi ti dà l’opportunità di crescere, come strumentista e come compositore: diventi più maturo, più consapevole, e dunque più preparato per il passo successivo. Questo è il motivo fondamentale per cui c’è voluto tutto questo tempo.

?) Piano elettrico, sintetizzatori, basso elettrico. ·Paseo· segna una svolta elettrica nella tua musica?

!) Direi di no. In realtà, ho usato questi strumenti anche in passato, seppure occasionalmente. Molti musicisti hanno un’idea confusa su come utilizzare l’elettronica. Èvero: ogni volta che si usano le tastiere si corre il rischio di perdere in parte la personalità del suono, delle radici, delle tradizioni, ma tutto dipende da come lo si fa, da come la tecnologia viene applicata alla musica. Usare i sintetizzatori vuoi dire porsi la domanda su dove ecome usarli. Non posso dire che tutto quello che facciamo noi sia corretto: perlomeno, cerchiamo di proporre ~n metodo di utilizzo delle tecnologie, e un metodo per combinarle con le sezioni acustiche (il piano, il sax, la batteria). Siamo alla ricerca di un equilibrio, equesta è, probabilmente, la parte più difficile, cioè trovare il giusto equilibrio senza mai perdere di vista il risultato musicale. Ma io credo molto nella possibilità di trovare nuove sonorità, nuovi modi di espressione, nuovi mezzi per vedere la mia musica. Adesso dobbiamo decidere come portare in tour questo album. ecapire se quella musica possa essere la stessa anche

senza i sintetizzatori o se, invece, in questo modo possa perdere forza ed energia. Fortunatamente nella musica ci sono molti elementi che vanno al di là del suono: la forma, l’idioma di un pezzo, il modo personale di espressione di ciascun musicista. Quindi, la musica può essere suonata con qualunque tipo di strumento, con una big band, un trio, con i synth, senza i synth. Bisogna anche rapportarsi al pubblico più giovane che ha molta familiarità con i sintetizzatori, enon solo per far vedere che anche noi li usiamo, ma per mostrare loro come li usiamo, con quale personalità.

?) I  musicisti che suonano con te sono formidabili. Ma se Ignacio Berroa è una vecchia conoscenza, dove hai pescato Armando Gola?

i) Èun musicista cubano, così come cubani sono tutti i musicisti, compreso me. Ignacio vive negli Usa da 24 anni. Armando viveva in Colombia, prima di trasferirsi anche lui negli States, dove ha vissuto tra Miami e New York. È buffo perché ricevetti un cd con alcuni suoi demo, quando ancora non lo conoscevo. Chiesi un appuntamento per incontrarlo personalmente e lui mi disse che aveva visto alcuni miei concerti a Cuba ein Colombia (dove, negli anni ’90, suonavo almeno una volta all’anno). Rimasi impressionato dal suo modo di suonare, e iniziammo a provare insieme. Felipe, invece, ha vissuto in Brasile per quattro o cinque anni; lì ha esplorato tutti i percorsi della musica brasiliana, poi si è spostato negli Usa, dove ha suonato per qualche tempo nella band di Arturo Sandoval. Con loro ho, finalmente, per la prima volta, avuto la fortuna di avere musicisti nella stessa città, New York. Quando, ad esempio, mi trasferii nella Repubblica Dominicana, il resto della band viveva aCuba. Qualche anno dopo, il batterista Julio Barreto si trasferii in Svizzera. Anche quando andai negli Usa èstato difficile trovarsi nella stessa città con gli altri musicisti. Adesso ho una band con cui posso spendere tutto il tempo che voglio aprovare eregistrare. Credo molto nell’importanza del gruppo, nel conoscersi, nel confrontarsi. Nel condividere le proprie idee. E riuscire a fare questo, quando si vive in città distanti, e non si ha mai la possibilità di vedersi e suonare insieme, diventa difficile.

?) Da un punto di vista ritmico, questo è forse il tuo album più complesso. L’articolazione ritmica, per te, riveste un valore particolare?

