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“Viento y Tiempo Live at Blue Note Tokyo” Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymée Nuviola

CD review: Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Viento Y Tiempo – Live at Blue Note Tokyo 2020: Video, CD cover

CD review: Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Viento Y Tiempo – Live at Blue Note Tokyo 2020: Video, CD cover

“One of the greatest musicians in jazz” (NY Times), Havana-born piano genius Gonzalo Rubalcaba returns with music from his new album, Viento y Tiempo, recorded in collaboration with his childhood friend, Cuban vocalist Aymée Nuviola, an artist widely known as “La Sonera del Mundo” (singer of the world).

The pianist has integrated huge swaths of the European classical and jazz traditions, while maintaining bone-deep ties to the rhythmic currents of Cuba. After international tours with the legendary Cuban ensemble Orquesta Aragón and fronting his own band Grupo Proyecto, Rubalcaba quickly gained fame on the American scene through the efforts of famed bassist Charlie Haden, distinguishing himself with his bravura technique and a remarkable level rhythmic advancement. Since his auspicious beginnings, he has risen to become one of the preeminent pianists of his generation, releasing over 30 albums, winning two GRAMMYs and two Latin GRAMMYs.

Winner of the 2018 Latin GRAMMY winner for Best Tropical Fusion Album and 2020 GRAMMY for Best Tropical Latin album, Nuviola began her professional career at age nine, and went on to record with Cuban icons Irakere and NG La Banda, among others. She embraced the dance-inspiring fusion called timba, and was a pioneer in the style, releasing five albums before returning to her roots with A Journey Through Cuban Music, featuring her old friend Rubalcaba.

01.Rumba Callejera (En Vivo) (6:43)
02.El Güararey de Pastora (En Vivo) (5:23)
03.El Manisero (En Vivo) (11:20)
04.El Ciego (En Vivo) (4:39)
05.Rompiendo la Rutina (En Vivo) (10:15)
06.Bemba Colorá (En Vivo) (7:27)
07.Lágrimas Negras (En Vivo) (8:56)
08.Viento y Tiempo (En Vivo) (8:05)

Gonzalo Rubalcaba piano
Aymée Nuviola vocals
Cristobal Verdecia bass
Reinier Guerra drums
Majito Aguilera percussion
Yainer Horta saxophone
Lourdes Nuviola backing vocals
Alfredo Lugo backing vocals

Gonzalo Rubalcaba - Viento Y Tiempo - Live at Blue Note Tokyo ...

Azúcar pá tu café – Aymée Nuviola & Gonzalo Rubalcaba ft Cimafunk

Azúcar pa´tu café – Aymée Nuviola & Gonzalo Rubalcaba ft. Cimafunk

Sarasota Herald-Tribune – Cuban pianist crosses borders in varied styles. By Gayle Williams, Correspondent Posted Nov 16, 2019 at 9:25 AM Updated Nov 16, 2019 at 5:50 PM

Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie in 1985, performed for The Ringling’s Art of Performance Series

Ten years ago, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba stated in a “Talking Jazz” interview that his music “should not be parceled under a heading, name or terminology.” Although many might call him a jazz musician, Rubalcaba simply points to his musical origins as a Cuban influenced by movements, international tendencies, and both Western European academic music as well as jazz.

Performing solo Friday on the Historic Asolo Stage under dramatic blue lighting, from the audience perspective, Rubalcaba might as well have been in a Greenwich Village jazz venue.

The music, however, tinged with identifiable jazz elements, blew open new doors and windows. Rubalcaba was often performing from a score but the music flowed from him with an organic, improvisatory ease. I felt myself alternatively lean in to catch the detail and then sit back with eyes closed to soak it all in.

Rubalcaba carried his prodigious keyboard technique lightly. It was his technique and musicality that allowed the myriad of voices, often in a thicket of notes, to emerge and speak clearly.

As if to further thwart the human desire to categorize and pin down experiences, the program for The Ringling’s Art of Performance series had no list of compositions or anything to follow as we so often do in traditional recitals. Yet, he paused briefly, and silently, after each of the eight selections and then returned for an encore. We could follow that far.

What did we hear? Often, as in the first selection, there were angular, syncopated structures punctuated by rapid finger work and crystalline runs across the keyboard. Perhaps we heard a boogie woogie-style ostinato and some straightforward swing, but that was never a lasting framework.

