- January 7th, 2011
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They got the name of the tune wrong, but nobody’s perfect…
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.
By MARTY HUGHLEY The Oregonian staff
The last time that Joe Pass, the late, great jazz guitarist, played in Portland, several years ago, he made a joke between songs. He imagined; he said a magnificent concert with some of the most accomplished musicians of our time: Andres Segovia, Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Horowitz, etc. After the concert, all the musicians stay at the same hotel, then meet again in the morning. Over breakfast, they say to each other admiringly, “Man, you really played fast last night” Pass’ point was that speed itself isn’t a musical value, merely a technical consideration.” Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba can play very fast and while his remarkable facility has been much noted, many critics have seemed suspicious of it . In his Saturday night solo performance at the Aladdin Theatre, Rubalcaba proved right off the bat that he’s no mere speed demon. Opening with a slow, ruminative ballad, he displayed a variety of other gifts – a strong yet refined touch that coaxed marvelous tone from the Steinway grand piano, a sensitivity to space that led him to let certain notes linger till the edge of their resonance before softly laying the next phrase over them, a romantic warmth working hand-in hand (so to speak) with an intellectual vigor. He picked up the pace in his second selection, improvising a minute or more of introduction to what turned out to be Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” He never did state the melody in full. Rather, he took snippets of the song’s jauntily angular theme and extrapolated from them in varying directions substituting chords, re-contextuallizing a few notes at a time, probing the rhythmic possibilities implied in Monk’s catawampus phrasing. It was as if a jeweler were to take a single diamond necklace and remake the materials into a store full of rings, pendants, brooches and bracelets. ” Speed can be put in service of musicality, of course, as Rubalcaba showed in a dazzling version of George Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” At one point, Rubalcaba splashed imaginative bass chords with his left while his right hand executed a rapid. repeated figure for what seemed like an eternity; it almQst made the muscles Qn the top of your hand ache just from watching it. Rubalcaba played two sets, each slightly less than an hour long. At intermission, the crowd of approximately 350 fans was abuzz, likening his skills to Canadian classical virtuouso Glenn Gould and avant-garde master Cecil Taylor. “It’s not just his speed, it’s his touch,” one person said. “It’s not just his touch, it’s his ideas,” countered another. And indeed, Rubalcaba’s ideas rhythmic, harmonic and especially melodic – held together even at his sometimes breakneck pace of exposition. His store of different approaches, fingerings, stylistic references, etc. – seems inexhaustible, yet he always made graceful, unhurried transitions between them, never seeming to be just grabbing at whatever came to mind. His playing also displayed considerable wit at time, something not always evident when he work in group settings. Several standing ovations ended the night. And Rubalcaba fans now hope the speediest thing, about him will be his return.
Fire and energy reunite in an explosion that expands light and silences sound …for an instant. melodic glimmers emanate from this nebula with just one star: Gonzalo Rubalcaba is the master of his own cosmos, although he belongs to a galaxy of great musical constellations. The musician whose father, Guillermo Rubalcaba, helped introduce the world to the cha-cha-cha, and whose grandfather, Jacobo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, composed the famous”El Cadete (The Cadet),” has not let the light of his rising comet go dim. His most recent production, Supernova; won the Latin Grammy for the best Latin jazz album of 2002. His collaboration with Charlie Haden in Nocturne, which also won a Grammy this year, is praiseworthy as well. With classic training, this Cuban pianist and composer took an early turn toward jazz, and from that moment, his career has continued to ascend.
