Gonzalo Rubalcaba Redefines Jazz Piano


Interview translated by Rebeca Mauleon-Santana

“This is only my second tour of the United States,” says Gonzalo Rubalcaba as we drive across San Francisco Bay. “We are just getting to know each other.” It’s astonishing to hear him say this – after all, he’s been amajor force in jazz piano and Cuban music for years. Ever since Discovery, his debut recording for Blue Note, it seems that all anyone can talk about is his phenomenal speed, articulation, power, and unique blend of Cuban and jazz styles – but it’s true. The world at large has had much more opportunity to become acquainted with Gonzalo than we have inthe States, thanks largely to the U.S. State Department’s ongoing embargo against the Castro government. But that’s astory we explored in our August 1991 interview with Gonzalo, and amoot point at that. He now resides in the Dominican Republic, and as he makes additional appearances in the States, his albums are becoming more readily available as well. One aspect of Gonzalo’s playing that we in the States have only experienced on disc is his writing for electronic instruments. Synths played amajor role in his work with Projecto, his pioneering fusion band, and they even make appearances on recordings of his current group, the Quartetto Cubano, such as Rapsodia (Blue Note). “I see technology as an extension of what you can do with music,” says Gonzalo. “I use a Yamaha KX88, aKorg T1, and an Akai S3200. I first compose with asequencer, and then of course record the natural band sound over the sequenced sounds. Then I try to reach abalance where you can’t feel the pressure of the live music on the sequencing, or the other way around. That’s the most difficult thing to reach when you’re working with technology.” With the release of Diz (Blue Note), the influence that Dizzy Gillespie had on his life became public. “I met Dizzy in 1985 at the Havana Jazz Festival,” recalls Gonzalo. “He was, is, and will be forever a vital reference, not only musically, but also spiritually. It was wonderful getting to know him and messing around with him. He was like my father.” Given the influence of Cuban music on Dizzy, it’s a touching tribute that his music would hold sway over Gonzalo. Indeed, over the course of a recent set at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California, the Quartetto Cubano used “Woody ‘N’ You” almost as a leitmotif, the familiar A section making brief appearances throughout the evening. At one point it was swinging. At another, it was the subject of a massive montuno that Gonzalo subsequently displaced by a sixteenth-note, then augmented, then diminished. Finally, they brought it back around to the familiar head, which brought the packed house to its feet. Once across the Bay in the Keyboard studio, we asked Gonzalo to show us how he achieves this remarkable synthesis of Cuban montuna and jazz. Since his reply is rather technical, you may find it helpful to refer to Rebeca Mauleon-Santana’s article, “The Heart of Salsa,” in our January 1996 issue.

Your montunos occur on unexpected divisions of the beat. Tell us how you work with them.

This idea of augmenting or diminishing the rhythmic presence of the montuno really has to do with the percussive elements at that moment. Everything having to do with the montunos is not written or notated. There may be some general harmonic framework as a guide, over which one might feel free to create spontaneous rhythmic cells. Historically, the montuno has always been a part of the ABC’s of Cuban music, stemming mostly from the son, the danzon, and from other traditional forms, including the bolero-cha, the boleromontuno, etc., combined with other Latin musical influences such as the cumbia, samba, bachata, Puerto Rican rhythms, and so on. So here we see that the signature of our music is the montuno, which is also played outside of Cuba, sometimes with different results. The most important thing is that any instrument can play the montuno, not only the piano, but the guitar, a trumpet, the bass, even a harp! I have also been interested in playing a little less simply, with slightly more harmonic complexity to the montuno. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s [in Cuban music] that the harmonic aspects of montuno playing became more advanced – influenced of course by early Impressionist harmony – with musicians like [Antonio] Arcano, [Israel Lopez] Cachao and his family, Enrique Jorrfn, and Rafael Lay, among others, who took it upon themselves to expand the harmonic possibilities of the tumbao, not only with the obvious harmonic instruments such as the piano, but the bass in particular. From that point on, the harmony became increasingly complex, and rhythmically, the accents begin to change. What I have tried to do is “re-create” myself with all of this history, and take on not only these aspects of Cuban music, but of jazz as well, even from the sometimes obviously strong elements of pop and rock, which of course also have many of the same ancestral roots as American and Latin music. In a nutshell, I’m not trying to make any qualitative statement with all of this that any style is better or worse than another; rather, they are transparent, and are the result of varying degrees of rhythmic development, particularly the popular styles that are closely linked to folkloric music. For example, in “Woody ‘N’ You,” where the basic harmony is [as in Example 1, page 491, I tried to transform or invert the harmony. That is to say, I look for a different harmonic space that functions with the theme [Example 2, page 50]. Then in the bridge, we try to play with the rhythm, such as when the melody is in eighth-notes, we try to put triplet figures in the rhythm section to create an echo to the tune. Then we repeat the head with yet another harmonic texture [Example 3, page 50]. That same harmonic framework can be outlined in montuno-like phrasing as well [Example 4, page 52]. This can have any number of possibilities or versions according to the musician’s imagination. It’s interesting how certain cultures – such as the North American – “know” (or need to know) where the “one” is, as opposed to other cultures who “feel” where the beat is. There is a difference; sometimes we can understand or learn a concept without feeling it, when it’s explained.

