BY BARRY DAVIS
SEPTEMBER 2, 2018 20:26
 

The 32nd edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival presented the faithfuls with something of a new look. Gone was the traditional four performance area format, with the program trimmed down to three days from the original four.

The latter may have been down to budgetary considerations, but artistic director Eli Degibri, with his seventh tilt at drawing the crowds down to our most southerly resort, clearly had a generous sum of readies made available to him. The musical agenda featured some bona fide big guns, the likes of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, French accordionist Richard Galliano, trumpeter Tom Harrell and preeminent pianist-keyboardist Herbie Hancock.

All of the aforementioned appeared in the New Port Arena – presumably, the name of the new slot is a play on the title of the 64-year-old-and-counting Stateside Newport Jazz Festival, or references the Port of Eilat location.

In years gone by, all the audience and stage areas were cordoned off by freight ship containers on all four sides, piled two high. This year, the stages were positioned on the side of the sea, with no containers behind. While that made for aesthetic viewing, especially with the full moon rising over Aqaba during the first slot each evening, it also unfortunately meant that the stage was exposed to the blustery conditions that were particularly palpable on the first evening.

Some of the jazz aficionados around me in the audience questioned the decision to open the festival proceedings with a solo piano show. They suggested that Degibri would have been better off with a numerically bigger act as a curtain-raiser. The experienced heads may have had logic on their side, but Rubalcaba is one hell of a powerhouse character and artist. Anyone who attended the festival around a decade and a half ago will have witnessed the Cuban’s scintillating virtuosity as he compensated for the absence of his bass player in what had been planned as a trio concert. Back then it was fascinating to watch Rubalcaba’s forays to the nether regions of the keyboard, as he managed to fuse melodic intent with rhythmic underscoring.

Last Sunday Rubalcaba unfurled his prodigious technique coupled with expansive emotional intent, oscillating seamlessly between feral thunderclap attacks to gossamer lyricism, laced with Monkesque lines and romantic departures reminiscent of Bill Evans. Even the gusts of hot dry wind, which threatened to blow his sheet music into the nearby sea, didn’t manage to put the evergreen 55-year-old off his creative stride.

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“The best pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years,” noted Dizzy Gillespie on first hearing young pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in 1985. A year later, Charlie Haden who was equally impressed described Rubalcaba as “a smart hearth”.  These encounters paved the way for this Cuban artist to jazz audiences in the United States and a fascinating international career. Rubalcaba (55) was born in Havana and grew up in a home filled with music and melody. His grandfather, Jacobo Rubalcaba, was the composer of classic danzóns – the official traditional Cuban dance and music genre. His father, pianist and composer Guillermo Rubalcaba, played in the Enrique Jorrín orchestra of, the creator of cha-cha-cha. Gonzalo was a child prodigy performing as a drummer by the tender age of six, before continuing to study the piano at the age of eight following his mother’s advice. He recalls her saying that “the piano will give you an important background, you can use the piano to compose, you can use the piano to harmonize, so it can give you something else,” and concludes, “She was totally right.” As a teenager, he worked as a drummer and pianist in hotels, concert halls, and clubs in Havana. He absorbed the Cuban culture and tradition while further pursuing his classical music studies and achieving a degree in composition. “I had two schools,” he said in an interview with the New York Times, “the school that I could get in my house, the music of the street coming through my father and my family, and the orthodox school, the classical school, that didn’t want to hear anything about popular music.” Later he gradually began to explore jazz, which for political reasons was scarce in Cuba up until the outset of the 1980s. The few jazz records that he happened to come across introduced him to artists such as Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, sparking his passion for jazz. The tripartite base of Cuban music, western classical music training and techniques, and jazz has led Rubalcaba to become one of the most prominent jazz pianists in the world. To date he has been nominated sixteen times for the Grammy Awards and won two Grammy Awards as well as two Latin Grammy Awards. With 46 albums released, he has collaborated with a great many musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Richard Galliano, Tony Martinez, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Ron Carter, Mike Rodriguez, Marcus Gilmore, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, and more. British conductor sir Simon Rattle has titled him, “the most gifted pianist on the planet” and Ben Ratliff of The New York Times depicted him as the “meticulous jazzman of the world”.

Rubalcaba’s solo performance in Eilat is an excellent opportunity to glimpse into the essence of his phenomenal virtuosity. Acclaimed for his infinite technique and abundant imagination, Rubalcaba is able to produce soft and delicate sounds of chimes with his classical piano. The New York Times reported that, “he has an almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were playing the strings directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries”. Composer and musician, Rubalcaba has developed a unique voice that challenges the traditional partitioning of music while stretching from Straight Ahead, Bop, Afro-Cuban and Jazz to the realms of Mexican and Cuban ballads, Bolero and classical Cuban music. In any language he chooses, his works are both moving and authentic, bearing the initial artistic intent of transforming the everyday routine to accentuate beauty and substance. “I work as if the thing I’m working on will be the last thing I do,” he said. “It’s much better than looking around it to see what’s ahead.”

Red Sea Jazz Festival