[Gonzalo was playing at the Jazz Standard with Matt Brewer and Jeff Waits, after two nights performing solo, and a few days after performing three piano duos with Herbie Hancock at Carnegie Hall. Solo [Blue Note] had just come out.]
TP: In the liner notes to Solo, you write, “For a long time, people at every event have asked me, ‘When will you do a solo CD?’ Today this work is already a memory for me, resulting from the many hours of listening, observing, evaluating, criticizing, and reevaluating. I have come to the conclusion that although this is a solo album, I have never been more accompanied. My history, nostalgia, memories, affection, faith, and the multitude of the unseen companions of solitude, also from the profusion of signs and sounds coming to me also from these otherwise silent colleagues. I speak in these terms, because when I theorize over music and art in general, I feel the need to go beyond the limitations and restrictions of speech in describing the significance and life of the artist, the artistic process, the act of creation, and its product as it actually exists in the music. When I thought of an organized the music of this disk, I felt the necessity to create an album of secrets, letters and notes and photos, something like an aural diary. Everything has been openly stated in the most classic way. But more importantly, it is an album of intuition and courage, where the important messages are openly stated, but then echoed by murmurs, whispers and suggestion.”
So it has been a long time coming. And if someone had not heard a Gonzalo Rubalcaba record since, let’s say, 1995, they might be surprised at how much space and how much silence and how much restraint is embodied in your playing on Solo. I don’t know if that’s a question or not. But talk to me about the process of concretely preparing to do this date.
GONZALO: I want to believe that right now I have so much music in my mind than before, just because I’ve accumulated a lot of reference, confrontations, stores, stories, memories. And I cannot put everything at the same time without a real and great organization. So I have to find the right space and form to translate all those memories, and give them the importance that each one has. So that obligated me to create kind of a performance where I had to be very careful in the way that I transmit it. Technically, musically, and in terms of spirituality, I think that this is one of the best moments in my career, where I feel very relaxed. I don’t know how to name it. But I feel very comfortable, very well-trained to do that—especially this record. It took me a long time to do it—partly because there’s a stipulation in my contract that I do a solo record at this point, following the other records that I was supposed to do. I appreciate that now, because I think there was not a better moment to do that. I had now a better vision of what should be a solo record, taking a few factors into consideration. The Cuban tradition. My classical training. My relationship with the jazz idiom. The references coming from different kinds of players—classical players, jazz players, folk players, popular music. And composers from different moments of Cuban history, especially those composers of the 20th century that not many people know about, who were very compromised with the idea of creating a Cuban music not under the patterns that we heard in the music of Lecuona or in the music of the 19th century, but matching with the contemporary music coming from Europe, coming from America, but at the same time very authentically Cuban.
TP: The composers you’re referring to are mostly early 20th century composers.
GONZALO: Yes. We are talking about Amadeo Roldan, Alejandro Garcia Caturla… I’m speaking about composers that are part of the record, and others that are not part of the record. Leo Brouwer. Among others. So that was a challenge for me, because I was supposed to do a record where it’s not 100% or even 90% improvisation, but where you have to create an interpretation of that music. The challenge was to prepare similarly to what a classical player has to do, and combine both worlds—the interpretation, my vision of that music, and at the same time the improvisation, and, on the other hand, my original compositions.
TP: You’ve said that as a young player you didn’t have access to the music by the Cuban composers you’re referring to, mainly because of the politics of the time, the way ideology affected pedagogy and the creative process. There’s an NPR show that aired last Sunday that’s up on the Internet in which you go into some detail. You said that to do this music, you basically had to deal with scores; it wasn’t possible to hear much of it. How does that function for you?
GONZALO: What happened is that the program of the classical school in Cuba takes too much time and space talking about European tradition. They bring you all the information about the different periods of classical music coming from Europe, and you know all about baroque, classicism, romantic, impressionism, avant-garde—all of them. It’s just at the end of the curriculum where they put you in contact a little bit with the Cuban composers, with the Cuban tradition in terms of Classical music. Which is not enough. So if you want to become a composer, you run the risk of being too much influenced by the European tradition, and not doing the right thing, not putting your roots, putting your tradition to use in the right way. Some of the people who used to be part of my department had no knowledge about the Cuban music. They had no knowledge about the traditions…
TP: You mean the folkloric traditions.