!) Dico sempre che ritmo, armonia, articolazio-· ne delle forme, struttura dovrebbero essere il tuo modo di pensare come musicista, e come essere umano. Non dobbiamo cercare di fare di più di quello che possiamo, ma dobbiamo fare musica nel modo in cui sappiamo farlo. E il risultato èla musica di questo disco. Dal punto di vista ritmico Cuba èun paese molto ricco, e c’è molto più ritmo di quanto non si sappia. È un paese con musiche molto diverse, alcune delle quali non sono affatto conosci ute. Quando ero piccolo ho avuto la possibilità di entrare in contatto con queste espressioni: folklore, musiche religiose eda ballo. Equesto per varie ragioni: innanzitutto perché vengo da una famiglia di musicisti, equesta èstata una palestra per me fondamentale; secondo, perché ho studiato musica classica; terzo, perché fin da giovanissimo sono entrato in contatto col mondo del jazz. Quindi, la mia musica èuna combinazione di molti elementi diversi. Direi quasi uno spazio in cui mettere tutte queste influenze che ci sono nella mia testa, in una maniera organica. Può essere difficile quando leggi le partiture la prima volta. Ma, in fondo, tutto quello che facciamo èstudiare le nostre tradizioni, basarci sulle informazioni che abbiamo, e riorganizzare il tutto in spazi diversi, accordi diversi, sonorità diverse, forme diverse. Una sorta di espansione, di estensione del mondo al quale apparteniamo. Larticolazione ritmica, allora, rappresenta esattamente una nostra peculiare caratteristica, come il modo di parlare odi camminare. Ciò che mi interessa è la fluidità, il flusso ritmico, ela nostra abilità nel conversare, suonando, condividendo questi flussi ritmici.

?) Aproposito di ritmi, come mai, in ·Paseo·, hai suonato le percussioni?

i) Sono stato costretto afarlo! Ame piace suonare le percussioni, ma questa volta sono stato davvero costretto afarlo. Avevo in mente di chiamare Giovanni Hidalgo, ma per motivi extra-musicali,non siamo riusciti aincontrarci per provare il materiale. Alla fine avevamo pochissimo tempo adisposizione per completare l’album e alloraomi sono preso la responsabilità di suonare le percussioni.

?) La tua tecnica strumentale è trascendentale. Eppure, uno dei momenti più belli del disco è il tuo accompagnamento al solo di soprano in El Guerrillero. Con pochissime note, emeravigliosi spostamenti di accento, riesci, almeno cosi mi pare, a trasmettere l’essenza stessa del ritmo cubano…

!) Non èniente di predeterminato, niente di prestabilito. Credo che lo stesso brano possa assumere un significato diverso ogni sera. Magari suoniamo ogni volta la stessa musica, ma le emozioni che quella musica ti ha fatto provare ieri non sono le stesse che provi oggi perché sei tu a reagire diversamente. Ho sempre pensato che i concerti non debbano essere visti semplicemente come musicisti che suonano i loro strumenti: i concerti sono molto di più. Un concerto è: i musicisti, gli strumenti, l’ambiente, il pubblico, l’acustica; tutto questo insieme di elementi condiziona il comportamento dei musicisti, la loro attitudine mentale in quel contesto. Per me, l’abilità di un buon musicista sta nel mettere insieme diverse capacità espressive, nell’avere i mezzi per suonare ciò che èappropriato in ogni momento. È questo il motivo per cui, per me, ècosì importante essere preparato tecn icamente: questo è l’unico modo di essere libero. Libero di fare tutto quello che vuoi, compreso quelle poche note alle quali ti riferivi con un buon sound euna buona intenzione, ofraseggiare in modo aggressivo, o in qualunque altro modo. Devi esercitarti molto, e ad alti livelli, se vuoi essere in grado di portare la musica dove vuoi tu. Ma non c’è nessun piano, nulla di prestabilito, non faccio questo per confondere l’ascoltatore, come qualcuno potrebbe pensare.

