Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Jazz, Played in a Club but Suited for a Concert Hall-By BEN RATLIFF- June 29, 2006

You have heard that one of the charming things about jazz is its halfway position between nightclub and concert-hall music. That it amounts to serious art that can accommodate musical slang, casual reflexes, earthiness, humor.

That perception stops at the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. His solo set on Tuesday night at the Jazz Standard was totally, purely meant for the concert hall. And the concert hall might not have been good enough. A soundproof room, maybe. On the moon.

The weightless atmosphere of Mr. Rubalcaba’s performance didn’t come from looseness; it was brought to you by tension. In all of these pieces he used heavy rubato playing, and the fluctuation of tempo was no light matter; it was 75 straight minutes of sheer alert perception.

It would have all seemed excessive, or chilly, if it wasn’t so staggeringly beautiful. Mr. Rubalcaba can extract a chord from the piano with a shallow, trebly ring, as if playing the harp; he can play a bright, bony note or end a phrase in a chord as subtle as an aftertaste. During the performance, delivered without any introductions or microphone time, he slipped out of pieces unnoticed, ending some songs with faint chords and a whiff of irresolution, not giving the audience time to realize what was going on.

For the gig Mr. Rubalcaba partly followed the arc of his most recent record, “Solo” (Blue Note). He started with the first track, “Rezo,” a lovely slow piece of music at that seemed to move through the harmonic atmosphere of a Duke Ellington ballad. It wasn’t your typical set opener. In some pieces — like his “Quasar,” with a repeated two-chord figure in the left hand — there were steady anchors; in some improvised pieces, based on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” chord changes, there was just a kind of floating, signified by long, improvised right-hand phrases, accelerating and decelerating.

The set was so original that you didn’t feel you were hearing other people’s music. Yet you were: among the pieces lingered over were “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “El Manisero” and “Bésame Mucho.” It was also entirely within the limits of functional harmony, except for some agitated free playing on “Quasar,” yet it felt beautifully disorienting in its solemn and controlled musical rhetoric.

Mr. Rubalcaba won’t be doing this all week: by today, and through the rest of his run at the club, he will be joined by a bassist, Matt Brewer, and a drummer, Jeff Watts. It was generous to play such music in a place where people were actually drawing breath, let alone eating barbecue.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba performs as part of a trio through Sunday night at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232.

Meticulous Jazzman of the World-By BEN RATLIFF- Published: February 17, 2008- The New York Times

The Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who over the last 15 years or so has become one of the greatest musicians in jazz, is meticulous about music. You can tell this by the first unaccompanied notes of “Avatar,” his complexly beautiful new album. He has an almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were playing the strings directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries. He is also meticulous about ideas. He tends to classify music rather exactly, and he talks about jazz in terms of codes and information. He prepares his records — “productions,” he calls them — with conceptual rigor.

Mr. Rubalcaba has spent about a decade living in southern Florida in a quiet gated community about half-hour from Fort Lauderdale. His life looks more like that of a classical-music virtuoso than a jazz musician. He goes to the airport, tours, comes home and dives back into practice.

“I always wanted to have silence when I got home from working,” he said, sitting in the living room of his house last week, dressed entirely in white. Mr. Rubalcaba, who has a wife and three children, is 44, though he looks younger, and talks older. He is small and compact, with boyish freckles on his nose, but discusses his music with lofty self-assurance, almost professorially.

“Avatar,” which came out this month on Blue Note, represents his first serious interaction with the younger jazz musicians on the New York scene in his 15 years of playing in America. (He is to appear at the Village Vanguard, from Tuesday to next Sunday.)

New York can use him. An exciting recent undercurrent of music in the city has been a new kind of Afro-Latin jazz, with greater intellectual complexity, compositional ambition and cultural precision.

But Mr. Rubalcaba has mostly not been part of it. Instead he has been making his records and working around the world with his trio; he has also been involved in album projects with Charlie Haden and Joe Lovano, and has been devising a solo-piano repertory. Mr. Rubalcaba comes from a musical family in Cuba: his father and grandfather were prominent members of popular orchestras. (His father, Guillermo Rubalcaba, was for a time the pianist in the band of the violinist Enrique Jorrín, who created the cha-cha-cha.) Born in 1963, he grew up regularly seeing the best Cuban popular musicians playing in his house: Jorrín, the bassist Juan Formell of Los Van Van, the pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, the percussionist Changuito, the singer Omara Portuondo.

This was a perfect complement for Mr. Rubalcaba’s studies at Cuba’s musical conservatory, where he learned European classical music. “I had two schools,” he said. “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.”

In 1992 he legally left Cuba and went to the Dominican Republic, where he lived for six years; he then he applied for permanent residence in the United States. (He is now a United States citizen; each time he returns to Cuba to see his family, he must apply for a visa.)

Last year Mr. Rubalcaba put “Avatar” together in a hurry, after trying and failing to tease out a concept for another piano-trio record. He decided he was tired of the format, having done it consistently for at least 15 years. (He has made more than 20 albums.) He heard a broader instrumental sound in his head, and enlisted a quintet, member by member.

He started with the saxophonist Yosvany Terry, a slightly younger Cuban living in New York, whom Mr. Rubalcaba knew from school days in Havana. He found Mike Rodriguez, a young trumpeter in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Matt Brewer, a bassist with Greg Osby’s  band. At the end of the process, at Mr. Brewer’s suggestion, he added the drummer Marcus Gilmore, whom Mr. Rubalcaba had never heard. Mr. Gilmore had the task of learning some ferociously complicated music in three days. Three weeks of performances followed, then the making of the album in New York.