“Supernova” is another step forward ,” said Rubalcaba in a recent telephone interview with Adelante. Because without moving forward, he added, “it’s like standing still in time. In the twenty years that Rubalcaba has created his sound, he has expanded the musical firmament. This piano virtuoso continues to sound the enduringly rich depths of the music of his fatherland. “Cuban music continues to need formal spaces, and not in a way that’s cliche,” he observed. Convinced that music is neither created nor invented, but restructured and evolved, Rubalcaba took the hits of yesteryear - the beloved “Alma Mia (My soul)” of Maria Grever, the unforgettable “El Manicero (The Peanut Vendor)” and the unequaled “EI Cadete,” – and sent them into a fresh orbit. His sparkle· poesn’t hide behind the incandescence of these classic stars, however, but proceeds from a unique source with its own light resulting·in a synergy between the genius of the past and the present. “The challenge of taking things on again that have already passed their peak, is to seek.a reason for keeping them alive,” he explained. This reason, which Rubalcaba has managed to balance with a precise dexterity, dwells in the symbiosis between the knowledge of yesterday a the exploration of tomorrow. To revolve around the richness of Cuban and Latin American rhythms. and return to a classical axis, forms Rubalcaba’s universal style. And that’s because it is a minimalist musical expression given that the essence of minimalism is not the scarcity of details and decorations, but the abundance of space. Rubalcaba provides this space, enough to ponder and to set afloat in the periphery of our consciousness. The whisper and the explosion of the keys exquisitely move one toward the insomnia of the subconscious. Columbia will form part of this exploration when Rubalcaba lights up the spirits, stands time still and explodes in a carnival of melody on Dec. 5, in an event organized by the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series in an annual fundraising concert dedicated to the late Dr. Carlos Perez-Mesa, a tireless collaborator with the series. “All the places where one finds oneself contain a mystery, Rubalcaba observed, with respect to his imminent visit to Columbia. “One never knows what will happen.” Meanwhile, Rubalcaba’s phosphorescence will continue to live as long as this vital star continues to rise with each new day. “May the music awaken, just as I awaken every day,” he concluded
Make no mistake: few jazz pianists, today, or at any earlier time, could hold a candle to the brilliant Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s gigantic virtuosity. But, speaking from his home in Florida, the soft-spoken, thoughtful pianist says that he wishes critics would not be so fixated on that aspect of his playing. Jazz fans, he notes, have welcomed his music. “There have been many people supporting what I’m doing, people in connection with my career, looking for the next album, the next step,” he says. Their reaction, in his estimation from the bandstands and stages, has been to his music, in all its facets. “But on the professional side, with writers and critics – this is not true of everybody – but part of that professional side is that they’ve been insisting too much – this is my opinion – there has been too much emphasis on virtuosity, which is just part of my personality or my training or my development. It is not everything.” “It’s a delicate point,” he continues, “because there are a lot of people who really believe what the critics say, people who have the chance to see a bigger spectrum, not only about myself, but about musicians, in general. The references that people get from critics and writers have been very limited.” He wishes critics would better explicate his music in part because that might put it in better cultural context, he says. That cause was not helped, he says, by the attention that was given in the early 1990s to the outstanding Cuban musicians who were marketed as the Buena Vista Social Club. Says Rubalcaba: “We had to clarify to people that this is not the only side of Cuban music of the last 30 to 40 years. We’re talking about a moment – those musicians used to be famous in Cuba in the ’40s and ’50s.” Don’t get him wrong, he says. “I respect them a lot. 1know a lot of them, I learned from them since I was a teenager in Cuba. Many are friends of my family, especially of my father” (Guillermo, a well-known pianist, too). “But we have to say that they are not part of the contemporary life in Cuba, right now. “So, I see some disconnection in the last 40-50 years of the real evolution of Cuban music, in terms of what people outside of Cuba know about the music in Cuba. “The point is that sometimes when that audience followed Buena Vista and other popular things that became popular outside ofCuba, they don’t find any connection with what you [as in, musicians like him] do with Cuba. Sometimes they think you’re not even Cuban.”
