In 1995, the Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba was booked for a week at Yoshi’s Nitespot in Oakland, California when the U.S. State Department refused to grant visas to his drummer and bassist. It just so happened that saxophonist Joe Lovano was trying to book the club for the same week. The club’s owner arranged for the two leaders to play the gig as a duo, and that lucky accident led to their wonderful studio recording, Flying Colors.

Even if the two musicians are from different countries and generations, they have very similar backgrounds. Both were born into musical families: Gonzalo’s father was a pianist and his two brothers musicians, and Lovano’s father was the Cleveland saxophone legend Tony “Big T” Lovano. Both are heavily steeped in the jazz tradition. Both have an affinity for the drums, and both are constantly searching for new sounds. Their compatibility has allowed them to create an album filled with musical chemistry, boundless creativity and sonic magic. Lovano says, “The whole process was comfortable and free. It was one of the most creative sessions I’ve ever been a part of.”

Flying Colors lives up to its title: it’s an array of vivid pigments splashed on canvas by this stunning duo. Whether it is Scott Lefaro’s “Gloria’s Step” or the free improvisations of “Mr. Hyde,” this album is dedicated to the search for rhythmic interplay in the absence of an explicit pulse. Silence is a crucial element in this album too, surrounding haunting unisons (such as in Ornette Coleman’s “Bird Food”), extended solos, and shifts in song structure. It seems more to me that the two musicians are challenging the need for structure, pulse, harmony, and melody, and inventing each piece from the ground up.
This strategy means that each selection becomes unique and atmospheric. In Paul Motian’s “Phantasm,” the improvisatory interaction sounds like a contemporary classical piece. Lovano creates some great, haunting melodies on the alto clarinet before Rubalcaba assumes the lead, while Lovano supports him with brushwork on drums. As a listener, you’re mesmerized.

Lovano and Rubalcaba seem to be proving that jazz is at its foundation a rhythmical language, and that whether the song be structured or free, unison or counterpoint, consonant or dissonant, two musicians can communicate with each other to create something transcendental: spontaneous art. As Lovano says, “The music poured out of us as though we were one… [It] just unfolded into a most beautiful tapestry of color.”

A lot has happened in the thirteen-odd years since the release of Flying Colors. Joe Lovano continues to sit atop of the jazz world, spearheading thrilling collaborations and experimenting with formats (like his double-drummer quintet). Gonzalo Rubalcaba has gone on to collaborate with Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Chick Corea and many others. Lovano has dazzled Winnipeg audiences, but Rubalcaba has yet to perform here. I, for one, would be thrilled to hear this outstanding pianist in person!