In the context of Mr. Rubalcaba’s career the record is unusually cooperative. He asked his band members to contribute compositions; Mr. Terry wrote three pieces for the album, and Mr. Brewer wrote one. And the quintet is as up-to-date a jazz group as can be found.

Sizing up Mr. Brewer and Mr. Gilmore, both in their 20s, Mr. Rubalcaba spoke not so much of what they are playing — their techniques or licks — but the wide range of what they are absorbing, what they are listening to, where they’re getting their input. “They’re part of a new generation of musicians that has more hunger about other things outside of jazz,” he said. “And they don’t see those things as exotic. They see them as serious and deep.” Mr. Rubalcaba himself learned jazz in bits and pieces. Until the late 1970s Cuban musicians were severely discouraged from playing it, for political reasons. Beyond that was the problem of what he calls information. In the mid-1980s Mr. Rubalcaba used to listen to a half-hour jazz show on Cuban radio, but the music didn’t go past the early ’60s; the disc jockey kept replaying items in his limited library, Mr. Rubalcaba remembered. He also had the option of searching for the few American jazz records that had been licensed to record labels in Communist-bloc countries or learning about records from friends who had traveled outside Cuba.  Keith Jarrett, for instance, was not a big influence among Cuban musicians in the ’80s because his records were hard to come by. But Mr. Rubalcaba found his way to Mr. Jarrett’s solo album “Facing You” when a friend brought back a copy from America. And in 1983, when Mr. Rubalcaba went on tour with the dynastic charanga group Orquesta Aragón, someone in Paris gave him a copy of Mr. Jarrett’s “Survivor’s Suite.” To his amazement, six years later he would play with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, musicians on that album.

He has several things going now: his current tour with his new band; his continuing performances of solo-piano repertory, in which he bridges Cuba’s classical and popular music with improvisation and chilling focus; a collaboration with the Cuban-born singer Francisco Céspedes, his second; and a studio session with the French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano in the spring .

He has also been rehearsing in Los Angeles for an opera called “Revolution of Forms,” which may have its first performance in 2011. Set in Havana in 1961, it describes the planning of Cuba’s state art schools. The story tells how various architects and politicians — including Fidel Castro  and Che Guevara — argued about the correct way to fuse art with politics and history. (Mr. Rubalcaba, who attended the school, is working on the score with another composer, Anthony Davis; the libretto is being written by Charles Koppelman and the Mexican-born journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who taught dance at the school in the ’60s.)

Mr. Rubalcaba is a serious cultural syncretist: he talks analytically and philosophically about combining aesthetic elements from Cuba, America and Europe, of mixing ancient and modern. “We have reached a point in the evolution not only of music, but of the world, where people have less resistance to being mixed,” he said. “It is a time to be open and anxious to learn beyond your own space. And it doesn’t take anything away from you. In fact it brings rich things to you.”

But he disdained the idea of working according to a grand project. He applies himself to whatever is in front of him, he explained. “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.”

A New Band Gives a Pianist a Fresh Context-By BEN RATLIFF- The New York Times August 19-2007

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a pianist of almost supernatural abilities, has a new band and new songs. On Tuesday night at the Jazz Standard the music was both imposing and not quite cooked. Probably the quintet’s run at the club this week will make it breathe and cohere before it is recorded in the studio next month. But the music is worth hearing at the very least because you can sense Mr. Rubalcaba’s playing in a new context. And that context is a new-style New York rhythm section, as shrewd and skillful as they come. Most often, over the last 20 years, he has played with the drummer Ignacio Berroa, who was born in Cuba (as was Mr. Rubalcaba) and has been absorbing jazz rhythm since the mid-’60s. His playing gives the music a different cast, a little more open and generous, and much more Cuban. This week the drummer is Marcus Gilmore, one of a small group of drummers under 30 who are actually changing the way jazz sounds. His style is splintered but organized, constantly changing without ever being “free,” richly precise in detail. The bassist is Matt Brewer, who has been playing with young bandleaders like Logan Richardson and Aaron Parks, and has made a record with one of the emerging jazz musicians’ lodestar figures, Greg Osby. Those two, with Mr. Rubalcaba, create the central action in the group. In the new music there are opaque ballads with modern European classical harmonies, tunes with 6/8 polyrhythm and 4/4 swing, and pieces with shifting tempos and melodies. This isn’t Latin jazz per se, or even Mr. Rubalcaba’s original version of it; it’s more recognizably modern mainstream New York jazz.

The quintet also includes the trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, from Florida, and the saxophonist Yosvany Terry, a Cuban-born New Yorker. And though they were playing at the top of their abilities — Mr. Terry phrasing fast as he jumped in and out of the rhythm, and Mr. Rodriguez crafting soft and highly melodic flugelhorn solos — their parts represented a more common vision of jazz. They harmonized, they played solos when their turns came up, and then they waited off-stage for their appointed moment to come back.

This would all be good enough, except that the trio alone had such clear possibility. Piano, bass and drums made all possible combinations: soloing, collective improvisation, one accompanying another. And the connection between Mr. Rubalcaba and Mr. Gilmore — even at this early stage — was extraordinary, since both are fascinated by microscopic matters of touch and tone. The challenge for Mr. Rubalcaba will be to bring the horn players more into the weave of the music. Sit close to Mr. Rubalcaba, because he has a tendency to load the music with tension by playing complex passages quietly, using dark, dense harmony; the delicacy of his touch makes it seem as if he were pulling notes out of the piano rather than pushing them in. At one point, toward the end of Tuesday’s first set, he showed what he was once famous for: blinding speed in forthright rhythm. But normally he was running in the other direction, toward slow tempos, an almost self-erasing softness and a kind of improvisation that crisply and deliberately kept its distance from the beat.