A SPIRITUAL ELEMENT
One element of his music that both critics and audiences can miss, due to this lack of context, he says, is its spirituality. “I was influenced by a lot of Cuban folklore and all the music uses it in rituals. Everything in connection with AfroCuban music is totally in connection with AfroCuban religion.” Folklore and other religion-linked cultural forms “are things I have been listening to since I was a little kid,” he says. “When I went to school - and at home also – I heard all kinds of popular music to dance to. And finally, I discovered jazz music” He says: “Those were the platforms, the first references that I had as a human being, in my life.” He suspects that it was much easier for Americans to relate to Cuba before the Revolution, and the U.S. embargo. Then, cultural commerce between Cuba and the U.S. was extensive. Thanks to that, jazz was well-known in Cuba during Rubalcaba’s childhood. He became keen on it at about the age of 12, he recalls. “At home we had some old recordings of Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Bud Powell, and Erroll Garner. Cuba has been in contact with jazz for a long time. Many Cuban musicians have been involved in a relationship with that musical idiom.” As a young man, he recalls, he avidly followed such players’ careers, and attended their performances. “A few people around me at school, older than me, were already improvising. And I found out that it was the perfect musical space to do some stuff with total freedom. I was very motivated by this.” At music school, he was thoroughly trained in many aspects of popular and Classical music. He possessed, already, the rhythmic command that is such a huge part of the Cuban musical ethos. That, thanks to early studies in both drums and piano. “Everyone involved in music should know a little bit about rhythm,” he suggests. At classical school, they force the students as part of the program to get piano as a complementary instrument. It should be the same with the percussion or rhythm stuff, because it definitely gives musicians more independence not only to know about harmonies, or phrases, or whatever. It’s also good to get into the rhythmic, complex conception, and I had that opportunity, and I think I brought that to my music, to my composing. “As a piano player, I feel totally in connection with what is happening in the rhythm part of the band, especially because I was a drummer.” On the drums, “you have to use your whole body to play,” he says. “The piano is also an instrument where you have to have good concentration in different lines, in different things at the same time, your arms, your legs… It’s like a small orchestra. You have to combine everything, taking into consideration accent, dynamics, everything.” And of course, he adds, “the piano is in some ways part of the percussion family. So we are not talking about two instruments that are far away from each other.”
LIFE IN AMERICA
Rubalcaba left Cuba in 1990, settling first in the Dominican Republic, then in Coral Springs, Florida, in 1996. His arrival in the U.S. was not free of contention. “There was some political reaction from a few Cuban people, part of the Cuban community. They reacted because they speculated about my leaving Cuba, saying I was in connection with the Cuban government, whatever. All kinds of crazy stuff that they used to say.” Despite that, he says, his memories of coming to the U.S. are happy ones. “I had a very warm reception from the American audiences, and that included from some Latin people in the audiences, too.” From musicians, too. “That was the beginning of my close relationship with people like Herbie [Hancock], Chick Corea, Paul Motian, Ron Carter, and there were many others. I was in touch already with Charlie Haden, since the first time he went to Cuba. Also Dizzy Gillespie, when we went to Cuba in 1994. People like Joe Lovano, too. I have a great memory about that.” Naturally, he misses Cuba. “We’re talking socially about two different countries,” he says. “The politics and the economy and social structure in Cuba are totally different from what we experience here in the United States.” But Cuba is different from the whole rest of the world, he says. ”I’m not saying that the way people live there is good or bad. It’s just different, with some positive stuff, and many things that never became what people in Cuba believed in at the beginning of the revolution.” There are “points that should be analyzed and changed,” he diplomatically notes. As a Cuban I would definitely like to see Cuban people have more opportunity to decide, simple things, to decide at any moment that you want to go to Cuba. You could decide to take a plane and go there. This is something that is very simple, but we cannot practice it in that way.” That is a crucial matter, he says, “because we have family there; our roots are there: we were born there. I think this is not even a privilege; it’s a right.” But, he says, “this is just a side of the big complex Cuban problem. It makes you sometimes feel frustrated, to feel unable to make decisions about your own life as a Cuban.” He foresees a time when relations will be normalized. Then, the most important renewed exchange, he believes, will be cultural – artistic. “This is something that we have lost, unfortunately. And it’s probably the most important side”
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