GONZALO: Exactly. I had an advantage to be part of a large family with a very large tradition, very focused and very related with the Cuban history and the most popular Cuban musical styles. That gave me the opportunity to be in the middle of the essence of the Cuban music, but that was not the reality all the time. So it wasn’t until a few years ago when, thanks to a few people, I got those music parts coming from those composers, and I could see the way that they wrote the music, the way that they conceived the music, the vision of their music, and I could work with that. Not when I was in the school. I always said that was a big mistake, not having that information and that relationship with that music before, when we were part of the school.
TP: Go into a little detail about your family. We played your grandfather’s composition. Who was he, and which bands did he play with?
GONZALO: We’re talking about the beginning of the 20th century. So in the ‘20s, the ‘30s…
TP: Is he from Havana himself?
GONZALO: No. From Pinar del Rio, which is the western part of the island. He created his own school in this city and this town, because he thought there were a lot of talented people there without the possibility of going to a private school. So he helped them. He created his own band. He was a conductor also of the military band. But he trained young people. He gave them all the access to learn about how to read music, how to write music, and also how to play. He played some of the wind instruments, the brass section, like trombone and trumpet. But his main job was as a conductor.
So he created a big family, and he was a teacher in all his family. He taught my father, he taught all my uncles…
TP: This is a tradition in Cuba, isn’t it. Cachao comes from that kind of family. Yosvany Terry comes from that type of family. Chucho Valdes. And there are many others.
GONZALO: Exactly. That’s right. He became a very important reference in the music at that time, not only as a musician but as a professor and a person that preserved many of the memories of the Cuban music coming from the 19th century. He also wrote some danzons like this one, “La Cadete Constitutional.” I think he wrote a little book about how to read music. So he was working in different directions—as a composer, as a professor, player, conductor. We give thanks to him to be part of that family and be part of that heritage.
TP: Your father was an important part of the popular music culture of Cuba in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I’ve read that the cha-cha-cha dance comes from his band or was his idea.
GONZALO: He was part of one of the most important charangas, which is the name that they give to those ensembles that used to play cha-cha-cha and so on. It was the Enrique Morin orchestra. So he became a piano player of this band in the ‘50s, and he was there for about ten years, and then he moved to another very old charanga that specialized in danzon. He became a piano player in this band, and at the end he became the director of this band, and he has been the director of this band until now. He collaborated with different people—with Arcaño, Barbarito Diaz… I know that many of those names mean nothing to many people here. But we’re talking about musicians that define the Cuban music in different styles. He is still working. He is still touring around. He has been part of those later ensembles, like the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, all those bands very well known now in America and Europe and around the world.
TP: You played in his band as a teenager while you were in the conservatory, studying the European canon. So you would be playing in the conservatory by day, studying your Chopin and Liszt and Brahms and Beethoven, and at night you’d be in the clubs playing drums…or keyboards and drums.
GONZALO: Yes. My father created a family band with my two brothers and myself (I’m the youngest one), and I played drums in that band. Also a few more friends from the neighborhood who were interested to do music…
TP: Which neighborhood, by the way?
GONZALO: The Centro Havana. I was born there. I remember since I was 6 years old, even before, being part of that group. So when I was 9 years old, that was the right time to get into the school. But until that moment, my first reference as a player was being part of that group with my father and my brothers and people from the neighborhood. I had no idea how to read music. I did everything by ear. That drum was a gift, coming from my mother and my father. When I got to 6 years, they asked me what I want, and I said, ‘I want a drum.” It was a difficult situation for them, because it was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba. So we found somebody else, in a very far place… He used to do a very rustic drum! That was my first drum.
TP: It was a conga?
GONZALO: No, it was a drum.
TP: A drum that you beat.
GONZALO: Exactly. You have no idea how it looks.
GONZALO: Exactly. But I used to play also some Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, like the timbales, congas, bongos, maraccas. So I went into the music through the percussion.
TP: So the core of your musical birth is through the drums, not the piano.
GONZALO: The drums. The piano…it’s too much to say that it was an accident, because it’s not really. But I have to say that when I was of age to apply for a place in the classical school, they disapproved me. They said that I was not rhythmically able to play music.
TP: What did they mean by that?
GONZALO: No rhythm sense. That was their argument.
TP: Did they mean that you didn’t understand the European legato…
GONZALO: They used to do that apparently simple test where you had to reproduce what they sing and what they clap and things like that. And at the end, they decided that I didn’t pass. So my father and one of my brothers came to the school, and they asked for a meeting with the principal, and they refused the result of the test, and they wanted them to repeat that in front of them. So they did it, and I passed it. Part of the bureaucratic thing that is too long to explain; it doesn’t matter.
