Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Part 2) — Interview, WKCR, December 5, 2004 Ted Pankin
[Gonzalo was performing with the New Cuban Quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola]
TP: What is the New Cuban Quartet? You state in the notes (toPaseo [Blue Note]), more or less, that at this point you feel free to revisit and reinterpret music that you have performed in the past as well as bringing out new music. The timeline seems to proceed past Irakere and Los Van Van up through Timba. What has brought you to this point?
GONZALO: Exactly what you said. I used to work with the Cuban Quartet about 6 or 7 years, from 1990 to 1996 and ‘97. I produced a few records with them –Antigua, Live In USA, Four and Twenty [all on Blue Note via Toshiba-EMI]. There was a moment in November ‘96 that I moved to the United States. I was living in the Dominican Republic until that time, from 1990 to 1996. I moved to Florida with my family. Also I think that the Cuban Quartet at that time was a little bit tired. We were kind of tired musically. I’m not talking about the human side, but musically. We spent a long time doing the music together, and I have great memories with the Cuban Quartet, but it actually was the right time to quit, to say, “Okay, let’s finish and see if we can do something else different” – each one. There was the moment where Julio Barretto, the drummer, decided to live in Switzerland, and begin his career as a soloist. The bass player went to Paris and the trumpet player is still in Cuba. I moved to the United States.
Right now, I was looking around at what I did in the past, and I found out that the music at that time still presents a lot of places and spaces to recompose, to reinterpret, to take into consideration as a new point, to develop a new music and a new group as the music is still alive – at least for me.
TP: In the intervening time from 1996 to the present, you’ve done many things. You’ve elaborated your own personal study of the piano trio, refined your touch and use of space and so on. You’ve done two bolero projects with Charlie Haden, and the broader audience can see your lyric side. And you’ve also done some very cutting-edge work, such as on Antigua. So a lot of experience is going into this current reexamination of your older work.
GONZALO: It’s a good point about the boleros with Charlie Haden. It’s not only that I could show people my lyrical side. It’s the lyric side of the Cuban music more than my lyric side. It’s the lyric side of the Latin American music, the music of Mexico, music from Cuba, from South America. It’s the side that is not really popular in the world about Latin music. When people think about Cuban music, automatically they think about music to dance, happy music or whatever. Light music. But there are very important composers in Cuba who made a wonderful career making ballads, boleros, songs with incredibly rich harmonies and melodies. Charlie was looking for a different kind of recording, a different kind of music, not with American standards or American ballads. He was looking for something else, totally different. I sent him a CD with a lot of stuff like that, boleros, and he fell in love with it. We decided to do that first recording,Nocturne [Verve]. The second one, which is now the second part, is I’d say an extension with the music from Mexico, in that 90% was music from Mexico. Probably that was the moment when people found out that I could play another musical idiom, musical language, not only what the people used to hear me do onAntigua, on the trumpet stuff, or fire…
TP: Or long extemporaneous improvisations with the trio.
GONZALO: Yeah. But I think everything helped. Everything helped me to arrive at this point where I am right now. The New Cuban Quartet gives me the opportunity to put all the experience together. A lot of ballads, which I think is the most important. We have a space to improvise with total freedom and at the same time to develop forms and structures, not the typical structure that we can see in the Cuban standard music or even the American standard music. At the same time, we keep codes coming from our folklore, from our tradition, and also the tradition of the fusion that we’ve seen not only in the last 20 or 30 years, but from the end of the 19th century. Composers like Cervantes, Amadeo Roldan, Leo Brouwer, Caturla, Ernesto Leuconia, Aaron Copland, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, all of them were involved in this fusion to combine the music from Cuba, the music from… Not the music, but some codes, signs, from the music that we were doing in Cuba at that time with the American tradition. So this is basically what we are doing right now.
