Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Keyboard Magazine May 2008 Interview by Jon Regen

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

by Jon Regen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. That’s the most important thing.

La espontaneidad de un virtuoso del teclado … Article from: Américas (Spanish Edition) July 1, 1996, Holston, Mark

Article from: Américas (Spanish Edition) July 1, 1996 Holston, Mark

La espontaneidad de un virtuoso del teclado. (pianista cubano Gonzalo Rubalcaba)(TT: the spontaneity of a keyboard virtuoso) (TA: Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba)

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 llama Gonzalo 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, Rubalcaba se 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”.

Backstage with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Downbeat, Sept 2002 by Philip Booth

Rubalcaba’s four “Invitation Series” performances at the 23rd edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival amounted to a homecoming of sorts: He made his North American debut at the festival in 1988, with his own Grupo Projecto, and in 1989 he performed with Charlie Haden at the bassist’s own “Invitation” concerts (captured on Haden’s Montreal Tapes albums). Cuba-born Rubalcaba, based in South Florida since 1996, spoke with Down Beat at the historic, ornate Monument National in Montreal, the site of the pianist’s four-night late June festival stand. Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s virtuosity, coupled with a ferocious intensity, has driven his remarkable music career, during which he’s pursued thoughtful, intriguing explorations of the Latin jazz continuum. His albums and live performances draw from bebop, traditional Cuban music and his extensive classical training.

It’s a big challenge. It’s difficult every night to show people different formats and a different musical language. But this has been great, because at the same time you have the opportunity to play with people who maybe you haven’t played with in along time. So it’s a different moment-you see what they’re doing, you can bring your new experience. The result has been fresh. I remember when Joe Lovano and I did Flying Colors in ’97. The last time that we did that music was two-and-a-half years ago, and now we’re here in Montreal with a lot of new things, with a lot of new material, new energy and a new vibe. But that’s beautiful because it’s not only what you can give, it’s also what you can learn from the other guys.


The first day was the Inner Voyage music in trio with Carlos [Henriquez] and Ignacio [Berroa], which was very quiet music in general. Then came Joe Lovano: Playing duet with Joe was another musical dimension. It was more abstract, more avant-garde. We had to think about how to play, how to sound as an ensemble, a big ensemble with just two people using the whole range of the instruments-the piano, saxophones, percussion, Joe was using gongs and drums. Every time that we play together is like [trying to] recompose the piece. Yesterday with Charlie and David [Sanchez], that was the mellow, romantic part of the series. We played part of the Nocturne album. We also tried to play standards that not many people play all the time-“Nefertiti,” “Monk’s Mood,” some of Charlie’s tunes and some boleros from Mexico without drums or percussion. That was the challenge to be there, together, all the time. And tonight is more of a-I don’t know how to call it-Latin or Afro-Cuban ensemble with a lot of jazz chords. Basically, it’s original compositions. Over four days people can see different portraits of me, a different frame every night with different energy and attitude. We’re looking for art, beauty and different themes, structures and harmonies.


Most important to me is Charlie’s attitude. He’s always very open and in total disposition to go somewhere, anywhere, especially with Cuban music or music from South America, Latin America. He’s always listening to musicians from Cuba, Brazil and Argentina. That makes our relationship very easy, because I learn from his culture and he learns with us about our culture. That has been the great bridge.


We are working on it, and thinking about bringing people into the studio like Joe Lovano.


And Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. We’ll see. I’m still thinking about the concept of the record. We’re supposed to record in September.

—Down Beat, Sept 2002

dwnbeatsept2002int pdf


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