Archive for the ‘Critical Acclaim’ Category

Review of “Fé” by John Savoth

Review of “Fé” By John Savoth

I first started listening to Gonzalo quite late in the game when I purchase his album Avatar back in 2008. His sound is a challenging mix of afro Cuban styling with the obvious historical influences of Monk, Powell, and even the bebop sensibility of Parker, although the final creation is far from the traditional structure of bebop jazz. It’s his sound and it’s beautiful, passionate, intelligent and filled with the mystery and authenticity of his Cuban heritage. With this background, I approached his latest solo endeavor, Fé (Faith) recently released on his own independent label, 5Passion Productions. I’ve been drawn to solo piano for some time now, particularly Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Andrew Hill and Bill Evans among others, and this disc is a wonderful addition. Players often speak of a master’s voice in the jazz medium, particularly with horn players; that is, those players who have honed their craft to the level that their sound is uniquely theirs (Coltrane, Rollins, Gordon, etc.) but there are certain pianists whose styles have developed to the level that you know it’s them as soon as they touch the keys. Gonzalo fits right into this distinguished group. I recommend, in particular, the beautiful ballad Jean and his two takes on Blue in Green.

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.”

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.”

What the critics are saying about Gonzalo Rubalcaba…

What the critics are saying about Gonzalo Rubalcaba

” … the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years.”

-Dizzy Guillespie’s remarks ( 1985).

“I fell on the floor and asked, ‘Who is that guy, his solo was so unbelievable…He was 23 at the time, I, but it was like hearing a combination of Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans.”

Charlie Haden

” … this is the best new voice to come along in jazz in almost a decade”.

-Jack Fuller, Chicago Tribune

” … Rubalcaba is a world-class jazz pianist with an impressive intensity and

command of his instrument.”

-Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times

” ….. This young man approaches jazz improvisation with an intriguing blend of

appealing abandon and profound beauty.”

-Chris Albertson, Stereo Review

… 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.”

-Jon Regen, Keyboard Magazine.

” … But it is nevertheless necessary to report that Rubalcaba stands in the company

of the great pianists active today in any genre of music-making.

-Richard Dyer, Globe Staff

” … This was certainly one of the top programs ofthe season, whether classical or

jazz, and possibly THE program; an exceptional performer, an exceptional creative

artist at the very top of this game. An unforgettable moment, one that if captured on

CD, you would play over and over, to absorb every nuance.

– Tom Moore, Classical Voice of North Carolina.

” … 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

string directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries. He is also meticulous

about ideas …. “

– Ben Ratliff, The New York Time

” ….. This isn’t Latin Jazz per se, or even Mr. Rubalcaba’s original version of it; it’s

more recognizably modern mainstream New York jazz.”

-Ben Ratliff, The New York Time.

” …. “Solo” is a remarkable achievement, at once meditative and muscular, and a

strong early contender for the 2006 TOP 10 list.”

-Josef Woodard, Jazziz Magazine.

” …. “Solo”, as his ninth recording for Blue Note, Rubalcaba solidifies his position as

one of the finest pianists of his, or any generation.”

-Paula Edelstein, All About Jazz Magazine.

” … He was also able to bring out a lot of the subtleties of Cuban music into his jazz

playing in a very original way.”

-Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune.

” … 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.”

-Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune.

” … Fire and energy reunite in an explosion that expands light and silences sound_ for

an instant. Melodic glimmers emanate from this nebula with just one Star: Gonzalo


-Suan Pineda, Columbia

” … His sparkle doesn’t hide behind the incandescence of these classic stars, however,

but proceeds from a unique source with its own light resulting in a synergy

between the genius of the past and the present.”

-Suan Pineda, Columbia.

” … You can take pianist Gonzalo Ru balcaba out of his native land – and that in itself is

news but you can’t take Cuba out of Gonzalo. The Personal and political passions so

long associated with the island, its pride and isolation in a vast and roiling sea, come

to live in his music.”