The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet performs through Sunday night at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232.

A Pianist Happy to Let Others Do the Driving-By NATE CHINEN-The New York Times


About a year and a half ago the redoubtable Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba took a new band into the studio. He had broken in his sidemen, a clutch of young New York progressives, with a weeklong run at the Jazz Standard. It was minimal preparation, given the demands of the music involved, and yet it produced strong results: “Avatar,” released on Blue Note last year, is one of his warmest and most rewarding albums. Mr. Rubalcaba and his crew are back at the club this week, as part of a programming blitz tied to Blue Note’s 70th anniversary. Their second set on Tuesday had all the spark and sophistication of “Avatar,” from which it drew exclusively. But every aspect of the music felt hardier and more intuitive, more fully absorbed into the metabolism of the group. The front line, with Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Yosvany Terry on saxophones, fell into sync with exacting ease, sounding bright and sleek. The rhythm section, anchored by the perceptive bassist Matt Brewer and the astutely nimble drummer Marcus Gilmore, fed a sort of jet-stream propulsion, shifting among styles and tempos without a perceptible hitch. (Mr. Gilmore is scheduled to play again on Friday; his replacement on the other two remaining nights, Justin Brown, has some difficult shoes to fill.) And Mr. Rubalcaba was scrupulous and terse with his pianism, more so than on the album. He allowed himself just a few effusive, bulletlike runs, choosing elsewhere to play concise figures at a medium-soft volume. Focusing his attention on an exceptionally precise touch at the keyboard — at times he seemed to be weighing the physical properties of each note — he willed himself into the background. During one brisk, searching solo by Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Rubalcaba laid out almost entirely, providing little more than punctuation. The goal behind such restraint is to shape the action ever more subtly, and in that sense Mr. Rubalcaba was ahead of the game. The band seemed charged by the acuteness of his listening, poised to respond to his slightest signal. Some of the most astonishing playing of the set took place in the stir behind Mr. Terry and Mr. Rodriguez, who responded by elevating their level of performance (especially in the case of Mr. Rodriguez). When things took a turn toward extroversion — on Mr. Rubalcaba’s radiant closer, “Infantil” — the band was ready. Intense but mindful, it reflected an evolving standard, fulfilling its promise but not its potential, which is good news all around.

The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet performs through Saturday at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232, jazzstandard.net.

La espontaneidad de un virtuoso del teclado. (pianista cubano Gonzalo Rubalcaba)(TT: the spontaneity of a keyboard virtuoso) (TA: Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba) Article from:Américas (Spanish Edition) Article date:July 1, 1996 Author: Holston, Mark

La vida en el mundo del jazz puede llevarlo a uno a una nominación para un premio Grammy o a un prestigioso debut en el Lincoln Center. En el camino, si el viajero es un pianista cubano que se llamaGonzalo Rubalcaba, también puede significar un programa cada vez más recargado de presentaciones y apresurados viajes al aeropuerto más cercano para alcanzar vuelos a Tokio, Sáo Paulo, Toronto y otros numerosos destinos cosmopolitas.

Y también una visita al taller de reparación de carrocerías. El hecho de que este virtuoso de treinta y tres años resida en Santo Domingo, la bulliciosa capital de la República Dominicana, le ha significado un tipo de problemas que es improbable que hubiera tenido que enfrentar en La Habana.

“Lo siento, Gonzalo no podrá asistir a la entrevista”, me informó por teléfono José Forteza, el agente del pianista. “Surgió un viaje. Nos vamos al Japón, y camino al consulado tuvo un accidente”.

La cita se cumplió un año después, cuando Rubalcaba, después de tentar la suerte sorteando las caóticas callejuelas de Santo Domingo, llega a la puerta de mi hotel en su nuevo Honda Prelude blanco. Pronto salimos para el barrio colonial pleno de historia para una charla en uno de los cafés al aire libre. Ya sea que ha mejorado sustancialmente su habilidad como conductor o que el tránsito es menos difícil en esta ventosa tarde de junio, Rubalcaba se siente cómodo y en control, al tiempo que relata su vida en esta colorida metrópolis y habla sobre su carrera cada vez más exigente.

Su habilidad en el volante me recuerda las cualidades de su interpretación: súbitos impulsos de energía mientras esquiva a toda velocidad un camión cargado de maderas, pausados interludios mientras atravesamos un campus universitario lleno de impetuosos peatones, una intensa concentración mientras atravesamos las impredecibles vueltas del laberinto de estrechas callejuelas adoquinadas.

Santo Domingo es en la actualidad el hogar del pianista, su esposa María, sus hijos Joao y Joan, de su agente Forteza y de su hermano Luis y sus respectivas familias. La cultura española y africana del país proporciona a los cubanos un entorno atractivo y les facilita las comunicaciones y el transporte que se han convertido en aspectos críticos para satisfacer las exigencias cada vez mayores de su carrera internacional.

El pianista, nacido en La Habana en 1963, es hijo de Guillermo Rubalcaba, conocido pianista cubano que tocaba en la famosa orquesta de Enrique Jorrin. Su abuelo, Jacobo González Rubalcaba, era un destacado compositor de danzones. Con semejante ambiente musical en su hogar, no es de extrañar que el joven Rubalcaba comenzara a estudiar el piano a los nueve años y obtuviera un título en composición musical en el Instituto de Bellas Artes de La Habana. Cuando aún era adolescente inició su carrera grabando y tocando, entre otros, con el trompetista y compositor de bebop Dizzy Gillespie, que se convertiría en uno de los grandes admiradores del pianista cubano.

