If Gonzalo Rubalcaba was “discovered” by Charlie Haden during a 1986 Liberation Music Orchestra tour of Cuba and first introduced to the international jazz world through his surprise 1990 Montreux Jazz fest appearance with Haden and drummer Paul Motian (heard on Discovery,) The Blessing is the wondrous studio debut of a phenomenally gifted and mature artist. If Gonzalo is the brilliantly original heir of a Havana family long celebrated for its musicality, a student since early consciousness of his father Guilhermos’ piano tenure with Enrique Torrin’s Orchestra, classically trained since age eight (he was born in 1963) and tutored in the creative hothouse of a Caribbean capitol during the flowering of lrakere under the stewardship of Fidel, The Blessing is the hoped·for product of synthesized genetic and social forces, the graceful result of interwoven nature and nurture. If music of this high an order can only be made by three minds in noble collaboration, the utmost sensitivity to touch and nuances of interplay raised to the third power, The Blessing ranks among the finest examples of a genre that embraces the equilateral trios headed by pianists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett no less than Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Tatum, Ellington, Basie and Monk. If passionate, contemplative and committed romance is in order, The Blessing is the perfect score. From the opening “Circuito” to the finale “Mima”-two of Gonzalo’s rhapsodic compositions-through Haden’s portrait of the Nicaraguan patriot “Sandino,” Ornette Coleman’s lyrically jaunty “The Blessing,” Jack DeJohnette’s haunting “Silver Hollow,” Rubalcaba’s intensely personal themes “Sinpunto y Contracopa” (pointless and contrary?) and “Sin remedio, el mar” (the inevitable sea), the classic Latin ballad “Besame Mucho” (kiss me lots) and Trane’s “Giant Steps,” which incredibly he makes his own, the pianist simply froths, his freedom of sense and sensuality spilling over. As DeJohnette reinforces and accentuates the subtle structures and Haden provides a rock solid basis upon which to found sweeping harmonic adventures, Rubalcaba allows emotional credibility to overwhelm technical prowess. Both his integrity and his skill are impossible to fake, and at levels daunting to imitate. Of the dozen or so fine, diversely accomplished young pianists who’ve emerged in the ’80s-after a period during which the acoustic instrument suffered neglect in favor of electronic keyboards, despite breakthroughs by several eminent underground players Gonzalo is suddenly a major figure. That he is hamstrung by U.S. Immigration and State Department restrictions on performing in America or even engaging in profitable activity directly with U.S. firms does not prevent him from appealing to American ears. The hint of montuno occasionally breaking through his improvisations is as familiar to jazz as the Latin tinge Jelly Roll Morton cited in New Orleans’ music. There is no way to keep such communicative music from spreading to those who want and need it. Similarly, whoever tries to contain or hoard such splendid blossomings of imagination and creativity threatens to waste the precious emanations by allowing their source to dry up. However, Gonzalo Rubalcaba does not seem in danger of any government’s suppression. His music is a model of a Cuban national’s art for all the world to admire. His fingers sing not of a political program, but of a human soul’s perceptions and expressions. That his connections with Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette (and Paul Motian and Chico Hamilton and Dizzy Gillespie, with whom he’s jammed) flow so effortlessly, without contrivance or even very much rehearsal, speaks volumes about the commonality of mankind. That Gonzalo has absorbed so much of contemporary America’s jazz culture also attests to the failure of artificial borders to restrain the natural passage of feeling and thought. Deep and fundamental beauty is the unexpected but welcomed hallmark of Gonzalo’s music. Neither his earlier recordings on the Cuban Engrem and the German Messidor labels, nor concerts with his fusion group Projecto quite foreshadowed the achievements herein. Perhaps the company he’s kept inspired him; if so, may the pianist always find collaborators as stimulating, alert and empathetic as Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette (that in itself will be hard). Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s future is unpredictable, but his promise now is certain. His music offers true balm and insight to whoever turns to it. He’s blessed, and this album is a blessing. Of that there’s no disguise.

-Howard Mandel

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