His harmonies were expansive and non-discriminating from typical beauty and piquant dissonance. Neither did he shy away from exploring the growling thunder of the piano’s extreme low register.

Early in the program we found a ballad, as pure and still as a mountain lake, and elegant in its melodic beauty. I was already asking myself, “What is the real difference between a contemporary pianist and composer like Rubalcaba and historic geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, or even Schumann?”

Rubalcaba was considered a prodigy and gained wide acclaim at a relatively young age. He performs with perfection and his original music is quite impressive. In fact, royal courtiers hearing Mozart could not have been more impressed than we were with Rubalcaba’s innovation and sophistication.

His Latin roots appeared here and there throughout the program in rhythm and melodic turns, no more so than in his penultimate selection, which sounded like hints of John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” over a habanera rhythm. We humans like the familiar and it seems the audience did appreciate the nod here and in his encore with just a peck on the cheek of “Besame Mucho.”


Red Sea Jazz 2018 – Gonzalo Rubalcaba

SEPTEMBER 2, 2018 20:26

The 32nd edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival presented the faithfuls with something of a new look. Gone was the traditional four performance area format, with the program trimmed down to three days from the original four.

The latter may have been down to budgetary considerations, but artistic director Eli Degibri, with his seventh tilt at drawing the crowds down to our most southerly resort, clearly had a generous sum of readies made available to him. The musical agenda featured some bona fide big guns, the likes of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, French accordionist Richard Galliano, trumpeter Tom Harrell and preeminent pianist-keyboardist Herbie Hancock.

All of the aforementioned appeared in the New Port Arena – presumably, the name of the new slot is a play on the title of the 64-year-old-and-counting Stateside Newport Jazz Festival, or references the Port of Eilat location.

In years gone by, all the audience and stage areas were cordoned off by freight ship containers on all four sides, piled two high. This year, the stages were positioned on the side of the sea, with no containers behind. While that made for aesthetic viewing, especially with the full moon rising over Aqaba during the first slot each evening, it also unfortunately meant that the stage was exposed to the blustery conditions that were particularly palpable on the first evening.

Some of the jazz aficionados around me in the audience questioned the decision to open the festival proceedings with a solo piano show. They suggested that Degibri would have been better off with a numerically bigger act as a curtain-raiser. The experienced heads may have had logic on their side, but Rubalcaba is one hell of a powerhouse character and artist. Anyone who attended the festival around a decade and a half ago will have witnessed the Cuban’s scintillating virtuosity as he compensated for the absence of his bass player in what had been planned as a trio concert. Back then it was fascinating to watch Rubalcaba’s forays to the nether regions of the keyboard, as he managed to fuse melodic intent with rhythmic underscoring.

Last Sunday Rubalcaba unfurled his prodigious technique coupled with expansive emotional intent, oscillating seamlessly between feral thunderclap attacks to gossamer lyricism, laced with Monkesque lines and romantic departures reminiscent of Bill Evans. Even the gusts of hot dry wind, which threatened to blow his sheet music into the nearby sea, didn’t manage to put the evergreen 55-year-old off his creative stride.

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“The best pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years,” noted Dizzy Gillespie on first hearing young pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in 1985. A year later, Charlie Haden who was equally impressed described Rubalcaba as “a smart hearth”.  These encounters paved the way for this Cuban artist to jazz audiences in the United States and a fascinating international career. Rubalcaba (55) was born in Havana and grew up in a home filled with music and melody. His grandfather, Jacobo Rubalcaba, was the composer of classic danzóns – the official traditional Cuban dance and music genre. His father, pianist and composer Guillermo Rubalcaba, played in the Enrique Jorrín orchestra of, the creator of cha-cha-cha. Gonzalo was a child prodigy performing as a drummer by the tender age of six, before continuing to study the piano at the age of eight following his mother’s advice. He recalls her saying that “the piano will give you an important background, you can use the piano to compose, you can use the piano to harmonize, so it can give you something else,” and concludes, “She was totally right.” As a teenager, he worked as a drummer and pianist in hotels, concert halls, and clubs in Havana. He absorbed the Cuban culture and tradition while further pursuing his classical music studies and achieving a degree in composition. “I had two schools,” he said in an interview with the New York Times, “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.” Later he gradually began to explore jazz, which for political reasons was scarce in Cuba up until the outset of the 1980s. The few jazz records that he happened to come across introduced him to artists such as Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, sparking his passion for jazz. The tripartite base of Cuban music, western classical music training and techniques, and jazz has led Rubalcaba to become one of the most prominent jazz pianists in the world. To date he has been nominated sixteen times for the Grammy Awards and won two Grammy Awards as well as two Latin Grammy Awards. With 46 albums released, he has collaborated with a great many musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Richard Galliano, Tony Martinez, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Ron Carter, Mike Rodriguez, Marcus Gilmore, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, and more. British conductor sir Simon Rattle has titled him, “the most gifted pianist on the planet” and Ben Ratliff of The New York Times depicted him as the “meticulous jazzman of the world”.