Sentados en la majestuosa plaza España de Santo Domingo, frente a la ornamentada fachada del palacio de Diego Colón, analizamos su vida en la República Dominicana, sus opiniones acerca del inusitado interés actual en el jazz latino y sus planes para el futuro.

“El barrio colonial de Santo Domingo es el más dinámico, espiritual y arquitectónicamente importante de la ciudad”, comenta mientras observa un panorama que ha cambiado poco desde 1498, cuando Bartolomé Colón, el hermano del descubridor, fundó la que habría de ser la primera ciudad europea del hemisferio occidental y el centro de la cultura española en el Nuevo Mundo. “En la ciudad colonial verdaderamente “se respira esa época”, agrega.

También me gusta La Romana, porque allí todo fue construido alrededor de las atracciones naturales”, dice, pero a su vez reconoce que sus crecientes obligaciones le han permitido disfrutar muy poco su nueva residencia.

Pero otro lugar de la República Dominicana, poco visitado por los turistas, realmente despierta su admiración. “Santiago de los Caballeros (la segunda ciudad de la república, situada a una hora de Puerto Plata en la región septentrional del país) me llamó la atención porque me recuerda a la ciudad de Santiago en Cuba, sólo que es más pequeña”, dice Rubalcaba. “Los santiagueros son muy hospitalarios. Se preocupan por sus vecinos y la gente que los rodea, algo que en esta época muchas veces falta en las grandes ciudades. Son una gente feliz. Al igual que en Santiago de Cuba, siempre están dispuestos a organizar una fiesta, cualquier día de la semana, ya sea de día o de noche”.

Con sus antecedentes de jazz, música clásica y estilos cubanos, Rubalcaba es una especie de anomalía en la República Dominicana, dominada por el merengue. “Todavía no he grabado merengue porque no me han invitado a hacerlo”, dice con una sonrisa. En realidad, fue invitado a realizar una grabación con Juan Luis Guerra, la más famosa estrella pop del país, y participó en el álbum Bachata Rosa, que ganó un Grammy en 1990.

El hecho de que en 1995 lo alcanzara la fama de una nominación para un Grammy es otra indicación del interés que ha despertado este fascinante maestro cubano. “Definitivamente fue una gran cosa desde el punto de vista promocional”, admite pragmáticamente acerca de su exposición a la fama del Grammy. “Uno es visto por un número inimaginable de personas de todo el mundo. Nunca pensé en la nominación, sino en la interpretación y en la oportunidad de promover mi obra y mi imagen”.

Siempre cuidadoso acerca de la forma en que invierte su tiempo y su energía artística, Rubalcabase esfuerza por no ser calificado como artista de jazz latino. En efecto, su último álbum exhibe las distintas facetas de su personalidad artística a través de solos, interpretaciones con su cuarteto cubano y con sus frecuentes colaboradores norteamericanos de jazz, el bajista Charlie Haden y el baterista Jack DeJohnette. Imagine: Gonzalo Rubalcaba in the USA, su séptimo álbum para la legendaria marca Blue Note, incluye originales interpretaciones de un ecléctico programa que va desde “Imagine” de John Lennon, a “Woody’n You” de Dizzie Gillespie, el bolero “Perfidia” de Alberto Domínguez y obras originales grabadas en vivo durante una reciente gira por los Estados Unidos.

“No creo que sea prudente clasificar mi carrera sólo como intérprete del jazz latino”, señala diplomáticamente. “En la actualidad, en el movimiento parecen estar surgiendo nuevos talentos que están renovando el lenguaje original del estilo. En realidad, deberíamos pensar en darle un nuevo nombre”. Un poco alienado por lo que percibe como una tendencia a comercializar el estilo,Rubalcaba esboza algunos consejos para quienes pretenden izar el estandarte del jazz latino. “Estamos trabajando con una cultura seria y profunda”, señala. “Todavía hay estilos vírgenes que deben ser tratados como tales y no a través de un enfoque puramente comercial. No me gusta la idea de que todos se metan en el jazz latino, en interpretar la música folclórica al estilo del jazz. Hay que hacerlo de una manera seria”.

Entonces, en la misma forma en que su música puede cambiar dramática y espontáneamente de rumbo, se torna filosófico, subrayando su profunda pasión por la música a la que ha dedicado su vida. “La nueva generación debería pensar más acerca del valor de la música, debería poner la música primero y pensar menos en sí misma”, sostiene. “No quiero que nuestra música sea una cuestión de moda. Aún cuando ello requiera un lento proceso, el producto final debe ser algo permanente, parte de la historia. Para mí, lo importante es avanzar en esa dirección”.

Por el momento, le interesa la idea de producir un álbum clásico. El proyecto puede involucrar dos pianos y una orquesta e incluir algunas composiciones originales que ha preparado. “No es algo nuevo para mí”, dice, reflexionando sobre sus primeros tiempos en el Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán de La Habana. “Así me eduqué. Por diferentes razones, no seguí y practiqué ese estilo: decidí ser un tipo distinto de músico, más popular. Pero ello no quiere decir que sólo voy a tocar jazz”.

Ya sea en la música clásica o el jazz o en algún estilo híbrido de improvisación afrocubana que aún falta definir, es seguro que Rubalcaba permanecerá por muchos años en la vanguardia de los pianistas contemporáneos. “Depende del tipo de transición que atraviese”, dice. “Eso determinará el tipo de música que toque”.

NPR Interview: Gonzalo Rubalcaba discusses his musical influences and his new CD, “Paseo”

NPR Special
Interview: Gonzalo Rubalcaba discusses his musical influences and his new CD, “Paseo”

Time: 9:00-10:00 AM

TONY COX, host:

From the studios of NPR West, I’m Tony Cox.

Jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is among the most celebrated of the more recent batch of musicians to have defected from Cuba. He lives near Miami now, but during the mid-1990s his refusal to out-and-out denounce the Cuban government outraged many in Florida’s Cuban-American community. That tension seems to have subsided these days, but all is not quiet. Rubalcaba hadn’t made a record in three years, until now. It’s called “Paseo.” In a recent conversation with the pianist, I asked how a musician in such demand could wait so long to record.

(Soundbite of jazz piano music)

Mr. GONZALO RUBALCABA (Pianist): Probably because I need some time. I need time to compose and to conceive what I’m supposed to do next. I really appreciate when I see musicians, they can produce every year something different. I can’t. I can’t. It take, to me, long time to divorce with what I was doing before, until I found the culmination or the high point, and then I can see the new road, new way to arrive to a new point. So that’s the main reason.

COX: So you need something to sound different and new and innovative every time out.

Mr. RUBALCABA: Exactly. I don’t know if I would say new, but at least a new organization of my experience, of my traditions, of my point of views. And I try to do that. I try to expose that every production.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: And while you’re trying to do new things, as you say, and become even more innovative, you also re-recorded some tunes that you’ve had on previous CDs. I’m thinking now particularly about one song–I wanted you to talk about this one–“Santo Canto.”

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: Why go back?

Mr. RUBALCABA: I didn’t come back. I didn’t come back. I look back, which is different.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. RUBALCABA: And I think we found something that still is open to create, still is open to work with. It means to me that still this music is fresh, is young, is open. So why not to project that period in a different way with all the experience that I have now with the age where I am now, with my musical conception right now? And I think we get something different.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: Speaking of looking back and looking forward, that seems to be a theme that we’re sort of developing through this conversation, which is good. You have gone back to the quartet, you know, which was something that you had earlier in your career. And, you know, was it nostalgia? What was it that made you do that again?

Mr. RUBALCABA: A lot of people around the world were asking, why not to do something again in the same way that you did with the Cuban quartet in the beginning of the ’90s? It took me long time to decide to do that, and it has been for long time doing my career with trio, and I was missing one or two more instruments to expand my capacity as an arranger, as a composer, to share some information, so–you know, some experience.

(Soundbite of “El Guerrillero”)

COX: This particular tune–I’m going to ask you to pronounce the name of it. It’s the first cut on your–“El Guerrillero”? I don’t know if that’s right…

Mr. RUBALCABA: “El Guerrillero.”

COX: “El Guerrillero.”

Mr. RUBALCABA: “El Guerrillero.”

COX: All right. This particular tune starts out one way and then it seems to sort of nuance into some other things. My question, I suppose, is this: Are you finding that there are many different strands that you try to tie together in your compositions now?

(Soundbite of “El Guerrillero”)

Mr. RUBALCABA: Well, about this tune, specifically, I don’t think that I did a lot of stuff or newer stuff doing that, playing that music. This is a very old music. It’s part of our heritage, our traditions. There are Cuban traditions which contain not only African influence, but also influence from Haiti, from the island around Cuba, and it’s all fresh. It sound very natural, because this music has been part of our life for a long time. Since we’re born we has been listening to that music, not on the radio, on TV, but in our religions, activities. Normal people, they used to–Saturdays and Sunday, they used to do parties, religion parties, and I remembered through–heard and playing that music, singing that music, dancing with that music, invoking the saints with that music.

(Soundbite of “El Guerrillero”)

COX: Let’s talk for a moment, if we can, about you as an artist and as a Cuban who is now living in the United States. There’s a price that you paid for that, wasn’t it, Gonzalo, coming to the United States the way that you did, being in Miami with the strong political feelings about Castro? Was there a price that you paid both musically and personally to come here?

Mr. RUBALCABA: In some way, I think we gain a lot, moving out of Cuba, because we get our freedom to learn, to discuss, to say, `This is good,’ or `This is bad,’ or `We want this,’ `We don’t want to do that.’ We will fight for this because we know we have rights, and nobody can stop us. Even in that country where we live today, United States, we have the privilege to say, `Well, we don’t want to make a really commercial music to live.’ And that’s the reason “Paseo” exist.

COX: So a song like “Sea Change”–just on the title alone, I would have thought that perhaps “Sea Change” talked a little bit about it, but I guess not. No?

Mr. RUBALCABA: The original name was “Sin Ramerio El Maro.”(ph)

(Soundbite of “Sea Change”)

Mr. RUBALCABA: I can say that I didn’t decide to use that name consciously thinking about any political vision, any political point. I had to recognize that since the moment that that record was released, everybody, especially here in south Florida, connect that piece with the Cuban situation about freedom, about politics, about everything.

(Soundbite of “Sea Change”)

COX: What’s it like for you in Miami now? You’re living in Miami with the political and musical mind-set that you have. How are you being received?

Mr. RUBALCABA: I have knowledge about everything which is happening here in Miami–you know, knowledge of the Cuban people here in Miami, position about Cuba, about the US government, about everything that involve Cuba. But again, we are in a territory where you can choose. You can say, `OK, I have nothing to do with this argument’ or `I support this argument and I’m part of that’ or `I feel they’re wrong and I will take a different direction.’ So that’s the good thing about that.

(Soundbite of “Sea Change”)

COX: Do you think that, were you still living in Cuba today, your music would sound the same as it does now?

Mr. RUBALCABA: Nobody knows that, not even me. But there’s something that for sure I could see, which is my intention to grow up, no matter where I was living. And my attitude, my discipline, my vision to renovate myself constantly, was the same when I was living in Cuba.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: Gonzalo Rubalcaba is the extraordinary jazz pianist. His latest recording is called “Paseo.”