-Howard Mandel, Jazziz Magazine.

” .. .It’s not just his speed, it’s his touch …. lt’s not just his touch, it’s his ideas.”

-Marty Hughley, Aregonian, Portland.

” … This reason, which Rubalcaba has managed to balance with a precise dexterity,

dwell in the symbiosis between the know-ledge of yesterday and the exploration of

tomorrow.To revolve around the richness of Cuban and Latin American rhythms,

and return to a classical axis, forms Rubalcaba’s universal style.”

-Suan Pineda, Columbia.

” … And that’s because it isa minimalist musical expression- give that the essence of

minimalism is not the scarcity of details and decorations, but the abundance of

space. Rubalcaba provides this space, enough to ponder and to set afloat in the

periphery of our consciousness.”

– Suan Pineda, Columbia

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: “Fe” (“Faith”) (5Pasion)

by Janine Santana

Gonzalo Rubalcaba considers himself a blessed man. “Fe“, his first recording on his new label, 5Pasion, is a solo piano recording dedicated to the Creator. Like John Coltrane before him, Rubalcaba draws on his passion for composing and performing to create a devotion through music. The result demonstrates a new maturity in his work. It is heightened with a clean recording and Rubalcaba’s masterful knowledge of his instrument.

The chordal beginnings that begin the tunes Derivado 1, 2 and 3, which are placed at strategic points in the album, act like musical amens. The second and eighth tracks are tributes to Cuba’s Santeria faith, and there three tunes for Rubalcaba’s children Joan, Joao and Yolanda Anas. Two versions ofDizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma (With Soul), two versions of Blue in Green by Miles Davis and Bill Evans, and two improvisations based on John Coltrane’s work complete the theme.

In the second track, “Maferefun Iya Lodde Me”, Rubalcaba evokes the musical idea usually spoken by three Bata drummers in the Santeria religious ceremony. His use of space and his judicious use of dissonance create a powerful acknowledgement of God and reveals his sense of awe. In “Improvisation 2”, Rubalcabra invokes Coltrane, using ideas from “Giant Steps” and injecting his own twists, turns and joy into the piece. I found myself staring at my own piano, wondering if any of the 88 keys had not been used in this track! The first interpretation of Gillespie’s “Con Alma” has a strongly European sounding influence, specifically reminding me of Thelonious Monk’s Paris recordings. His attack is sensual, phrased creatively and charming. In “Preludio Corto # 2” (Tu Amor era Falso), Rubalcabra creates a memorial to Cuban composer Alejandro Garcia Caturla. The tune lilts and teases, builds tension and ends without a strong resolution.  The conclusion is symbolic of Caturla’s life, which ended abruptly when he was murdered at the age of 34.

The two interpretations of “Blue in Green” are re-imagined versions of the original recordings. Rubalcaba’s first version makes great use of minimalist expression that fills all the space of the composition completely. The second version begins with a strong sense of space, building in strength and flow with each carefully thought out measure expertly attacked. This is a far more melancholy beginning to the piece, but that yields to introspection by the end of the arrangement. “Con Alma II” is escorted in and out via flourishes in the lowest registers of the piano, framing it with a sense of play, yet the main body of the arrangement moves into a mature and elegant fluidity, carried forward with Rubalcaba’s signature sense of dissonance and broken rhythms. “Improvisation I”, is again successful in invoking the spirit and memory of Coltrane. Rubalcaba’s fingers fly through the scale ideas with ease, finesse and authority, as Coltrane’s did over the saxophone. It ends happily, with a sense of satisfaction. All three tunes dedicated to Rubalcaba’s children are joyful, leaving a different impression of each child’s personality…and may leave the listener breathless! A solo piano album is only as good as its instrument, and piano technician Karl M. Roeder has certainly made Rubalcaba’s Yamaha CFIII sound pristine and pure.


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