?) Quando ascolto la tua musica non posso  fare a meno di  pensare a Manuel Saumell, Ignacio Cervantes, Ernesto Lecuona, all’americano Louis Moreau Gottschalk, e ai compositori cubani contemporanei (Roldàn, Caturla)…

!) E, infatti, sono molto legato alla loro musica. Mi sono avvicinato aloro fin da bambino, perché ascuola ti fanno studiare le loro composizioni. Oggi, poi, mi sento ancora più vicino a questi musicisti, così come a Roldàn, Caturla, Leo Brouwer, veri e propri punti di riferimento. Purtroppo, non tutti comprendono l’importanza che questi grandi compositori hanno avuto nel ventesimo secolo, soprattutto negli anni Venti eTrenta, e io cerco di studiare e comprendere il loro punto di vista. Perché erano musicisti attentissimi atutto quello che succedeva nel mondo intorno a loro, in termini di tendenze e influenze musicali, ma, nello stesso tempo, non persero mai le loro radici, e lavorarono sempre nel più puro spirito delle radici cubane. Fecero molte esperienze all’estero, ma la loro estetica fu quella di creare uno spazio sonoro nel quale far convergere la tradizione cubana eciò che succedeva al di fuori di esse. Questa èuna filosofia musicale, ed èla filosofia nella quale credo. Anch’io cerco di fare la stessa cosa. Avolte ricevo delle critiche, negli Usa, proprio perché la gente non riesce a comprendere cosa c’è dietro la mia musica. Per un trentennio, dal ’62 in poi, tra Usa e Cuba non c’è stata alcuna comunicazione. Ora, invece, molti americani, e anche molti europei, stanno scoprendo la tradizione musicale cubana. grazie anche a un fenomeno come il Buena Vista Social Club, e mi fa piacere perché è un bene che i musicisti di quella generazione abbiano la possibilità di andare in giro per il mondo a suonare quella musica, così importante per Cuba. Le cose stanno cambiando, ma il mio compito, come musicista, resta quello di continuare, a livello filosofico, la strada indicata dai grandi maestri. Come dire, to bring the music at the right moment. ..


Keyboard Magazine May 2008 Interview by Jon Regen

Gonzalo Rubalcaba jumps continents – and centuries – with his groundbreaking take on Latin jazz.

by Jon Regen

Since bursting onto the jazz scene with his explosive Blue Note debut in 1990, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has carved out a singular niche in the musical landscape. In Rubalcaba’s world, jazz standards embrace electronic textures, Cuban rhythms collide with classical articulations – in other words, music is ever expanding and all-inclusive. Rubalcaba’s new album Avata.r is another genre bending tour de force that demonstrates how his unique trifecta of technique, insight, and daring has propelled him to the forefront of modern improvised music. From the sly, conversational “Looking In Retrospective,” where stark piano lines meet drum ‘n’ bass grooves, to the hip-hop infused “This Is It,” Rubalcaba displays both a keen sense of history and a renegade’s sense of exploration. Where yesterday collides with tomorrow, that’s where you’ll find Rubalcaba. At least for now – who knows where he’ll be off to next. I first heard the 44-year-old Cuban-born pianist at the Istanbul Jazz Festival in 2005, where he was anchoring Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Having heard his first few technically astounding Blue Note recordings, I was

at once struck by the lyrical quality of his playing. Rubalcaba seemed to be saying as much with the notes he didn’t play, as with those he did. For a musician who made a name for himself with a fearless technique and a complete command of the piano, the newly-found elegance and restraint in his playing was an unexpected surprise. Recently, 1caught Rubalcaba at New York’s famed Village Vanguard for a blistering set that showcased music from the new album, and the determined musical vision behind it. During a break from his sold-out engagement, Rubalcaba sat down with me in midtown Manhattan to talk about the making ofAva.tar and his constant quest for musical excellence. I read that Avatar was originally supposed to be a trio record. How did that concept evolve into the modernsounding quintet we hear on the