Gonzalo, thank you very much for dropping by.

Mr. RUBALCABA: It was wonderful. Thanks.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: This is a news and opinion program created by NPR and the African-American public radio consortium.

As you may have already gathered, this is my last broadcast. And before I get out of here, I’d like to thank you for your letters, your e-mails and your phone calls. It has been a pleasure and a privilege. And, of course, it’s a great staff.


COX: I’m Tony Cox. This is NPR News. And believe me when I say: Thanks for listening.

Content and Programming copyright 2005 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: a Bud Powell for the 21st century-The Boston Globe -Fernando Gonzalez, Globe Staff

July 19, 1992 MONTREAL — Gonzalo Rubalcaba might be the best pianist jazz audiences in the United States can’t see.

Blue Note Records and the German label Messidor introduced the Cuban pianist on disc a few years ago, and by now many jazz fans know of Rubalcaba‘s astounding technique and capacity for invention. They know of his vocabulary, a language of Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, but also Cuban masters such as Chucho Valdez or Peruchin — blues and bop and rock but also danzon. This is a Bud Powell for the 21st century.

Rubalcaba was discovered by Dizzy Gillepie at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana in 1985; they recorded an album together, and the trumpeter invited Rubalcaba to join him in New York. In 1989, two days before Rubalcaba was scheduled to play at the Festival Latino in New York, his visa was denied. Word was out, though: Bassist Charlie Haden had also discovered Rubalcaba in 1986, and this led (after some legal contortions) to the recordings on Blue Note.

But the State Department has so far refused Rubalcaba a visa. Apparently, the Cold War is over except in some areas of Miami and the District of Columbia.

So when Rubalcaba plays in North America, he plays in Canada. And he was hours late for his recent appearance at the International Jazz Festival of Montreal because, when his connecting flight from Jamaica was aborted due to engine trouble, Rubalcaba could not be rescheduled on just any other flight. According to festival organizers, he was denied permission even to stop in US territory. A private jet, capable of flying direct to Montreal without need of refueling, had to be found.

By the time he arrived, Rubalcaba had to go directly from the airport to the stage.

The following morning, he shrugs off the incident.

“I think we have better times, easier times ahead,” says Rubalcaba, 29, speaking softly in a gently cadenced Spanish. “We are living a very difficult moment historically. Even art is suffering. I think letting political dogma get in the way of artistic activities shows lack of vision and perspective.

“But we have something in our favor: Music is a universal language and moves about freely — even if one’s presence is not there.”

Still, playing in the United States “is important,” he adds. He says that, as a musician, he needs to have “direct contact with the public, the professionals, the specialists of my world, jazz. The US, New York in particular, is a very important market — obligatory for any artist in the world, but much more for those linked with jazz.”

The contrast between his gentle, measured speech and the swagger and exuberance of his playing is striking. In conversation, he seems to compose each answer, carefully choosing not just the words but the rhythms, the pauses. At the keyboard, when he’s in full flight, the serpentine single-note lines, the implacable left hand and the instant reharmonizations wash over the pieces in waves — a tropical downpour of variations and ornamentations.

Rubalcaba was born in Cayo Hueso, a neighborhood of Havana, into a family of musicians. His father, Guillermo, played piano with the orchestra of Enrique Jorrin, the creator of cha-cha-cha. His grandfather, Jacobo, was a conductor, composer and educator.

“We always had people coming to the house either to listen to music, talk about music or be part of a descarga {the Cuban jam session} or a rehearsal,” says Rubalcaba. “And the best thing about it was that we heard just about every kind of music. Mainly we heard Cuban music. But my older brother — we are three brothers — was very advanced in classical piano, so I was constantly listening to classical music. And Cayo Hueso is immersed in popular culture. We had many activites, both parties and religious events of black, African roots.”

He was initially interested in percussion, especially the drums. But when he started formal music education, at 8, he was told he was not ready physically for the drum kit. “So they suggested I try piano,” he recalls. Five years later, he started to study percussion as well, pursuing “a double major.”

He began working as a musician while still in his teens, playing both drums and piano. “Even though I was in school, I was never far from professional musicians. It was intense. I did cabarets, nightclubs, hotel shows, classical music, studio work. Back then it was not out of financial need — I was living with my parents and my education was free. What intrigued me was learning the different styles, the different ways to make music. It was a discipline, a sort of parallel school.”

He started touring outside Cuba as a sideman in 1980 and formed his group Proyecto in 1984.

Proyecto seemed to move in several directions at once, with stunning energy. It updated the sound of Irakere — the extraordinary Afro-Cuban jazz group of the 1970s that featured Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval — while hinting at fusion bands like Return to Forever and Weather Report.Rubalcaba‘s original compositions drew from jazz, European classical music and Afro-Cuban ritual music, but the repertoire also included arrangements of jazz standards (check the breathtaking “Green Dolphin Street” on “Live in Havana,” a 1987 release on Messidor).

The overall sound suggested, at times, a sort of improbable Cuban Third Stream.

“Yes,” says Rubalcaba, “but I didn’t think of it as a new thing but rather like something that has been going in Cuban music for decades, specifically in danzon.” A Cuban ballroom style created in the 19th century, danzon blends elements of European classical music, American pop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Rubalcaba paid homage to the form in his album “Mi Gran Pasion” (1988, Messidor), perhaps his best work on record to date.

He says his main influences as a pianist are Bud Powell, Monk, Evans, Keith Jarrett and, especially, Chick Corea. He sounds almost amused by the infatuation of some critics and fans with his technique and speed.

