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.