How can one learn to feel it?

I think it’s a generic problem.For example, a while back I went to Brazil to do a series of solo concerts. I played also with some Brazilian musicians, and later one night they took me to a dance club to see a pianist who plays Cuban music. She said she had learned through recordings, but wanted to know how she could play with a more Cuban feeling. I told her the only way was to go to Cuba. It’s important to be surrounded by the cultural codes which provide you with certain required ingredients: interpretation, diction, behavior, communication, which – as a true artist – one adapts or converts into his or her art, whatever that may be. I don’t doubt that there are people who have an easier time than others assimilating aspects of a foreign culture. This is certainly a function of individual talent, or perhaps geography.

Of course, Cuban culture is very rich and varied. Cuban musicians tend to be quick, very able, and perhaps this is due to the richness of our music, and its rhythmic complexity. Cubans seem to easily assimilate other styles of music, perhaps due to this concept of rhythmic independence which is so prevalent in our music. You see this with classical musicians in Cuba, although perhaps they haven’t achieved the notoriety or recognition. But nevertheless, there has always been a high level of artists, both composers and performers, that have maintained a fluid connection with new developments [in classical music]. The same appears in Cuban popular music, where – despite the fact that these musicians have been cut off from many sources of information and resources – they have been able to develop their skills with influences from beyond Cuban geographic boundaries. We also see this in the last century, where Cuban classical and nationalist composers such as [Manuel] Saumell, [Ignacio] Cervantes, Amadeo Roldan, [Alejandro Garda] Caturla who were always in step with the latest in European musical innovations – never became “Europeanized” composers. They were always very nationalistic, but not in a limited or closed sense; rather, it was a responsible nationalism, dedicated to the exploration of all of our codes, as well as the search for other sources of inspiration. What can I say about this Cuban – rather, this Latin American (but especially Cuban) music? Perhaps North Americans have a clearer understanding of the Cuban clave, for example, which has not only a metric but a spiritual meaning and connotation, and has so many variations which affect the dance, the harmony, thousands of things. Now, many musicians feel the concept of clave without having to adhere to such a strict relationship. You could say that early styles utilized the clave as a type of leitmotif, and you had to play (or compose) without altering it. Now there is more freedom to break the rules, to add an odd measure here and there; the clave disappears and re-appears. Perhaps the u.s. hasn’t been as in touch with these new developments in Cuban music.

Melodic variation is an essential part of your style as an improviser. How do you approach the concept of variation?

The concept of variation is of course an elementary aspect, particularly as a method of composition stemming from improvisation. There are various possibilities: melodic, metric, dynamic, expressive, generic (where the actual genre or style may be changed), or mood. There is really no music which doesn’t have within it some structure of variation. I think this is an essential human quality, notto repeat constantly in the same way, but rather to vary. We can’t precisely reproduce the same thing the same way – you may be precise in the interpretation, but it still has some sort of variation in its message. Perhaps the most important thing is to develop a larger harmonic plane – more than rhythmic – from which to proceed. Cubans tend to build on rhythmic foundations, and this has often limited us in terms of composition. Ideas such as form, dynamics, structure, voicings, use of exotic scales – these have been my concerns as a composer and as an improviser. I like to look at all of these aspects. Within popular music there is a problem: It is rare to find a wide range of dynamics in popular music. There might be one dynamiC level for the beginning [of a tune], and another for the vamp section. Whereas, in something by Beethoven, for example, you may find everything from pppp to fffff, and everything in between. This is a necessary expressive tool, one that perhaps hasn’t been as explored within popular music, but it is one which is very important. The other things to take into consideration when you’re improvising are pre-conceived ideas and extensions of the actual theme, or independence from it. I use both approaches. There are some tunes which have such strong themes that the resulting variations are easy and flowing. There you can use the obvious tools, or decide not to have such obvious restrictions. I like to consider a complete break from the rhythm, moving it ahead or behind – not by accident, but with purpose with a consensus between the musicians, who embellish behind the improviser. There is communication without limitations. Sure, we all have individual experiences – sometimes you feel the strong presence of [drummer Julio] Barreto, of [bassist] Felipe [Cabrera], or Reynaldo [Mel ian, trumpet]. But we are all working toward a common goal.

How did you develop your extraordinary hand independence?