recording? The original idea was to make a trio record. I tried to put together some music for the album, but it didn’t sound to me like it should be for a trio. I thought I needed one or two more elements in this group. There was something I wanted to do for a long time – to extend lines, melodies and harmonies, not only with the piano and the rhythm section, but with different colors and possibilities. I had knowledge of people like saxophonist Yosvany Terry and some other guys who were here in the States composing great music. I wanted to share with them in this spirit. Finally, I thought it was the right time to change the format and to change the members of the band – I had been working almost ten years with the same group, and I loved what they did. But I had that need to go in a different direction. One of the things that made the difference on this record was not only that it was a quintet, but that it was a record that I put fewer original compositions on. This was a band where I wanted to give everybody the opportunity to collaborate. Not only to use them as sidemen, but to put them to work in terms of the conception of the group. And we did it. There are three compositions by Yosvany and one by bassist Matt Brewerm and I’m happy about what they brought to the band. At the end I feel that it represents my record. When I put the new record on, the first thing I was reminded of from the opening on “Looking In Retrospective” was Keith Jarrett. Was he an influence on you? I think so. People in Cuba in the ’60s and 70s were more into Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner. Few people were interested in what Keith was doing at that time. The big explosion about Keith came with his vision on how to play standards. [ had a connection with Keith since the first time I heard his [1976 album] The Survivor’s Suite. But at the same time, musicians in Cuba felt connected with Keith because we have a very strong classical training. The way he approaches the piano – technically and emotionally, it is very in the tradition of the classical school. Plus, he has great knowledge of the jazz tradition and roots. His playing is clean and clear – the articulation and dynamics, the construction of the phrases. For us in Cuba, where there was an obligation to do the classical school, Keith became a very representative image of what we had in front of us as students. That tune that opens the record, “Looking In Retrospective,” is a Yosvany tune, and I’m sure that he was influenced by Keith in his life. Avatar seems to transcend the Latin genre. It sounds like people making music in the most honest sense of the word – expressing today, expressing now. Not expressing preconceptions of what that music is “supposed” to be. I think that’s a good point. To me, Latin music is not exactly what people believe it is. I say that the most well known and promoted part of Latin music is probably the part connected with the dance, the music that the people use in Cuba and different countries around Latin America to dance and to party. I have nothing against that because I come from a family totally related to that history and that tradition. That tradition was my first reference musically, so the first thing I played, actually – not as a piano player but as a percussionist because I played drums and congas first – was Afro-Cuban music. The son, danz6n, chacha-cha, boleros. And after that I came to school and got a classical education, and then [ listened to jazz records. But the first thing was the Cuban stuff. If we go back to the end ofthe 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, we can see that a lot of composers were using all these Cuban elements, but putting them in a different organization. Guys like Alejandro Garcia Caturla, [whose “Prellldio Carta No.2 for Piano Tu Amor Em Flaso” appean on Avatar -Ed.], Amadeo Roldan, among others, were very connected with what composers like Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, and others from the modern school were doing. But they never ignored their roots. What they did was try to actualize their reality at that moment, and put that reality on a stage beyond the Cuban reality. That’s why we saw Cuban composers sharing the stage with successful European composers in the most successful theaters around the world in the ’20s and ’30s. This is the image I have of how to work with Cuban and Latin music. The good thing about the new generation of American musicians is that they are approaching the music without any resistance. They want to learn everything possible. Not only about jazz, or blues, or American tradition, but about everything else that can make them better musicians. And that makes the mission easier, because when you sit down to rehearse and say, “Okay, this is what I have, and here are the references, and I want to go in this direction,” you don’t see any confusion. They understand what you are talking about. And when you see what they have on their iPods – it could be hip-hop or classical to Ellington, Bud Powell, Greg asby, Elvin Jones, or Cuban music. They know about everything. And I think this is what made this record happen the way it did.

Isn’t that really the essence of jazz – blurring musical boundaries? You do chart new sonic ground on this record.

For many of us in this generation, we don’t come to the studio or the stage thinking about how to do jazz. Or thinking about how to do this or that. We come to do music. There are always influences. You can hear the jazz or the Cuban elements. But in the end, the target is to make music. And I think that happened with people like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. They had the same need, because they didn’t want to see themselves as local musicians, but as part of the world. And they wanted to see their music influence not only jazz musicians, but the music of the whole world. And they made it, because if you read comments coming from Stravinsky and Hindemith, they talk about when they came to the United States, how big the influence was of those jazz musicians, and how that experience shaped them to work with those folks at some point in their lives.