“Anyone can develop the technique; it’s a matter of years of training, methods, teachers, discipline. For me, it’s not that important — it’s just one more resource, a means to get at certain things.

“I know there is a fascination with the aerobic thing,” he adds with the slightest smile, “but at the end, the truth comes out — and it comes down to musical ideas.”

For Rubalcaba, improvisation, especially on standards, is not just a chance to show off but an opportunity as a composer and arranger. This comes through in his work on “Discovery,” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and the more recent “The Blessing,” with Haden and Jack DeJohnette (both on Blue Note).”All the baroque musicians were improvisers,” he explains, “and the best written works are just notated improvisations, after the fact. For them, improvisation was not different from composition. That’s why I love Monk — you can’t just play on his tunes. They are written in a way that forces you to think of the piece as a whole. When you improvise, you become a cocomposer.”

“For me, it is important to get at whatever is at the center in a piece of music. That means knowing it from its first version,” he continues, and being aware of “the transformations that have happened over time. . . . If you lose that connection with tradition, with the history of the music, your music will not transcend. It will became a circus act, something merely physical, and it will end with you.”

But pursuing those historic connections while living through profound political and social changes, not to mention a continuing cultural blockade, has not been easy. The Cuban Revolution brought on a dramatic break, says Rubalcaba: “It wasn’t a logical, `normal’ historical process. The past disappeared almost overnight. We had to wait for a generation to grow. For a while our schools were full of foreign instructors — now they’re almost all Cuban.”

And then the flow of music and musicians between Havana and New York, an exchange that once had been so rich, stopped. From the Cuban point of view, this severely diminished flood of information and recordings — along with the out-of-date technology and the lack of regular direct contact with US musicians — might have been a blessing in disguise.

“Leo Brower was once asked about the development of Cuban guitar,” Rubalcaba says, referring to the noted classical guitarist, “and he said that if there existed a Cuban school of guitar it was by default — meaning it was shaped by what it was missing rather than what it had. There have been people who have said that, perhaps, this lack of contact these past years has encouraged originality in the Cuban arts. I think there’s some truth to that, but it’s not the whole story.

“Even at the time when the connection between Cuba and the United States existed, Cuba always maintained its originality. We enjoyed what we got from the US — but I like to think that the Cuban world also influenced the culture in the United States.”

Forget politics: Cuban pianist Rubalcaba is Brilliant – By Howard Reich – Chicago Tribune Oct 9. 2005

The control (Rubalcaba) had over the instrument allowed him to do things that seem nearly impossible, rhythmically.’

– Danilo Perez, pianist

‘Paseo’ sums up much of his work

Sixteen years ago,  when  the phenomenal young Cuban pianist tried to perform in the United States, the State Department set off a small media firestorm denying him a visa on the eve of a scheduled concert in New York.  Since then, Rubalcaha has become one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists and – – during a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations in the 1990s- moved to the US .But, lately, history has been repeating itself, with Cuban, musicians finding it nearly impossible to obtain visas to perform in the States. leaving Rubalcaba dismayeed at the seemingly endless political battle between a superpower and an island nation, and its toll on both cultures. “It’s really sad and very horrible,” says Rubalcaba, who plays Chicago’s Auditorium theatre Saturday, speaking from his home outside Miami.

Cuba, U.S. at odds…

“Sometimes you can see the Cuban determination to do something positive, and then  the American response is a disaster. Then you see an American administration with a good position to help the situation, and then Cuba comes back with something wrong. It’s like a never ending struggle.  Perhaps no jazz musician has been more visibly positioned at the center of the contest than Rubalcaba, who– by dint of his outsize talent, has inspired intense reactions from both sides of the American-Cuban divide. When he played his belated U.S. debut, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1993, he attracted a capacity audience and extravagant critical praise. When he played Miami, three years later, more than 200 protestors demonstrated , some spitting on concertgoers, objeing to what they claimed was the pianist’s close relationship with fidal Castro’s government (Rubalcaba had neither neither condemned Cuban authorities nor renounced his Cuban citizenship). Worse, Rubalcaba faced harsh criticism from prominent Cuban musicians who had defected. “He is letting them(the Cuban Government) use him, the Gonzalo Rubalcaba & New Cuban Quartet (Blue Note).  For a  while some observers have been bickering over Rubalcaba’s delicate position on the tightrope of American-Cuban politics, he gradually has transformed himself as an artist, as “Paseo” shows. Listen to the powerhouse pianist who erupts on “Live in Havana” (recorded in 1986 but recently reissued in more complete form on Pimienta Records), and it’s clear that a keyboard giant was emerging. “The control he had over the instrument allowed him to do things that seem nearly impossible, rhythmically,” says Dani- 10 Perez, the fonnidable Panamanian pianist. “He was also able to bring out a lot of the subtleties of Cuban music into his jazz playing in a very original way,” But if Rubalcaba once sounded as if he possessed four hands, his playing has become considerably more refined on “Paseo,” the pianist effectively distilling his work to say more, with fewer notes. Listen to the sleek pianism and exquisite instrumental dialogues between Rubalcaba and his sidemen throughout “Paseo,” and it’s clear how far he has come. “When I started out, people were hearing a very young guy with a lot of stuff to say, with a lot of fantasies, with a lot of dreams, but not with enough experience” Rubaicaba says. “What you need is time, to make the discrimination of how to say things. I cannot exactly say that I play less now, but I can say that I am more conscious what I am playing, and that probably will make the results different. ” Moreover, with “Paseo” Rubalcaba in effect sums up a great deal of his musical experience, from the distinctly Cuban folkloric elements of the opening track, “El Guerrillero,” to the classically tinged elements of “Preludio En Conga #1”: from the high lyricism of the aptly titled “Sea Change” to the rhythmically volatile, utterly contemporary jazz feel of”Meanwhile.·’ Rubalcaba considers this music a sign of his maturation – a measure of what he has been through politically, of his role as husband and parent, of his natural evolution as an artist. Yet it’s also a kind of summation of an already remarkable life in music. Born 42 years in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana into a distinguished musical family, he was blessed to have as a grandfather Jacobo Rubalcaba. who wrote some of the most admired danzones of Cuban ballroom culture, while his father, Guillermo, played piano in the orchestra of the innovator Enrique Jorrin. In effect, Rubalcaba practically breathed music since his infancy, eventually studying classical repertoire in Havana’s famed Amadeo Roldan Conservatory and spending his off-hours marveling at the piano wizardry of the American jazz pianist Art Tatum and other bebop pioneers, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. By age 20, Rubalcaba was touring the world with the celebrated Cuban band Orquestra Aragon. After Gillespie first encountered him, in Havana in 1985, he anointed Rubalcaba “the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years” and began agitating for Rubalcaba engagements in the U.S. A year later, the revered American bassist-bandleader Charlie Haden also laid ears on Rubalcaba for the fIrst time, during a Havana jazz festival. “I fell on the floor and asked, ‘Who is that guy. his solo was so unbelievable,” Haden once recalled “He was 23 at the time, I, but it was like hearing a combination of Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans.” Still; the pianist repeatedly was turned down by the State Department when attempting to play for an American public increasingly eager to hear him. But music of this caliber never could be kept out of the U.S. by mere politics, Rubalcaba’s recordings surfacing here through licensing agreements with European countries that finessed the American embargo on Cuba. So by the time Rubalcaba made the aforementioned U.S. debut at Lincoln Center, American listeners were poised to expect greatness and were not disappointed Since then, Rubalcaba has played with far-flung players such as the genre-crossing Haden, the adventurous tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the Brazilian melodist Ivan Lins and a variety of classical ensembles. That breadth of experience radiates throughout “Paseo,” no two tracks conforming to any particular style or genre. As for Rubalcaba’S political status these days, he puts it this way: “If you want to know about my immigration, I have an American passport,” he says.  “If you want to know about my soul, I’m Cuban.”

