- January 5th, 2011
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By Richard Dyer
No musical attraction of the weekend drew a more distinguished audience than the Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba,
who appeared at the Regattabar with bassist Ron Carter. Among the interested listeners on various nights were jazz historian and musical polymath Gunther Schuller, pianists Andrew Rangell, Russell Sherman, and a host of Sherman’s students; Christopher Lydon, pianophile and host of WBHR’s “The Connection”; Pops conductor laureate John Williams; and BSO music director Seiji Ozawa. This listener will leave praise and analysis of Rubalcaba’s jazz’ invention to better-qualified commentators (including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden) – he is fully aware that the admiration of people from the world of classical music is the kiss of death to people active in or interested in jazz. But it is nevertheless necessary to report that Rubalcaba stands in the company of the great pianists active today in any genre of music-making. Rubalcaba’s numerous recordings document dazzling speed, accuracy, alacrity of attack, and variety of touch – “it has to be the product,” Sherman observes, “of thousands upon thousands of hours practicing the exercises of Czemy and Hanon.” Saturday night at the Regattabar we heard a little of that virtuosity – some octaves, repeated notes, trills, and keyboard-spanning passagework that would convey as much in Liszt or Chopin as they did in Rubalcaba’s jazz playing. His fleshy fingers have to work to produce a harsh, driving sound, but he can create one when he wants to; he also boasts a singing legato that he creates with his touch, not with the pedal- he employs finger substitution even more than an organist would.
Saturday’s quite in-drawing set with Carter also revealed another quality, something unique in this listener’s experience of pianists. There is a quality in singing as rare as it is highly prized – “les larmes dans la voix,” the French call it, “tears in the voice.” Claudia Muzio had it, and the young Pavarotti, and, perhaps above all others, Callas, in the second act of “Traviata” 0r the final scene of “Norma.” It is not a quality that one ever expected to hear from a piano or a pianist, but one heard it, felt it re-peatedly in Rubalcaba’s playing as it delivered its message from heart to heart.