https://www.heraldtribune.com/entertainment/20191116/music-review-cuban-pianist-crosses-borders-in-varied-styles

Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie in 1985, performed for The Ringling’s Art of Performance Series

Ten years ago, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba stated in a “Talking Jazz” interview that his music “should not be parceled under a heading, name or terminology.” Although many might call him a jazz musician, Rubalcaba simply points to his musical origins as a Cuban influenced by movements, international tendencies, and both Western European academic music as well as jazz.

Performing solo Friday on the Historic Asolo Stage under dramatic blue lighting, from the audience perspective, Rubalcaba might as well have been in a Greenwich Village jazz venue.

The music, however, tinged with identifiable jazz elements, blew open new doors and windows. Rubalcaba was often performing from a score but the music flowed from him with an organic, improvisatory ease. I felt myself alternatively lean in to catch the detail and then sit back with eyes closed to soak it all in.

Rubalcaba carried his prodigious keyboard technique lightly. It was his technique and musicality that allowed the myriad of voices, often in a thicket of notes, to emerge and speak clearly.

As if to further thwart the human desire to categorize and pin down experiences, the program for The Ringling’s Art of Performance series had no list of compositions or anything to follow as we so often do in traditional recitals. Yet, he paused briefly, and silently, after each of the eight selections and then returned for an encore. We could follow that far.

What did we hear? Often, as in the first selection, there were angular, syncopated structures punctuated by rapid finger work and crystalline runs across the keyboard. Perhaps we heard a boogie woogie-style ostinato and some straightforward swing, but that was never a lasting framework.

His harmonies were expansive and non-discriminating from typical beauty and piquant dissonance. Neither did he shy away from exploring the growling thunder of the piano’s extreme low register.

Early in the program we found a ballad, as pure and still as a mountain lake, and elegant in its melodic beauty. I was already asking myself, “What is the real difference between a contemporary pianist and composer like Rubalcaba and historic geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, or even Schumann?”

Rubalcaba was considered a prodigy and gained wide acclaim at a relatively young age. He performs with perfection and his original music is quite impressive. In fact, royal courtiers hearing Mozart could not have been more impressed than we were with Rubalcaba’s innovation and sophistication.

His Latin roots appeared here and there throughout the program in rhythm and melodic turns, no more so than in his penultimate selection, which sounded like hints of John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” over a habanera rhythm. We humans like the familiar and it seems the audience did appreciate the nod here and in his encore with just a peck on the cheek of “Besame Mucho.”