The next step was which instrument. I was looking to be part of the percussion department, and they said, “no, you don’t have the right age; we have for you piano or violin.” That was a big trouble for me. I said, “I don’t like any of that music.” So my Mom was the one that made me decide about the piano. She said, “Piano is a great instrument that will help you in the future to compose, to write music, to have a different view about how to do music. Even if you decide not to become a piano player, it will help you, so you should do that, and we will see in the future if they can move you to the percussion department.” So I said, “Okay, I want to make you happy, and that’s it.” So I did it. The first year was kind of weird and difficult to me. One of the elements is that I didn’t get well-related with the teacher, so they asked to see if they could change the teacher for the second year, and that was the solution. I was very lucky with that woman who put me on the track to love the instrument, and then develop myself as a piano player. When I was in 5th or 6th year, the principal (it was a different principal already) asked me if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, “Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.” So they gave me the opportunity to do both things at the same time.
TP: How does your percussion background filter into the way your piano playing?
GONZALO: It’s the need to expose myself not only as a piano player but to expose my music as an ensemble. When I am playing the piano, I am not thinking about the piano as a single instrument. I try to put different levels of music and dynamics and texture and message at the same time with that instrument, using pedals, using different kinds of touch, holding some section of the instrument, and doing everything I can to make that music and the result of that music richer. That’s the only way. And the piano provides me that possibility more than any other instrument, because you can play that game with an instrument, getting different kinds of textures and holding the sound here, and playing around here, and using the piano as a percussion instrument but also as a melodic instrument. You can go for a different kind of dynamic. That’s the way that I conceive how to play that instrument.
TP: Early in your career, you played and recorded with Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, John Patitucci, Ron Carter. More recently you’ve worked and recorded with Ignacio Berroa, the Cuban drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie, who plays idiomatic Cuban rhythms and jazz rhythms with idiomatic precision as well. How does the drummer’s style filter into the overall conception of what you play? Would it be possible for you to play the type of music you played on Super Nova, let’s say, without a Cuban drummer? Or a drummer intimate with the codes of Cuban music.
GONZALO: A good question. I think that music has different doors, and that is the important thing for me, that the music gives me the possibility to go with the same music in different directions, depending who is part of the band and the vision of the musicians as part of the band playing that music. Of course, this is music that contains a lot of Cuban codes, Afro-Cuban elements, and it will help a lot if the people involved are related with that. It doesn’t mean that they have to do that in a very orthodox way. That’s totally the opposite of what I’m looking for. I’m looking to give the musicians the opportunity to be related with those codes and at the same time for them to apply what they know over those codes.
TP: Now, you yourself were raised in those codes, because you played drums, and not only did you play them in popular music and dances before large groups of people, but also santeria and religious ceremonies.
TP: So those codes also contain for you a narrative. If you hear a rhythm there’s a certain storyline or state of mind or state of being attached to it.
GONZALO: Mmm-hmm. One good example of that is this record, Antiguo, which is based 100% on all the Yoruba culture. I took some of the chants, rhythms, and I speculated a lot with them, using a kind of electronic ensemble with synthesizers, computers, sequencing, but at the same time live musicians playing different kinds of drums, percussion, brass section, singers. I’m sure that music can be played by a symphony orchestra—it’s very possible. We should add to the symphony orchestra some instruments that are not part of the regular structure of the symphony. But it’s a music that was created with that vision of a big-big-big ensemble. So that music would absorb any kind of musician, any kind of player. This is what I’m looking for—a music without limitations, with a very clear starting point, but at the same time with a totally free road to work with.
TP: Talk about how your relationship with technique has evolved over the years.
GONZALO: I know there’s a lot of points of view about technique and how to apply technique and how to use it, and also many prejudices about it. I want to state an example. Even Thelonious Monk, when you heard the latest Thelonious Monk recordings, you can hear Thelonious Monk clean, more clean, more specific about what he wanted to say, how he wanted to say that. He was not going around, but was going exactly to the point where he wanted to go. It was a technique in relation with the music he was doing; not in relation to something else coming from nowhere, but with the music he wanted to do. This is exactly what every musician should do. I mean, depending on the way you think. The music forces you to find different ways technically to express that, and to express that without confusion, clearly. This is probably the process that I have led to.
TP: Did you study various jazz pianists deeply after emerging on the scene?