You have to get away from the left-hand role of pop music, which is usually more sedentary – just using block chords. In time, this causes the “death” or lessening of the role of this hand. The idea is that we work to take away these barriers and utilize both hands, not only for chordal accompaniment, but we expect the same technical requirements of the left hand. Music is music, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea of left and right. But I am right-handed, so I have to develop the left hand more. If we are conscious of this, then we can break away to other ideas such as other scales, which may have other fingering (or technical) requirements, as well as broader (or artistic) requirements. I think we should have this exposure at an earlier age, instead of [being taught] the obvious chronology of major scales, then minor scales, then, at a higher level, the modes. In other words, we want to bring to non-classical music the same diverse palette of scales and other requirements so essential to musical creativity. For example, a normal major scale could be used to develop a different hand position, as well as a different musical mood. You can experiment with the fingering, which poses a series of other possibilities. Changing the starting point within the scale, or transposing it, forces you to select a different mental structure, as well as fingering, touch, and articulation. The average pianist tends to play with the hands very close to the keyboard, similar to the old German school which requires you to keep phrases and fingerings within a smaller spatial range. Then came the Russian school, which stipulated one should articulate more, flexing the fingers as much as possible for increased strength. Of course, this doesn’t mean you use the same techniques for all music. jazz pianists tend not to articulate as much, perhaps because many have a strong classical background. They may have a harder time with more legato passages, as they tend to play more staccato. The more you can vary your articulation, the more colorful and varied your expression. Perhaps for pop music this variety is unnecessary. But it is necessary if it will be used for the sake of the music.

How do you develop your dynamic power?

There are different ways of sending or manipulating strength or power, which have nothing to do with politics! [Laughs.] One way is from the wrist, another from the forearm, and another from the entire arm. Of course, you have to consider your own particular techniques and guide yourself according to your own strength. I use all of these approaches, depending on the song and the force required. Now we are working mostly in an acoustic format, although, of course, we are being amplified, and this has a great effect on the dynamics. The ideal acoustic format would have the drums and piano on the same level, which is impossible, ofcourse. Technology may help to create the sensation of balance, which really isn’t a balance, but rather, amplification. Notwithstanding, the music written today, it seems, tries to put the dynamic levels of the piano and the drums on the same plane. Then you have to – consciously or unconsciously – search for a certain amount of power or strength in the interpretation. This can create problems by establishing an unwanted competition for volume between the instruments, which can also hurt you physically. So, we propose to achieve a level of dynamics within the ensemble – regardless if the music is loud or simply very strong (which is different than just playing hard). We wish to play music that is strong and powerful, not to play with excessive strength and force. You have to take into consideration all of the instruments and their possibilities, and it has taken me quite a bit of time to reach this conclusion now with my quartet. We have a trumpet, drums, and electric bass – which could easi Iy have a much louder dynamic range in the ensemble – with an acoustic piano. So we have spent these years trying to polish this sound, to tame that youthful zeal and desire to play and convince everyone that you can play, in order to get to a calmer and more confident place. Coming back to the aspect of power, as I mentioned. It is not only from the wrist and the arm, but rather from the abdomen. Sometimes I lean back so as not to put so much pressure on my arms.

Do you find that audiences in different countries react differently to your music?

Every audience reflects a culture, a collective experience, a tradition, and I think this is an important learning experience, not only for the audience, but for the performer as well. What I could say is that sometimes it is easier to appear in a particular context as opposed to another. For example, Germany is one context, not necessarily because they simply don’t accept everything at face value, but because of Germany’s enormous history and pioneering of so many musical traditions. They are very prepared, well-trained, and highly critical, which makes them an excellent audience. It has been very beneficial to us to play all over Germany – East and West, in clubs, concerts, festivals, and schools. Of course all European countries have a particular significance; we’ve also played in Eastern Europe, which for many years had been somewhat lim ited or separated, perhaps, in its variety of musical propositions. Some of this had to do with the political situation. But now you see an enormous number of festivals and concert halls are opening their doors to many styles of music. japan is a medium without comparison. There is an audience there for everything! There’s so much going on all the time, every day. You ask yourself, how do they fill the venues? On a given day there will be a circus act, ballet, jazz, rock, and theater, and everything is full. The japanese are an active audience, not merely because of their large population. They go to events. And of course we’ve had important recording work in japan. It has been a very healthy experience for us to work for the japanese public. The United States is new for us, but we feel we belong here. There is a common code here, a feeling of home, and the reactions have been positive. You know when you’re being heard, when you’re being understood. In these concerts we’ve had here at Yoshi’s, I really feel our music has been accepted and understood, even through all of the subtleties and nuances of performance. It has been a wonderful experience. ~

Special thanks to Jose Forteza for his patience and assistance with this interview.