I see the record as a single piece with different movements, different chapters, all connected in some way. The difficult thing and the beautiful thing about that is to find a different personality for each tune, a different character. It’s a challenge not only to play the music, but to compose the music. That was the point when I was looking back at the music we did on Antigua specifically. That was the motivation. That was the impulse that I found to say, “Okay, I should go again to the Cuban Quartet, new people, but trying to extend what I was doing at that time.” I think the good thing right now is that I’m a little older and I have a little bit more knowledge. I am more conscious about what I want.
TP: A few words about the members of the New Cuban Quartet. You’re in your early forties, Ignacio Berroa is in his early fifties at this point, and the other two seem to be early thirties, if that.
GONZALO: No, they are less. Armando [Gola] is 24 or 25, and [Felipe] Lamoglia I think is already 30.
TP: Tell me about them.
GONZALO: All of them are Cuban. Lamoglia was living in Brazil for a while, so he had an opportunity to share musical experience with important people there – Hermeto Pascoal and all of them. Armando was living in Columbia for three or four years, and then he moved to the United States, and is moving between Miami and New York. A lot of people know about Ignacio, who has been for 25 years already living in the U.S., making collaborations with a lot of different great musicians and different projects – McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Danilo Perez, Michel Camilo. He’s been working as part of my projects for the last 7 or 8 years.
TP: He’s the type of drummer who, if you closed your eyes, you’d think of somebody in a muscle shirt, sweating profusely, and when you look at him, it looks as though he’s barely moving a muscle, he hardly sweats, and all these rhythms are coming out of him. In your music, who is setting up the rhythms? Are the rhythms coming from your pen? Are you collaboratng with him in terms his execution? You yourself have played quite a bit of drums and worked in your share of dance bands in Cuba. How do you set them up?
GONZALO: It is everything together. I used to write everything, and I used to suggest what I want here and there, at that moment. Probably there’s a lot of drummers who hate me because of that. This is music that needs to be rehearsed. When we have rehearsal time, I always spend much time, 5-6 hours, to present the conception to the ensemble, but also second, trying to find the spaces, the moment where they have to add their experience. I want to see both things clearly—my vision of the music that I wrote and their vision, so that have a space to create, to add whatever they want, always in connection with the musical conception for each chair.
TP: This would differ in concept, I’d think, from your recent trio projects.
GONZALO: That’s true.
TP: Why are the two different? Is the one your compositional voice and the other your improvisational voice? Or do they blend in various ways?
GONZALO: Well, the point is that we find here two…I don’t know if I should say two sides, but it is the same person. The difference here is that when we play trio, 80% of the music that we play is not my music. It is music from American composers, Cuban composers, whatever. And it’s music I try to interpret, or at least to develop. In this case, it’s my music in every aspect – the form, the rhythm, the idiom, everything. It’s not music that can be treated with a rigid attitude. Right now the good thing is that they feel total freedom to play this music. But it takes time. Because it is not music where you play the melody and then you improvise. No. The introduction has an instrument, and then the melody is not only the melody, but it’s the melody with another section which is the development of the melody, and there’s a second part where we are going to somewhere as a result of the first part, and then we come back and there is an improvisation section to conclude the piece. It is a trip to find an end in connection with the whole piece…
I mean, it is a complex way to make music, but it is a rich way to make music, too. What I want is not to present a little melody and a little piece of music where the people finally make improvisations, and that’s it. This is more in the classical conception to the music. That is a music that contains all our traditions, all our experience as a people, with the jazz language; all our training as classical musicians. Because we have to say that, as a Cuban, the musical education in Cuba is 100% classical, so there’s not a jazz school there or a salsa school or whatever. You go to a musical school and what you receive is a classical training. When you finish the school, you can do whatever you want. You can go in any direction you want. But the academics is totally classical.
TP: So as a kid, you were also playing outside of school, and playing folkloric music and dance music.
GONZALO: Yes. But it was a trouble.
TP: You had trouble for that.