There’s something very interesting in your playing on this record – and you don’t hear this from many pianists. When you’re playing lines, you often repeat the same note in a phrase. Where did ou pick up on this from?

Well, you hear this a lot in singers.  And many people don’t notice it. You’ll hear melodies and singers repeat a note constantly. [Huns a melodic phrase where the melody repeats.] And they are repeating notes, but in a very musical way so you don’t notice it. But there are some examples, for instance, McCoy Tyner. He would repeat notes three or four times inside a phrase. And it’s a very smart idea, because not only does the note becomes a platform to a new idea, but the note also takes a new connotation if you change the harmony block in your left hand. John Coltrane used to do this a lot. You wrote a tune on the new album, entitled, “Infantil,” dedicated to John McLaughlin. Can you talk about the influence of innovators like him on you and your music? I think that was an important moment – not only John, but Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, Emerson, Lake & Palmer – that spectrum of people demonstrating how you could be serious, professional, and creative, and at the same time apply technology. They opened the road for many people at that time, and they got a lot of criticism, but they kept on going. Most important to me, besides the music, was the attitude. They kept themselves young. It seems to me that jazz pianists who have practiced a lot of classical technique come upon a sense of discovery and playfulness when they learn to improvise, maybe because some barriers disappear. How have your classical foundations affected your current work? I think it’s about how conscious you are in terms of how professional you have to be when you go to the stage. Even if your function on the stage is to play one note, you have find the way to bring that note out successfully. You have to hit that note at the right time, with the right feeling, with the right quality of sound. So it’s not about music – it’s about finding myself. But not to find the best side of myself, but to find the problems I have. Because some people go to their instruments to repeat and to enjoy what they know already. And they spend three, four, five hours at their instrument, repeating that, enjoying themselves. They are in love with themselves. And I think you have to respect yourself enough every day so that you can avoid that. So that you can afford to do different things, and face your problems and frustrations, and see that you are not perfect. What I can do to better understand music, whether it’s blues or jazz or pop, or danzon, is to listen. But not only to listen to the music that makes me happy, but to listen to the music that at some point I heard and I didn’t understand. So let me revisit that music – and see if that reaction was part of ignorance. Let me see if now I am able to understand it. Where do you think you got this sense of patience? Did it come from members of your family who taught you this kind of discipline? Discipline comes from two different places. School, and home – your family, the people behind you. I think this is really important. When you have parents and people around you that push you and force you because there is a time when you are younger and you’re unclear as to how to do things in life. You need to be forced sometimes. And they show you the idea of waking up every day, going to the instrument, working at the instrument, and spending time in order to get results. You have to find systems in order to maximize your time. You have a responsibility to pay back the people who stand behind you and have believed in you. But the most important thing is love, the need you have to express yourself through the music. To me, the music helps me to be a better person. I’m making music not only because it is a need. The music helps me see the world around me in the clearest way. To make music as a profession is not only to sit down at a piano and play, but we have to deal with many things that have nothing to do with music. Pressures, business around you, and some people don’t have the capacity to deal with it all, and they give up. Mental strength is what makes the difference, to be able to split your time – to say this is the time for business, and this is the time for the music. Are there some pianistic or musical influences that people might be surprised about”? I think you are always hearing things. Even ifyou don’t like an entire performance, there’s always a moment when you’ll say “that moment was important.” You seem like you’re able to focus on the good in many things. If people would take that attitude in life, life would be better. As musicians, we have the ability to criticize everybody. But what is hard for musicians is to talk not about the good things about you, but about the good things about other people. It’s easy to say, “I don’t like this. This guy’s not playing. This generation’s not doing good. The people of my generation were better,” but I think everybody is doing their best. At the end, you can see that people follow you, and they pack the club to come see you, and maybe they aren’t following other guys, but it doesn’t represent quality. There are a lot of elements in that game that are not about quality all the time. I’m clear about that. You can have a great moment, and sometimes you don’t even understand why. And I don’t care very much for great moments, in terms of popularity. Because I think this is something you have no control about. It depends on many factors. You probably get more popularity at the moment where you think you are not doing your best work. There are different factors that make you become popular. What’s coming up for you this year? I’m writing new music for the quintet, and this time I hope to increase the electronic elements on the next record. I’m also working on an opera that is scheduled to be released in 2011. There are two composers involved – Anthony Davis, and myself. And in April, I’m recording with [French accordionist] Richard Galliano, in a quartet that features drummer Manu Katche and bassist Charlie Haden. When I heard you in Istanbul a few years back, I was struck by what seemed like a big change and a new sense of lyricism in your playing. You have always had an amazing sense of facility, but all of a sudden there seemed to be a sense of space and sweetness – a whole new direction had opened up. I always say that people can’t change things at the exact moment they want to. You need to know what you want to change before you can change it. I’m not always happy with what is happening in the moment, But I’m happy that at that moment, I have the idea how to do things better tomorrow. That means that I’m still able to see different ways to go. There’s a possibility to go somewhere – and sometimes you’re wrong, but at least that attitude, that you’re alert and open and hungry, helps you begin transforming things. You’re always searching.

