- January 6th, 2011
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Rubalcaba is a Cuban citizen, travels on a Cuban passport, visits Cuba frequently. As such, his activities in the States have been proscribed by our legislated commercial blockade of the island, though he’s found some ways around those bounds. In fact outside of those who’ve defected, no other single Cuban musician has enjoyed Rubalcaba’s high profile and privileges here – at least not since lrakere’s triumphs during Jimmy Carter’s presidency Now, after five years of Cuban-government-approved residency in the Dominican Republic, Rubalcaba recently has been permitted to retain his Cuban citizenship while moving his family (including two children) to a home outside Miami. Miami! The pianist’s first professional engagements in that city; just two years ago, resulted in bomb threats. Miami is home to some exiles and extremists who resent anyone who does not denounce Cuba’s four-decade-old revolution, especially artists who might be construed to be celebrating it. But Rubalcaba is 34, and Castro’s Cuba is the only one he’s ever known. Chatting before an evening’s gig at NewYork’s Iridium with his U.S.based touring trio (bassist David Finck and drummer Ignacio Berroa), the trim, dark pianist reflects on his experience. “The level of social and political confrontation of Cuban musicians in Florida is more intense than anywhere else in the country However; my concern is not about acceptance by Cubans. I believe my reception should have more to do with my professional stance than my political stance,” That’s generally been the case: Rubalcaba’s musical reputation in the U.S. has been established primarily through albums issued and promoted by American Blue Note, Although to circumvent prohibitions against the transfer of hard currency to Cubans, the productions have originated with and been leased from Japanese firms. This situation has resulted in some career anomalies: Rubalcaba’s most recent recording, a complicated work titled Antigua, is currently out on japanese Toshiba/EMI. But in American record bins, his newest release is the more casual Flying Colors, a series of duets with all-American sax hero joe Lovano, produced by Lovano directly for Blue Note. “I feel each CD release is a reflection ofwhere Iam personally and professionally,” Rubalcaba explains, with the air of being slightly miffed. “Antigua features my Cuban quartet with many guests from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and it was recorded in Havana, Germany; Santo Domingo, and NewYork over two years. A huge project, an ample musical proposal, involving many different persons and a lot of my writing.” Antigua is an ambitious effort, arguably a concerto, that confounds expectations and categorizations. Flying Colors is, by contrast playfully spontaneous, sometimes moving and intimate, but not a self-conscious state-ment or result of arduous labors. On it, Lovano and Rubalcaba skip from standards by Irving Berlin, Monk, and Ornette to their own original tunes to free-jazz forays, enhancing each other’s expressions as they go. “Joe Lovano and I recorded last January, in one day-long session in New York” Rubalcaba says, He’s proud enough of their pairing. ‘The most important thing about Joe Lovano, amongst the whole wave of musicians who’ve cropped up in the last 15 years,” he says, “is that he’s knowledgeable about jazz from a historical point of view, but he’s found his own proper voice, an inner voice. As collaborators, Lovano and I share certain preoccupations with bnnging back aspects ofthe music of the past, and that’s why we’ve come together as we have. We share a sense of responsibility perhaps devotion, to maintaining and building upon certain styles, discovering new ways to expand upon their fundamentals:’ ”The thing about Gonzalo that’s so beautiful:’ Lovano points out, “is, sure, he’s a virtuoso, but he’s also a really sensitive player who doesn’t fall in anyone bag. I’ve never felt for a second that he’s forced me to play over a groove or a vamp, or laid out anything and said, There, just play over it.’ More than the tunes we play, it’s the way we’ve played together; our communication, our freedom within the beat, and the concept of trying to shape the music and create each tune that makes what we do happen.” Of course, they’re well-matched: Lovano is from a firmly rooted musical Cleveland family. He trained on-the-job, polished his skills at Berklee, and tested himself for two decades in crucibles of jazz, professionalism. A voracious instrumentalist, Lovano comes off as a hearty neighborhood guy, typically prevailing with bop-to-Tranebased bluesy and urbane songs. His great strengths are outgoing forthrightness, warmth, energy, and conviction. In comparison, Rubalcaba’s jazz background is less pronounced than his bold command of European classical traditions (particularly late Romanticism) and his seemingly intuitive grasp of specifically Cuban forms. Indeed, he exudes Afro-Cubanismo, and almost immediately upon taking a seat at the piano will summon up melodic conceits as wide and deep as the ocean, aswirl with harmonic complexities and raging crosscurrents of polyrhythmic swing. Although often propulsive and indelibly Latin, Rubalcaba’s sound is less confined than ennobled by its Cuban sources. His is an expansive music for listening, and listening is one of his best skills that’s demonstrated by the connections he forged with American-born jazzmen including Dizzy Gillespie and Ron Carter. “I’m beginning to work with a lot of different musicians,” he says,’”which has advantages and disadvantages. These increased contacts have helped me grow musically; but at the same time, they’ve introduced irregularities that don’t exist within a steady band or group or collective. I’d like to establish more stability soon.” He retains ties to his longtime Cuban band members, but trumpeter Reynaldo Melian still lives in Cuba, and drummer Julio Barreto has been touring with Roy Hargrove’s Crisol. During his youth, Rubalcaba knew his current drummer, Ignacio Berroa, as a Havana session star: “Ignacio is a great musician: he plays very well straightahead and, at the same time, knows the Cuban music perfectly. Does it help if my accompanists know Cuban music? That depends on the capacity of each musician as a person. The problem is not that of nationality as much as talent and creativity. Ignacio is Cuban, yes, and we have very good communication onstage, But I also have good communication with David Finck, who is American, with John Pattitucci. Lewis Nash, Jack Dejohnette, Charlie Haden, Joe Lovano, and many others.” He laughs, as if astonished, at the current explosion of Cuban music. “There certainly are right now more productions by Cuban musicians and recognition of the talents of Cuban musicians in the US. than before, a more relaxed attrtude toward the consumption of Cuban music than ever in my lifetime. There seems to be less fear, and so less control, over the way Cuban music is disseminated in this country. That affects the consumption and appreciation of music from Cuba, surely But I don’t think I’ve played a big part in this. I am just a small grain in the appreciation of Cuban music, and each Cuban musician who’s come here has contributed to the greater appreciation of that music.” And what about the downsides of his relocation? “Every move you make that’s in contradiction to the way you grew up causes a certain feeling of displacement;’ Rubalcaba allows. “I believe the most difficult thing is to maintain the culture and the morals with which you’re raised and, at the same time, assimilate or understand the traditions of the country you’ve come to. Even if you’re not submersed in each and every aspect of this place you’ve come to live in, it’s a good idea to try to understand.”
Rubalcaba’s education in the ways of the United States has been swift. Discussing the music business, Gonzalo sounds like a native jazzman: “Living in the States has accelerated the immediate responsibility I have with advancing my music,” he sighs.”I have a much more direct relationship now with the promotion and marketing of my music. That’s the worst part of my work now. “The best part is to play – and there’s no comparison. But I believe I have to work within that system. And I also think, if I don’t import some of my own conditions, the system could envelop me. Ithink it’s very important that every musician have a program as to how to deal WITh their music and, most of all, to keep sight ofthe music’s creative concept.” Wasn’t that true, too, in Cuba? He shrugs. “There are certain things in my life that haven’t changed and that probably will never change, For me, thinking about how to compose – which ideas to expand, which to discard – those kinds of thoughts go on constantly; wherever I’m on tour; wherever I’m at home. That part of the creative process must always take place.” Maybe the obligations of creativity take precedence over an artist’s nationality. Rubalcaba seems relieved by the suggestion. “What makes me most happy” he says, “is what I’m working on professionally, musically Within this terrain, I encounter all my ideology, all my beliefs, all my perceptions. It’s this professional terrain that I’ve dedicated my life to, So, I have more and closer contact with America now? Am I the same player as before I moved here? I hope that every day I’m a different player:”
Howard Mandel attended the first Jazz festival In Varadero, Cuba in 1981. He first heard Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Grupo Projecto in Berlin in 1986.