Rubalcaba’s solo performance in Eilat is an excellent opportunity to glimpse into the essence of his phenomenal virtuosity. Acclaimed for his infinite technique and abundant imagination, Rubalcaba is able to produce soft and delicate sounds of chimes with his classical piano. The New York Times reported that, “he has an almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were playing the strings directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries”. Composer and musician, Rubalcaba has developed a unique voice that challenges the traditional partitioning of music while stretching from Straight Ahead, Bop, Afro-Cuban and Jazz to the realms of Mexican and Cuban ballads, Bolero and classical Cuban music. In any language he chooses, his works are both moving and authentic, bearing the initial artistic intent of transforming the everyday routine to accentuate beauty and substance. “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.”

Red Sea Jazz Festival

Review: Valdes and Rubalcaba: Cuban keyboard giants at Orchestra Hall

Chicago Tribune

Two concert grands. Two colossal virtuosos. One indelible evening.

Howard Reich Contact Reporter


Granted, listeners who packed Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center on Friday evening already had high hopes for Cuban piano masters Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, judging by the long and raucous ovation that greeted them before they played a note.

But their music exceeded expectations, and not because the pianists played faster, louder or more brilliantly than their reputations suggested. No, it was the clarity, balance, sensitivity and tonal sheen of their work that made this a model of what two-piano improvisation can be — but rarely is. Add to that the well-established wizardry of their technical achievements and the Afro-Cuban pulse of all the music they played (albeit at widely varying tempos), and you had an avalanche of piano virtuosity on a level rarely attained.

Had Valdes and Rubalcaba been paid by the note, they could have retired when they left the auditorium (not that they would have wanted to).

Amid the keyboard fireworks and profoundly stated musical ideas, another theme was at play: a dialogue between pianists of two generations, both born and nurtured in Cuba and now living within minutes of each other in Florida. The tug between their distinct concepts of harmony and musical structure enriched their dialogue, the audience hearing 76-year-old Valdes and 54-year-old Rubalcaba viewing Afro-Cuban tradition from distinct perspectives.

And yet they matched tone and touch so closely that from the evening’s first selection, Rubalcaba’s “Joan,” you sometimes couldn’t tell which pianist had begun a solo without looking. As the music segued between the two, each replicated the timbre of the other, a feat far more difficult to achieve than they made it appear.

“Joan” opened as a lullaby, Rubalcaba’s softly stated legato lines not hinting at the storms yet to come. Valdes entered the proceedings by echoing what he’d heard, the two pianists intertwining lines as if from a single instrument and sensibility. It’s in transparent passages such as these that duo pianists reveal their strengths and shortcomings. And it was obvious that these musicians felt rhythm in sync, thereby avoiding the painfully common ker-plunk effect of two musicians struggling to nail downbeats simultaneously.

During one of Valdes’ solos in “Joan,” he quoted a composer he would return to throughout the evening: George Gershwin, this time with a few phrases from the first movement of the Concerto in F. When Valdes played them, he looked up and smiled, as if half-surprised that Gershwin suddenly would assert himself in the midst of the music-making.

Valdes’ “Mambo Influenciado” not only lived up to its title but offered the pianists an opportunity to produce showers of notes at remarkable velocity. Playing zillions of pitches quickly, however, is not an art. Doing so from two pianos, while maintaining the clarity of each note and sustaining utter transparency of ensemble sound, is. For in this piece, and others, Valdes and Rubalcaba took pains to work in different registers of their respective keyboards and to otherwise avoid too-thick blocks of sound. Thus the music proved texturally lucid no matter how fast and furiously these 20 fingers were flying.