Exactly. That’s the most important thing.

Los conciertos de Mastrito: Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet: El jazz es un gran invento 11/19/10

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet: El jazz es un gran invento

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet, 12-11-2010,

Auditorio Maestro Padilla (Almería)

Lo del pasado viernes si que fue jazz con mayúsculas, del bueno, música total, la demostración fehaciente de que esta es la música del siglo XX, del XXI y del futuro. Llegaba la 2a jornada del XXI Festival Internacional de jazz de Almería, y realmente acudí a nuestro auditorio con ganas.

Entiéndaseme: normalmente siempre tengo un hambre incontrolable por escuchar música en directo, pero..siempre hay días en los que uno esta mas predispuesto. Durante la tarde vi en mi DVD una grabación del pasado verano en el festival de jazz de Vitoria – al que este año no pude acudir en directo – del quinteto que iba a escuchar por la noche, y realmente me ayudó a prepararme para lo que se me venía encima. Pero ya se sabe que, tal y como la realidad supera la ficción, el riguroso directo supera con creces a las televisiones y los DVD ́s.

La cuestión es que cuando me senté en la primera fila del Maestro Padilla, con mi mujer a un lado y dos buenos amigos y, a la sazón, de los mejores músicos de Almería, Chipo Martínez y Antonio Gomez, creo que estaba totalmente receptivo a escuchar buen jazz, y posiblemente por eso disfruté del concierto como hacia mucho tiempo que no lo conseguía.

El quinteto de Gonzalo Rubalcaba venía a proponernos un recorrido en directo por el último disco de este gran pianista titulado “Avatar“. Tal y como el comentó durante una de sus intervenciones, nada que ver con la famosa película del mismo título, y de hecho este disco se editó un año antes del “boom” del film de James Cameron, y desde luego no tiene ninguna relación con el. Casualidades de la vida.

A lo que vamos, que es la música que allí sonó, reconozco que me va a costar bastante explicarlo. Lo que si querría dejar claro es que la complejidad técnica en todos los aspectos musicales no restaba un ápice a la emoción que lograron transmitir todos los músicos desde el escenario.

El repertorio estuvo compuesto de temas propios y, si no me equivoco, todos ellos incluidos en el citado trabajo “Avatar”.

Comenzaron con “Looking in retrospective“, primero también del disco, con una bellisima intro de piano de Gonzalo y en el que tras la exposición del tema comienza una trepidante conversación entre piano, saxo y trompeta. Ya en ese momento nos dejaron claro que el jazz que íbamos a escuchar esa noche era oro puro.

Escuchamos la composición del contrabajista Matt Brewer titulada “Aspiring to normalcy“, temas como “Infantil (Dedicated to John McLaughlin“, también con una introducción de piano con mucho sabor a música contemporánea, “This is it” y “Hip side” y la balada de

Horace Silver “Peace“, ejecutada en trio, y que consiguió crear una tensión que nos dejó a mas de uno sin respiración.