GONZALO: I listened to a lot of them. But I wasn’t the typical student that looks into the book, looking for a transcription or something like that. I never tried to memorize any solo or any phrase or any style, because I thought it was kind of a limitation for me. I would say in the same way you read a book, you cannot memorize phrase by phrase. You memorize the content, the essence of a book. This is what I was looking for in the records. But I hate to go and try to play the transcription and play in the same way that everybody…
TP: Conceptually, though, who were some of the pianists you paid attention to between 1989 and 1996?
GONZALO: I can say names that I know influenced me a lot. One of them is Bill Evans. Keith Jarrett. Even before that, Chick and Herbie were two names important as a reference to me, not only as a player but as composers. Art Tatum at the very beginning of my career, along with Oscar Peterson. I remembered seeing Erroll Garner for the first time on a TV show that they broadcast in Cuba—just one piece. I really loved what I saw. Then I wasn’t able to see many people and to hear many of the jazz players. But I had a lot of references coming from Europe in terms of classical music, and also from Cuba. The recordings came from Czechoslovakia, from Russia, from Poland, from Bulgaria, and many of the artists were teaching in Cuba. So I had that mix of reference. Obviously at some moment of my life their influence was more present. It takes a long time to find yourself, It takes a long time to find your own way to say things. Especially when you are very ambitious about music, or you are in relation with many different kinds of music, especially the Cuban music that has many sides—and unfortunately, not many people know about how many sides that culture has.
I am very surprised now by the articles that talk about this Solo record; I feel there isn’t enough reference to talk about what I tried to say with those Cuban pieces, especially the classical pieces that I incorporated in that record. There’s an obvious comparison with the European styles, but there’s nothing deep about the form of those pieces, the language of those pieces, the meaning of those pieces, which are very related with our traditions, with our codes, our music. I don’t see that in the reviews. It’s like they pass that over. They say it sounds a little bit like Ravel, or we can see some of the Debussy influence… It could be very possible. Why not? We are talking about more or less the same times. But they don’t go deep into the structure of the piece, the meaning of the piece. There’s a lot of elements that we could talk about, and we need the right reference.
[Rubalcaba selected “Cancun da Cuna del Nino Negro by Roldan; “Preludio en Conga” by Hilario Gonzalez, and “Homage to Hilario” by Rubalcaba]
TP: In the program notes, Gonzalo writes of Hilario Gonzales that he played his music while still in high school “as an antidote to too much Mozart and Beethoven.” You said that reviews of the new album insufficiently discussed your Cuban roots and the intent of the music. A few words about Amadeo Roldan and Hilario Gonzalez, the dynamics of what they did, and how they inspire you.
GONZALO: We have to say, first of all, that Cuba has been a country that collaborates with many different cultures. A lot of great musicians from different parts of the world live in Cuba, different composers at different moments coming to Cuba to play their music, to teach, to get in relation with composers there, different kinds of emigration from different parts of the world—from China, from Poland, Latin America, South America. So Cuba has been open all the time to confront a different kind of vision, a different kind of attitude about how to create arts—not only music, but painters, writers… It’s obvious that the presence of European culture was very strong for us in Cuba.
The good thing is that Cuban composers, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, took consciousness about what to do with those memories, with this tradition, with this influence coming from Europe, and totally transformed the Cuban music into something at the same level of what was happening in the rest of the world in terms of how to construct the music, especially music at that level—the music that we know as classical music. They took the tools from the European school, but they were talking about their stories, their roots, their traditions.
That was a good example, this one that we just heard from Amadeo Roldan. He took that melody, which is not exactly a folk melody, but his vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he put that into a musical form very similar to the European form. But when we see the score, we see that the left hand and the way that ostinato is working, isn’t the way that a French composer or Russian composer would do it. It’s totally against the time, against the beat, in the same way we do the popular music, in the same way we dance, and the same way we talk, the accent—the melody works over that. There’s a lot of elements. If we check the music score, we see that there is a very particular way to do the music. We can feel some ambiance coming from the European reference, especially the Impressionist composers. But the melody, the rhythm conception, is totally in relation with the popular Cuban music.
This is what is not there in the comments and the reviews. I feel unhappy, not about the record and not about me, but that people who have access to the record don’t have exactly the right reference when they listen to that music. Why? Because there’s not enough information about that side of the Cuban music, not only in the United States, but around the world. People know a little more now about Cuban popular music of the ‘30s and ‘40s, because of Buena Vista Social Club, Afro-Cubanismo… But there’s still a lot of things to discover about the Cuban music.