As the evening developed, however, distinctions between the pianists’ work became increasingly clear. Valdes conjured herculean, Art Tatum-like technique in Valdes’ “Punto Cubano,” while Rubalcaba offered a light, sleek, even-keeled approach to high-speed passagework. And though Valdes punctuated bebop-tinged chord progressions with bursts of keyboard dissonance, Rubalcaba continuously pushed into provocative, unfamiliar harmonic regions. Both, however, reveled in quoting from the history of Western music, Valdes offering snippets of “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Ritual Fire Dance,” Rubalcaba responding with a bit of Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz and the jazz standard “Mona Lisa.”

Valdes tipped his hat again to Tatum in playing solo on “Over the Rainbow,” at times reharmonizing it via immense, Rachmaninoff-like chords. Once again, Gershwin appeared, this time with quotations from “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Rubalcaba’s solo version of “El Manisero” (“The Peanut Vendor”) illuminated the searching quality of his approach, the pianist constantly shifting tempo, sabotaging patterns and venturing into rarefied harmony. It’s not an overstatement to say that Rubalcaba’s most technically ambitious passages here evoked Vladimir Horowitz, a comparison one does not make lightly.

The two pianists made a fantasy of the “Gitanerias” movement of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Andalucia” suite, creating vast new melodic and harmonic structures upon it. And who could sit still during the surging energy they gathered in Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Rubalcaba’s jazz countermelodies and Valdes’ Gershwin-like repeated notes riding an unstoppable rhythmic pulse?

This was duo jazz pianism cast as high art, a rare occurrence indeed.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @howardreich


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

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

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

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

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

Umbria Jazz: si vola ai Caraibi! Il duo di star cubane incanta l’Arena … Valentina Scarponi 13 luglio 2017

Exclusive Video…

Umbria Jazz: si vola ai Caraibi! Il duo di star cubane incanta l’Arena
„E’ una danza a quattro mani quella che dà vita alla sesta serata degli appuntamenti all’Arena Santa Giuliana. Ecco i virtuosi del pianoforte Chucho Valdes e Gonzalo Rubalcaba“


Due pianoforti. Che vibrano, si rincorrono. Si annodano per poi sciogliersi e infine, si riprendono. E’ una danza a quattro mani quella che dà vita alla sesta serata degli appuntamenti all’Arena Santa Giuliana, il “tempio” estivo della grande rassegna jazz che anche quest’anno non manca di ospitare le stelle della musica.Potrebbe interessarti:

Spazio ancora ad un altro eccezionale duo:  Chucho Valdes e Gonzalo Rubalcaba, considerati dalla critica musicale due autentici virtuosi del pianoforte. L’uno di fronte all’altro, seduti davanti a due gran coda, danno vita a un jazz condito da rimandi latini che non tardano a coinvolgere la platea.

Basta sentire l’applauso sincero di un pubblico appassionato che conosce l’arte di queste virtuose star cubane. Basti pensare, ancora, che Valdes nella sua carriera, ha già conquistato cinque Grammy e tre Latin Grammy. Ma non è solo il plauso di tali, ambiti riconoscimenti, a rendere speciale la sua musica. Profonda e calda come l’Havana, intrisa di contraddizioni e melanconia, ecco innalzarsi al cielo una lenta e appassionata dedica alla sua terra, all’alma latina, ai Caraibi.

Dall’afro jazz alle tradizioni popolari; dal piano escono mille suoni del mondo, raccontanti secondo il suo stile unico. E’stato lui, celebre fondatore degli Irakere, a ridare forma ai tratti identitari della musica latina. Ma sul palco, insieme a lui, c’è Gonzalo Rubalcaba, nato nell’Avana post-rivoluzione e intriso di folklore caraibico e jazz americano, ma dal solido studio classico. Insieme, quasi fossero una sola anima, incantano il pubblico dell’Arena. E se pensavate che l’Avana fosse così lontana, stasera questi due virtuosi ce l’hanno portata a Perugia.
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Herbie Hancock on Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Herbie Hancock at the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert From Havana Cuba April 30, 2017

Playing jazz is a moment of shear beauty where everything comes together, creativity, spirit wisdom hopefulness amazing grace … like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes… two of the most gifted jazz pianists of all time. Blending tradition with innovation, power with elegance, haunting lyricism with subtle beauty, these two icons represent the best of jazz. Throughout their dynamic careers they pushed boundaries, expanding the possibilities of jazz, sculpting sounds that bring vitality and passion to the music.

