Paul Weideman – The New Mexican

Two piano powerhouses share the stage at the Lensic Peforming Arts Center on Saturday, July 28. With 13 Grammy or Latin Grammy awards between them, Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba promise to electrify what will probably be a sold-out crowd at the New Mexico Jazz Festival event. Valdés, born in Havana in 1941, is best known for the many-flavored Irakere, a band he led from 1973 to 2005. He is also a veteran of work with his father, Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, and with Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera.

Rubalcaba was born into a musical Havana family in 1963. At age six, he was drumming for his father’s orchestra and two years later shifted to the piano “just to please my mother,” as he once put it. Today, Rubalcaba has made more than 20 albums as leader. He has had long musical relationships with Brazilian vocalist Ithamara Koorax and with jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who died in 2014. Rubalcaba’s credits list includes Haden’s Nocturne (2001) and Land of the Sun (2004) and two albums by saxophonist Jane Bunnett: Spirits of Havana (1993) and Spirits of Havana/Chamalongo (2016).

Pasatiempo talked to Rubalcaba by phone. He was in Miami, where he has lived since 1996 and teaches at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.

 Pasatiempo: Gonzalo, how long have you been making music with Chucho Valdés?

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: I think this is the first time we’re doing a concert of duets. We did a concert in Istanbul a long time ago, also one in Greece and in Havana in the 1980s on a TV show, where we played a three-piano concert with Frank Emilio [Flynn]. This is the first time we sat down and said, “Let’s do something, we should tour,” and that was about a year and a half ago. We have been in Europe and Asia and we did a few concerts in the last month in the States.

Pasa: You’re a little more than 20 years, or a generation, apart. How would you describe your differences and your similarities?

Rubalcaba: I prefer to talk about the similarities. We can talk about stories with different musicians in Cuba, we can talk about having the same experience in many aspects of life in Cuba because I was living in Cuba until I was twenty-seven years old, so we have a lot to share. Chucho is the kind of musician and person who is always looking to see what is happening out there. He’s not someone just attached to his own generation, he’s always talking to you about new guys, like, “Did you hear that album?”

Pasa: Chucho came up in a time when music more often was played for dancing, rather than sitting and listening.

Rubalcaba: Yeah, but look, I made a lot of dancing music when I was in Cuba. I’m coming from a family that has been involved in dancing music for a long time. My grandfather, my father, my uncles, my two brothers all worked with the most typical Cuban music, like danzón, son, guaracha, and boleros, and I heard a lot of this music in my house when I was a kid. And I played with Orquesta Aragón and other bands and singers in Cuba when I was really young, bands that were well-known — by people, because this is festive music, popular music.

Pasa: One of your recent albums is Charlie. Is that about Charlie Haden?

Rubalcaba: Exactly. That was an obligation. I had to do that, and I have in mind to do one or two more albums with music that I know he enjoyed. I feel very blessed to have had the chance to hang around with Charlie and tour with him. He came to Cuba in 1986 with his Liberation Music Orchestra. They played a concert as part of a festival program and I was supposed to play after them with my own band; I had a septet at that time. Charlie and his wife stayed after and saw us play, then they came backstage. He said, “Hey, we need to find a place to play in Havana, because I want to bring a recording of you and me playing to the States.” We had a few hours in a recording studio in Havana and we played a few tunes and he took a cassette and brought it to Bruce Lundvall’s office at Blue Note Records. He told Bruce, “You have to sign that guy and bring him here.”

Charlie and I spent a lot of time talking and playing and touring and recording a few albums, and I learned a lot from him. He had a very strong personality musically and he was very openminded, musically. I remember when we made the album about Cuban and Mexican boleros, Nocturne, he called me and said, “I want to do a new record but I don’t want do a bebop record or a straight-ahead jazz record. I want something totally different. What can you suggest?” I told him, I know you like ballads and beautiful harmonies and melodies, so I will send to you a CD compilation of Cuban and Mexican boleros. Listen to that and call me and maybe we can make a recording. He called back and said, “We have to do that music. You do the arrangement and the production, but we have to go right now.”

Pasa: You brought your trio to Santa Fe in 2001. In an interview then, you said your early musical inspirations from the jazz world included Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and Charlie Parker. Who were your Cuban-music mentors?

Rubalcaba: My family. The house where I grew up was my first school, my first musical reference. I was able to see my father rehearsing and also talking and delivering different comments and ideas with other great musicians around, many people who were the biggest names in Cuba at that time. They used to go to my house and talk about music and life, and also make music. I saw so many people at a very high level of performance with deep concepts about how to do music and a vision about what should be, at that moment, the Cuban music. That was an unbelievable reference to me.

Pasa: Are you working on a new record?
Rubalcaba: Man, I’m always working on something. I believe that the only way to find something else is to keep yourself working. When you mention working, people automatically think about playing on stage in front of people, but working to me is not that. It is when I’m home spending hours and hours with the instrument and writing music exploring and searching. I’m composing a piece for piano and symphony orchestra that I’m supposed to premiere in November in Istanbul and in Italy and Croatia. At the same time, I’ll be doing a concert of Gershwin for piano and orchestra.

Pasa: Can you talk about your relationship with Dizzy Gillespie?

Rubalcaba: Two years before Charlie, I had the opportunity to play with Dizzy and he wanted to see if I could fly to the States with him, but it was impossible because of visa problems between Cuba and the United States. Dizzy was a combination that you usually don’t see. He was a genius, he was a guy with a vision of music and a trumpet player but also an amazing human being. He was always in the attitude to help people. He was always promoting young guys, trumpet players and piano players not only from here but from Latin America.

Dizzy went to Cuba in the 1970s and he played in Havana. I was a very young guy and I didn’t get to see that concert. The entrance was very controlled by the government. But he came in 1984 and we met. I was playing at the old Hotel Nacional. He had a room there and the day he arrived I was playing there. They took him there to eat and listen to some music and I was playing with my band. When I was finished, he came backstage and he was very funny because he had his trumpet and he took out some sheet music and he said, “Do you think you can play this without rehearsing?” I saw the music and it was very complicated, very difficult to play. I said, “Well, you have to give me 24 hours to check that and then we can play.” He said, “No, no, that was a joke, but I want you to play with me tomorrow.” That was the first day of the festival. I was twenty or twenty-one years old, and after that I played with him in Havana. He was amazing. He pushed me very strongly.

I started touring with my own bands in Europe and many people said, “I know about you because Dizzy was here and he was talking about you.” I owe him a lot. I always said that at twenty-one years old, if you have names like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden trust you and trust what you are doing, you cannot ask for any more. ◀