What the critics are saying about Gonzalo Rubalcaba…

What the critics are saying about Gonzalo Rubalcaba

” … the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years.”

-Dizzy Guillespie’s remarks ( 1985).

“I fell on the floor and asked, ‘Who is that guy, his solo was so unbelievable…He was 23 at the time, I, but it was like hearing a combination of Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans.”

Charlie Haden

” … this is the best new voice to come along in jazz in almost a decade”.

-Jack Fuller, Chicago Tribune

” … Rubalcaba is a world-class jazz pianist with an impressive intensity and

command of his instrument.”

-Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times

” ….. This young man approaches jazz improvisation with an intriguing blend of

appealing abandon and profound beauty.”

-Chris Albertson, Stereo Review

… Rubalcaba displays both a keen sense of history and a renegade’s sense of

exploration. Where yesterday collides with tomorrow, that’s where you’ll find

Rubalcaba. At least for now- who knows where he’ll be off to next.”

-Jon Regen, Keyboard Magazine.

” … 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.

-Richard Dyer, Globe Staff

” … This was certainly one of the top programs ofthe season, whether classical or

jazz, and possibly THE program; an exceptional performer, an exceptional creative

artist at the very top of this game. An unforgettable moment, one that if captured on

CD, you would play over and over, to absorb every nuance.

– Tom Moore, Classical Voice of North Carolina.

” … The Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who over the last 15 years or so has

become one of the greatest musicians in jazz, is meticulous about music. You can tell

this by the first unaccompanied notes of “Avatar”, his complexly beautiful new

album. He has an almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were playing the

string directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries. He is also meticulous

about ideas …. “

– Ben Ratliff, The New York Time

” ….. This isn’t Latin Jazz per se, or even Mr. Rubalcaba’s original version of it; it’s

more recognizably modern mainstream New York jazz.”

-Ben Ratliff, The New York Time.

” …. “Solo” is a remarkable achievement, at once meditative and muscular, and a

strong early contender for the 2006 TOP 10 list.”

-Josef Woodard, Jazziz Magazine.

” …. “Solo”, as his ninth recording for Blue Note, Rubalcaba solidifies his position as

one of the finest pianists of his, or any generation.”

-Paula Edelstein, All About Jazz Magazine.

” … He was also able to bring out a lot of the subtleties of Cuban music into his jazz

playing in a very original way.”

-Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune.

” … Listen to the sleek pianism and exquisite instrumental dialogues between

Rubalcaba and his sidemen throughout “Paseo” and it’s clear how far he has come.”

-Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune.

” … 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


-Suan Pineda, Columbia

” … His sparkle doesn’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.”

-Suan Pineda, Columbia.

” … You can take pianist Gonzalo Ru balcaba out of his native land – and that in itself is

news but you can’t take Cuba out of Gonzalo. The Personal and political passions so

long associated with the island, its pride and isolation in a vast and roiling sea, come

to live in his music.”

-Howard Mandel, Jazziz Magazine.

” .. .It’s not just his speed, it’s his touch …. lt’s not just his touch, it’s his ideas.”

-Marty Hughley, Aregonian, Portland.

” … This reason, which Rubalcaba has managed to balance with a precise dexterity,

dwell in the symbiosis between the know-ledge of yesterday and 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.”

-Suan Pineda, Columbia.

” … And that’s because it isa minimalist musical expression- give 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.”

– Suan Pineda, Columbia

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quinteto – Hip Side (fragm.)

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