Their performance this evening epitomizes co-operation, an essential ethic of jazz and the definition of jazz day. They’ve uplifted the spirits and soothed the souls of legions of fans who find courage empowerment and deliverance within their music. – Herbie Hancock


Gonzalo Rubalcaba y Chucho Valdés en premier mundial en La Habana

Gonzalo Rubalcaba y Chucho Valdés en premier mundial en La Habana



Engaging in a 90-minute conversation with Gonzalo Rubalcaba can be a little overwhelming, something like listening to one of this great pianist’s performances. He begins by mentioning his recent tour of Poland with a singer he knows there, Anna Maria Jopek. This casual reference leads to a discussion of the tangos they performed – yes, Polish tangos, which, he says, are fundamentally similar to Argentinian tangos as well as to the tangos he heard as a boy in Cuba. In fact, Rubalcaba, who is 53, felt so comfortable performing Polish tangos with Jopek – so culturally at home — that he began slipping a danzon composed by his grandfather, Jacobo Rubalcaba, into their shows. And now, as he mentions his grandfather’s legacy, memory guides the pianist toward his own Havana upbringing in the 1960s and ‘70s: his immersion in Cuban folkloric and popular music and the fact that his first instrument was the drum — as well as the fact that his conservatory teachers, most of them from the Soviet Union, regarded the rhythmic music of the streets with disdain. Even so, his compositional training remains profoundly important to him: He currently is “recomposing” a symphonic work that he wrote as a student at the National School of Arts in Havana, in 1983. And now – neatly bringing the conversation full circle — he mentions that his main composition teacher there, the Cuban composer Roberto Valera, was trained in Poland.

Actually, that was just the first 10 minutes of the conversation, which also touched on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden, two of his early jazz mentors. But those few minutes are enough to give a sense of how Rubalcaba’s mind informs his musicianship: the intellect and focus, the marshaling of vast amounts of information, which he decodes to create musical stories told with precision, with an accumulating energy that arrives with a rhythmic jolt, and – increasingly as he gets older – with exquisite touch, with charm and reflection: “The music that we play today should reflect the journey of our lives,” he says.

All of those qualities should be in play next month (May 25-28) at SFJAZZ as Rubalcaba joins two other virtuosos – pianists Chucho Valdes and Michel Camilo – in a tribute to the pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), whose canon is synonymous with Cuba’s pianística tradition. Every Cuban pianist must come to terms with Lecuona, whose music bridged the popular and classical worlds; his renown as a composer in Latin America is often compared to that of George Gershwin in the United States. He penned popular hits: “Malagueña” is instantly recognizable to almost anyone. But he also composed symphonic works and piano suites, matching harmonic subtleties with infectious ostinato bass lines, never losing sight of what Rubalcaba calls the “essence of Cuban music, the black factor, the African roots. In Cuba we found a way to explore and develop all those roots together with the European classical music, and together with the music of other countries, like Mexico, and with America’s jazz culture. This may be the big benefit that Cuban music has – the openness to collaboration, accepting influences from the outside without being afraid of losing what we have. We believe it’s important to be in contact with what is out there.”

For Rubalcaba, Lecuona offers a template for going “out there” in so many ways.

“Lecuona was a complete musician,” he explains. “He used to play his own music, but he was also able to play Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Chopin, Schumann. He was able to compose for different types of ensembles – chamber music, symphonic music — and he wrote I don’t know how many songs, with lyrics, many of them very famous in his time. And then he also became a businessman, who created this amazing” – he pauses, searching for the right word – “this amazing corporation. He made a huge show with his orchestra and singers and dancers and they were able to tour around the world,” stopping at Carnegie Hall in 1953. “So he worked many directions in his life, and I think he’s a great example of how much you can do in life when you really are focused.”

Rubalcaba could be describing his own work ethic.

In September, he performed a Bartok concerto with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. In the following months, he performed with Chick Corea. He toured Europe with his New York-based quartet, paying tribute to Haden. He recorded with Jopek and is now about to record with the Spanish flamenco singer Esperanza Fernandez, with whom he has an ongoing collaboration. He also is going on the road with Valdes; on April 30, the duo will perform at the International Jazz Day celebrations in Havana, and they, too, plan to make an album. There is much more: Rubalcaba is increasingly drawn to video projects. He has been learning about electronics and ambient sounds from his 27-year-old son Joao, a music producer in Brooklyn.

