Imagine a music that leaps borders and boundaries, is as smart as it is heartful, attracts listeners to its quiet, confident playfulness and challenges players to realize new realms of sonic substance and quality. Imagine this music of intriguing melodies, complex yet compelling rhythms and myriad harmonic dimensions springs from a composer-improviser who, well-versed in his profession’s real life demands, and, through family tradition, is to his creative art born.Imagine that for reasons having nothing to do with him-another accident of birth that musician is denied access to essential experiences that would likely inform his future maturity and accomplishments, as well as to the audience that might gain the most life-enhancement from his work: Then imagine the bars against him are lifted. Imagine: Gonzalo Rubalcaba In The USA celebrates that happy stage of an ongoing story. Our hero’s virtuosic and romantic modernism has not gone unheard in this country: listeners and fellow players returned from international jazz festivals with reports of his piano mastery, some of his earliest productions were issued by an independently distributed label, and Imagine is his seventh recording made available in the USA by Blue Note (through a licensing pact with its Japanese affiliate Toshiba/EMI Somethin’ Else Records) since 1990. Yet it wasn’t until May 14,1993 that Rubalcaba, two weeks shy of his 30th year, was permitted by the U.S. State Department (in response to a concerted letter-writing campaign) to perform publicly Stateside despite his Cuban citizenship and our threedecade- long embargo on all people and products Cuban. New York City’s prestigious series Jazz At Lincoln Center hosted Rubalcaba in an evening-length program like the one re-constructed on Imagine, featuring special guests Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette and his world-touring Cuban ensemble, at Alice Tully Hall. Alone at the piano, Gonzalo started with a deeply personal re-casting of “Imagine,” John Lennon’s reverie on idealism (he performed the version opening this album and his solo “Circuito II” before a specially-invited audience in Hollywood a year later; he’d given “Imagine” a funkier spin at Mt. Fuji with DeJohnette and John Patitucci, as heard on Images, in ’91). After a duet with singer Dianne Reeves, Gonzalo continued by lovingly turning to his mentor-bassist Haden’s composition “First Song.” Haden’s unerring sense for what’s musically fundamental and drummer DeJohnette’s touch-and-timbre sensitive percussion collaborate in the unfolding of a song that’s elementally beautiful, sad and wise. Out came trumpeter Reynaldo Melian and electric bassist Felipe Carbera-rnusical associates since Rubalcaba’s fusioneering Grupg Projecto of the mid ’80s-and drummer Julio Barreto, one Cuban traps drummer with a natural feel for swing and backbeat. Gonzalo’s writing for this grou~epresented by “Contagio”–draws on conser ·vatory-suitable attention to composition and detail·, the joys of pure bop Dizzy Gillespie (another of his mentors) visited on Afro-Caribbean culture, and the son montuno that’s at the root of Gonzalo’s national and personal heritage (his father Guilhermo being the pianist in Enrique Jorrin’s Orchestra that formulated the cha-cha, his grandfather Jacobo the composer of numerous enduringly influential danzons). As Rubalcaba’s quartet deftly adapts North American jazz techniques to extensions of the Cuban folkloric idiom, it addresses bop classics directly with equal insouciance-hence the brash version of Diz’s “Woody ‘N You.” Like “Contagio,” the elegantly reclaimed Cuban standard “Perfidia” and Gonzalo’s final brief “Mima.” “Woody ‘N You” was captured live during a benefit cOllcert for the NARAS Music Cares Foundation at UCLA in June ’94. The audience is audibly enthusiastic, Gonzalo and his compatriots are obviously pleased to play, their music is audibly alive, and evidence is that since he first visited the States, Rubalcaba still a Cuban citizen but now a resident of the Dominican Republic, has triumphed here again and again. Imagine that great nations bow with respect to fine art, that minds finds solutions to larger problems as people come together in the creation and enjoyment of intelligently rich music, that more than one talent of enormous originality and extraordinary potential resides in a place so forbidden or remote we’re in danger of never hearing of them, much I.ess hearing they themselves. Listen to Imagine: Gonzalo Rubalcaba In The USA and be satisfied hopes sometimes come true.

-Howard Mandel