TP: Do you see yourself as a mantle-bearer of the legacy of these composers whom you’re interpreting on records?
GONZALO: I’m doing that because I like what they did.
TP: I mean, you yourself as a composer. Is your aesthetic consciously referring…
GONZALO: Definitely. Those composers, like Amadeo Caturla and Leo Brouwer, Farina, Roberto Valera, and all of them, I would say that it was the first generation to change the way to produce music in Cuba—with very bad luck. Nobody paid attention to what they were doing. Nobody believed in what they were doing. I don’t think they had enough support to promote the music, to promote their ideas, their conception about how to do music. But I think it is in our hands, my generation, myself, the responsibility in some way to talk about that, to revise that, to check that, to say, “Okay, let’s see what is true, what is the real thing about that, and let’s promote that.” I’m doing that, and at the same time I’m choosing what I like. It’s not that I’m blind about it and saying, “Oh, we should sound that because that’s the way to promote it.” No. I’m trying to combine both things, promote that and, at the same time, I choose to play exactly what I feel in connection with my wish, with my need.
TP: A few words on the jazz you heard as a kid. Chucho Valdes told me that his father, the maestro Bebo Valdes, gave him a systematic pedagogy. He said, “Learn these things in order chronologically,” and he gave him Jelly Roll Morton, he gave him Tatum, he gave him Bud Powell. He did that. Since he lived in Cuba in the ‘50s, he could see musicians playing in Havana, and even play that music with them. You didn’t have that advantage, but you did have your father’s record collection. I’m wondering what it was in that record collection that made you (I’m assuming this) fall in love with jazz or be attracted to jazz at a young age, when it wasn’t part of your immediate environment in Cuba.
GONZALO: I think it was the space to improvise.
TP: Not one person, but the space.
GONZALO: Exactly. That was the first thing that put me in orbit already with that music, and how much importance they gave to the improvisation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the space to improvise in the Cuban music. Every popular music, every folk music is based on improvisation, in that spontaneous act. We had to make a balance on the form of jazz as a music, We see that improvisation is very tied to the main part. I mean, it’s as important as a main section of the piece. That’s a little different than our own structure in our music. But that was the point. When I heard for the first time Art Tatum, I remember he had some record of Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie…
TP: Benny Goodman with Teddy Wilson.
GONZALO: Exactly. Charlie Parker. Among others. To me, the most relevant at that moment was the improvisation section, and that interchange, exchange, that interaction in between the musicians, how they interact, how they followed each other, and how they had to create another story in relation with the main thing during the improvisation section. It’s like they composed again another piece—connected with the piece, but in distinction to that. It made me be in love already with that music, even when I know that I was not able to understand many things that were happening in there.
TP: I’m assuming when you say you weren’t able to understand many things that were in there, you’re referring to cultural codes that were hard to crack because of where you were. What were some of those codes, and which did you crack…
GONZALO: Well, the first question at that time was how they developed this speech. How they arrived at that speech, and how they developed that imagination and that fantasy about the way they play harmonies and the chords, and how the bass player arrived to the conclusion that this was the line that he should do behind the saxophone player’s speech. All those questions were the first curiosity and secret for me. How is that? How do they produce that? What is the sign that gives them the green light to go in this way and to do that? Then with time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but it was about spirituality, about instinct, about…as a conversation.
So I put together two things, that experience with the experience I had with a very important musician, a Cuban violin player, composer and teacher, Pedro Hernandez, in Cuba. He was part of the Barbarito Diaz Orquesta, he worked with Arcano, he worked with many great musicians in Cuba, and we were able to see him in person over many years because he was a friend of my family. He was the one that taught me how to read music. He said something from the beginning: “You have to read music in the same way that you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper is going to say tomorrow. But you get it and you start to read.” So you have to read the music in that way, because the music is an idiom, is a language, and you have to have control of that.
Then on the other hand, I had at the end of my career the possibility to be trained by Roberto Valera, another great contemporary Cuban composer. I remember when we would start our lessons, our meetings talking about composition, he asked me, “What are you looking for here in this school?” I said, “I’m looking to learn how to compose.” He said to me, “I cannot teach you how to compose. That’s impossible. The first thing is that you need to say something. You have to feel the need and the necessity to say something. Then you are able to compose. I will give you the tools, the experience, the rules to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound, according to the reference we have. But you have to be able to say things in your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”
This is what I found also in jazz. Everybody was able to say at the same time their speech and their own voice, and collaborate as a group. That was the thing that really caught me from the beginning when I heard those records.