And somehow Rubalcaba, who lives outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida, finds time to teach at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami – all of this adding up to what for most people would be an exhausting regimen. For many years, he practiced six or seven hours at a stretch, every day. No more: “Now I cannot do that. Maybe my neck hurts. Maybe my hips hurt,” he says, sounding amused. “So now I have to split the six or seven hours in different parts of the day. I spend 2.5 hours, and then I stop and I compose or I do this or that and later I come back to the piano and I do 2.5 more. The point is to learn how to get important results without ignoring the reality of your body and your mental state.”
Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Michel Camilo pay tribute to Ernesto Lecuona, only at SFJAZZ May 25-28.

Certain words keep coming up in the conversation: discipline, responsibility, focus.

“My mother was the first person who really put me on this track,” he says. “She was a sweet person, but at the same time she was a very strict person.” He pauses, then adds, “It was impossible to negotiate with her.”

Yolanda Fonseca, his mother, allowed for normal activities: toys, TV, playing with friends. But in school, as in music, Gonzalo learned not only to put in the time, but to “get the best results. You need a plan, or you’re losing time.” This applied to his health, as well. He was asthmatic as a boy: “I had problems with the blood and with my breath, all kinds of problems and – look, I was always in the hospital, but I never lost a year to school. Again,” he reiterates, “my mother was clear that we had to find a way to get out of those health problems.” (Around age 12, he began running, avidly, along the ocean, which made all the difference). “We cannot ignore what you must continue doing in your life, she told me, and that included school and my preparation and training.”

His father, Guillermo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, was a pianist who played with Enrique Jorrin, the violinist credited with inventing the cha-cha-cha. Gonzalo began piano studies around age eight or nine, but he already was playing drums – and played them in the family band into his teens. His parents’ living room was a musicians’ hangout and rehearsal space where he met many of the period’s eminent figures: vocalist Omara Portuondo, pianist Frank Emilio Flynn and Los Van Van drummer Changuito. The latter blew Rubalcaba’s mind, playing scales on coconuts and inventing rhythmic structures that seemed to arise out of Changuito’s “different mental structure.”

Early on, Rubalcaba internalized the perspective of a drummer: “It’s part of my innards. That is the instrument that took me into the music,” he says.

He also was listening to his father’s Art Tatum and Charlie Parker records. After Cuban folkloric music and European classical studies, American jazz improvisation – Keith Jarrett later became a key influence — added a dimension to his playing that took him “into orbit.” By age 17, he was touring Europe with Orquesta Aragon, the venerable charanga outfit, and felt ready to ditch his schooling. It was his mother who insisted that he return to conservatory to study composition.

It made him a more complete musician.

That’s what Gillespie, Haden and other American jazz musicians recognized in him when they began to visit Cuba in the mid-1980s and discovered Rubalcaba – he was the complete package.

By the time he left Cuba in November 1991 – Fidel Castro’s government allowed him to move to the Dominican Republic, where he stayed five years before moving to Florida – Rubalcaba was a certified phenomenon. When he played “Giant Steps” at a festival in Japan in 1992 – you can watch it on YouTube — the musicians standing at the side of the stage, including Michael Brecker, appeared mystified by his prowess.

Back then, Rubalcaba played with an urgency and confidence that verged on cockiness: “When we are young, sometimes we believe that we know a lot,” he comments.

These days, he tends toward a less bravura posture: “It’s impossible for me to play in the same way that I played 20 or 30 years ago. Even if I wanted to, I cannot repeat that, because this is a different reality, a different moment. I’m the same person, the same essence. But I have more experiences, more stories behind me, and all these things are reflected in my music.”

He has three grown children and a wife, Maria, of 31 years. Time passes and he has come to think of himself as “a transmitter” of music, continuing the work of his grandfather and father, who “preserved the memories and the meaning” of the Cuban music of their eras. He will do the same for his own era, for “there’s a spiritual factor in the practice of the music that we cannot avoid. At the end, what is present there is our spirit. It’s who we are.”

  • Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona w/ Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Michel Camilo coming to SFJAZZ May 25-28. Tap here for more info.
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