Me resulta muy complicado definir con palabras la forma de tocar de Gonzalo Rubalcaba, porque es una especie de compendio de muchos pianistas, con mucha técnica pero sabiamente mezclada con sensibilidad. De sus dedos salen frases que recuerdan a los grandes del jazz , desde a Art Tatum a Bud Powell, pero que pueden transformarse con una fluidez pasmosa en sonidos extraídos de cualquier composición de Bela Bartok. Cuando quiere sonar a Monk, lo hace. Si quiere hacer guiños a Chick Corea, los hace. Cuando quiere ser lírico, profundo y reflexivo puede sonar a Bill Evans. Pero cuando quiere sonar a Rubalcaba, también lo consigue y se lanza a explorar el piano en toda su profundidad, consiguendo sonidos, frases y “voincings” realmente originales. Su mano izquierda es firme y rítmica, supongo que derivada de sus conocimientos de percusión – mi buen amigo Luis Barberia me contó esa misma tarde que realmente Rubalcaba comenzó como baterista y percusionista, allá en su cuba natal – y su mano derecha literalmente vuela acariciando las teclas. Algunas de sus improvisaciones fueron realmente apabullantes por su delicadeza.

La banda que lo acompaña – por decir algo, porque la palabra “acompañar” se queda pequeña en estas ocasiones – tenia un nivel musical acorde con su líder, como era de esperar.

Especialmente me gustó el sonido, la musicalidad y la solvencia rítmica del contrabajista – compositor ademas de alguno de los temas – Matt Brewer – , y que luego supe que estuvo tocando el contrabajo del músico almeriense Fafi Molina, que salía del concierto con la satisfacción de haber escuchado salir de sus cuerdas tantas y tan acertadas notas.

Los dos vientos, el saxofonista Yosvany Terry y el trompetista Mike Rodríguez también acertadisimos en sus respectivos instrumentos. Yosvany, que aportaba algunas piezas compuestas por él, también demostró una enorme sensibilidad y sus solos estaban realmente bien construidos. Y Mike sacó un sonido verdaderamente hermoso de su trompeta, instrumento que ya de

por sí tiene la caracteristica de unir muy bien lo latino con lo mas puramente jazzistico. Si quien la toca se apellida Rodriguez, pues posiblemente la fusión es mas evidente. Y , por último, el batería Ernesto Simpson en perfecta comunión con Matt Brewer, supo tejer perfectamente la red en la que constantemente se dejaban caer los solistas. Como mi buen amigo Antonio Gomez comentaba nada mas terminar el concierto pocas veces se escuchan a músicos consiguiendo tocar con ese”groove” a tan bajo volumen, consiguiendo tanta sensibilidad y matices. Lo tristemente habitual cuando se atacan estos ritmos es abusar del volumen, pero con músicos de esta talla esto no parecia ser un problema.

En definitiva, buenas composiciones, endiablados arreglos, ritmos complejos, inspiradisimos solos y perfecta comunión entre los músicos, respetándose entre ellos, elevando los silencios a la categoría de bellas notas. En fin, se me acaban los elogios para un concierto de los que le dan a uno la razón cuando piensa que esto del jazz es uno de los mejores inventos de este ser humano que tantos disgustos nos da habitualmente.

Como final, y tras la ferviente petición del no muy numeroso público – una lástima, pero ya se sabe que esto del jazz sigue siendo minoritario – comopara dejar claro que conoce bien sus derechos y deberes como líder, Gonzalo Rubalcaba dejó en camerinos relajándose a sus cuatro compañeros y salió solo al escenario para regalarnos dos piezas a piano solo que consiguieron lo que parecía imposible: subir todavía mas el listón. La última fue algo así como una de-construcción de “El manisero“. Lo que hacía – y deshacía – Rubalcaba con la melodía y armonía de este famoso standard de su cuba natal solo él lo sabe, pero ciertamente nunca había escuchado una versión tan original de tan conocida melodía. Solo una maestro puede conseguir esto, y estábamos ante uno, y de los grandes.


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