GONZALO: Oh, definitely. Because at that time, the classical school didn’t want you to play anything else but classical music. If they discovered that you were involved in Afro-Cuban folklore or music to dance or whatever, they looked at you very bad. They figured you were not serious. And they were totally wrong, because this is a country where the Afro-Cuban music, the popular music is really strong. It’s what made Cuba what it is. At the same time, it was good to have both sides, because we are able now to play all this tradition and a very serious classical form or structure. It’s like you said at the beginning that there’s a lot of reference that was coming from Los Van Van, from Irakere, from many other very popular orchestras in Cuba that used to make music to dance. But the way that we built this tradition is not to dance; it’s to listen. So that’s the difference. And we are able to do that because we already get the tools to create that kind of form, that kind of space, to put all these traditions together, but in a different conception, a different direction.
TP: That’s a tremendous challenge.
GONZALO: It is.
TP: It’s compressing a lot of information. So I suppose some of the challenge is to avoid having it be overly dense.
GONZALO: But I have to say something. This is not a musical language which says that we are the first ones. Fortunately, a lot of people at the beginning of the 20th century (I already mentioned a few names, like Alejandro Garcia Caturla, Amadeo Roldan, Leo Brouwer, among others) already were doing that, more with the symphony orchestra and more with chamber music – but it was exactly the same conception. They absorbed all the music that we used to see in the religious community, the spiritual music, the Afro-Cuban codes, and they put all that information in the service of the symphonic music. Unfortunately, not many people know about this moment of the Cuban music.
TP: Since you entered the international playing field in 1989-90, and your first records came out with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette, and so on… Some Cubans had come here before you, like Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Ignacio Berroa. Many have come subsequently, and are making an impact on the international jazz scene—not just from Cuba, but from around the Caribbean and South America. Their presence has changed the sound of what jazz is. By that I mean, a 7/4, a 9/4, an 11/4 time signature is not exotic; it’s part of what young musicians presume they have to play. How do you observe the changes in the scene since you emerged?
GONZALO: Well, the good thing about Cuban music and jazz music is that both musics are open all the time to accept anything that could make them rich. That’s the reason why we have seen these great collaborations between North Americans and people from Latin America. There’s no need to force anything. It is about attitude. The attitude of the jazz conception of doing music and the Cuban conception of doing music. There’s a totally open mind. You find freedom all the time in the form, in the harmonies, in the rhythm. We cannot say which part has been more influenced by it, the American part or the Cuban part. That’s not the point. The point is that we are arriving to something new, to something totally fresh, to something that we can see a real organization of the harmonic changes, a real organization of the structures to the music, a real organization of the musical textures, a new attitude in the American musicians to absorb, to learn what we are offering. Same with us.
TP: For you, what were the biggest challenges in absorbing jazz syntax? You do have a trio where you’re dealing with the Songbook, with the music of Dizzy Gillespie. Were there serious challenges, things you had to work on?
GONZALO: There were, but the biggest challenge was to find your own voice. There are too many examples of great voices, of great documents in the history of this music, and it’s really hard, after you absorb it all, after you listen to a lot of music, after you think that you learned about this document, to find your own way, your own voice. A voice in a way that the people can recognize you. That’s the big challenge, and I think this is a big challenge not just for me – for everyone.
TP: To deal with Afro-Cuban music properly, American musicians have to learn the codes.
GONZALO: Yes. That’s true.
TP: There’s a lot to learn. You can’t just go in and blow on it.
GONZALO: Mmm-hmm. I know what you’re talking about, and this is very delicate. In the past, I feel many American musicians were looking at Cuban music in a superficial way—only the face, the exterior part, but not INTO the deep part of the Cuban music. The reason why I decided to push a lot to do recordings likeNocturne or Land of the Sun with Charlie, or an album that I did a long time ago, Mi Gran Pasion, which is a danzon album, or Antigua, which contains a lot of the depth of the history of Afro-Cuban music and all the complexity of that culture, is to motivate the people here, and not only here but around the world, about all the sides of our music, our history. That’s the difference, the attitude in relation to each culture.
But I think we are at the point now where the American musicians and people around the world are more conscious about these points we are discussing right now. They know that the Salsa is there. They know that the music from Cuba and from Latin America to dance is there. But they start to accept that we can make music to make the people think, too.