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.”