Gonzalo Rubalcaba

By John Shakespeare Dyson | May 23, 2024

On April 25 I made my way to the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall in Harbiye to listen to the Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba – a treat I had not experienced since October 2022, when I heard him perform with singer Aymée Nuviola at the Zorlu Centre. Although I freely admit that straight Latin is not a genre I normally jive to, Mr Rubalcaba’s tasteful and innovative improvisations stimulate a number of my receptors – not just those that register rhythm, but also those that respond to chordal stimulation. Suffice it to say that although on April 25 ‘the perfection of nature’ (a phenomenon that astrologers say arrives with the beginning of May) was not yet upon us, and the summer was as yet a mirage on the horizon, those Cuban cross-rhythms sent my inner thermometer up a notch or five, and I left the concert hall feeling as if my toes were already treading warm sand. 

Hailed by Piano & Keyboard magazine in 1999 as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century (along with such figures as Glenn Gould, Martha Argerich and Bill Evans), Gonzalo Rubalcaba has so far achieved three Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammies. In my review of that concert in 2022, I said the following:

I was immediately captivated by Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s exuberant pianistic style, in which Latin rhythms are blended with surprisingly far-out atonal chords... His superb technique and ability to produce sizzling improvisations, dashing up and down the keyboard in a dust-raising swirl, must surely place him among the world’s foremost jazz pianists.

Mr Rubalcaba’s all-too-brief Wikipedia entry belies the multiplicity of his gifts. Born into a musical family in Havana in 1963 (his father was a pianist, bandleader and composer), he started playing the drums in his father’s orchestra at the age of 6, and two years later began formal musical training with the piano as his main instrument – as he once recalled, ‘just to please my mother’. Clearly, she instinctively understood the direction in which his talents lay.

He graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Havana with a degree in composition, and by his mid-teens was working as both a drummer and a pianist in the hotels, concert halls and jazz clubs of Havana. Following graduation, he stepped into the life of the popular musician, touring Cuba, Europe, Africa and Asia with the fabled Orquesta Aragón. Then, in 1984, he began leading Grupo Proyecto, his own Afro-Cuban jazz rock fusion band. Discovered by Dizzy Gillespie the following year, he subsequently met Charlie Haden and Bruce Lundvall, the then President of Blue Note Records, and these encounters led to appearances before audiences in the United States. In 1991 he moved from Cuba to the nearby Dominican Republic, and in 1996 from there to Miami.

Top-rank performers with whom Gonzalo Rubalcaba has worked in the past include Chick Corea and Bill Evans. One of his Grammy Award-winning albums is Skyline, recorded with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette – two more names to conjure with. His most recent production, meanwhile, is Turning Point, recorded (like Skyline) in 2018 but released on digital platforms in August 2022; it features bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland.

An article by Richard Scheinin on the ‘sfjazz’ (San Francisco Jazz) website tells us the following:

When American jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden first encountered him in Cuba in the mid-1980s, they were dumbstruck by his astonishing command of the keyboard. He played in those days with an urgency and confidence that verged on cockiness. Now he is 59, and other qualities have come to the fore. He plays with exquisite touch, with charm and a sense of deep reflection — though he still improvises with an accumulating energy that can land with a rhythmic jolt.

At the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall on April 25th, he was accompanied by Matt Brewer on double bass and Ernesto Simpson on drums. As the lights on the stage changed from red to yellow to orange, we saw him clap his hands (perhaps to warm them up?) and play a series of adventurous runs that involved a great deal of hand-crossing. A long solo from the double bass then led into a simple melody in F major from the piano. Indeed, these were features of the ensemble’s musicianship that I very much appreciated: the double bass, an instrument often relegated to a secondary role, was given the space to perform solos unhindered, and the pianist, though capable of extremely complex manoeuvres, had the confidence to drop the dramatics occasionally and allow a simple statement to shine through.

Following a piece in which green lights illuminated a series of incisive chords and a display of pianistic pyrotechnics punctuated by sudden stops and starts, Mr Rubalcaba addressed the audience. He told us that he had first come to Istanbul in 1995 or 1996, and that ever since then he had brought almost every project in which he had been involved to Turkey. The previous night (he said), the group had played in Turin; at three in the morning they had driven to Milan Airport, arriving in Istanbul at 11. Despite the punishing schedule, they were glad to be with us: “We need people around us who believe in music, and believe in love,” he announced.

The next number, A Night in Tunisia, saw some of the mind-befuddling cross-rhythms and sharply atonal chords for which Gonzalo Rubalcaba is justly famous. Soon afterwards there was a lengthy, low-slung bass solo with minimal piano accompaniment and occasional drum flourishes that smoothed out a number of those synaptic pathways in my cerebellum that had become knotted, gnashed and gnarly from protracted exposure to urban life. Mentally allowing the musical zephyrs to rock my virtual hammock, I all but drifted off into sybaritic slumber.

Very few groups will allow the double bass the luxury of a protracted solo in two consecutive pieces, but this ensemble did; in the second, however, the drummer punctured the serenity with a staccato whiplash, and the pianist demonstrated his take on the cluster phenomenon by flapping his hands up and down, allowing them to come down on whatever notes they happened to coincide with. (At the concert in 2022, I even saw him karate-chop the instrument with the sides of his hands; the poor old Steinway took – if I may paraphrase a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers – a right-down, regular, royal hammering.)

One feature of the last-but-one number was the variety of rhythms the pianist introduced; the last piece that was played, meanwhile, began as a slow dead march, later developing into a subdued bass solo in 6/8 time with minimalist piano accompaniment. It is a courageous group indeed that will end their performance with anything but a triple-forte firestorm, but the Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio did just that, proving that they have the maturity to play exactly what they feel like, when they like, and do not give a... sheet of music... for the consequences. As a result, they earned the appreciation and respect of all the musicians and music-lovers in the audience.

Time for some recordings of Mr Rubalcaba’s past performances. First, a sample of his playing at an earlier stage in his career. Here he is in Autumn Leaves with bass-player John Patitucci and drummer Jack DeJohnette at the Mount Fuji Festival in 1991. I particularly like the pianist’s flourishes in the first minute and a half (remember the ‘astonishing command of the keyboard’ that Richard Scheinin talked about?) and the bass solo that begins at 05:14:

Now, an extended recording of Mr Rubalcaba playing with José Giovanni Hidalgo on congas and timbales, José Armando Gola on bass and Horacio (‘El Negro’) Hernández on drums at the 5th Clazz Continental Latin Jazz Festival in Madrid in 2015. Of the two specifically Cuban instruments, a ‘conga’ is a tall, narrow, single-headed drum, while a ‘timbale’ is a shallow, single-headed drum with metal casing. Percussion fans will be certain to appreciate the conga solo that begins at 47:06:

More recently, Mr Rubalcaba’s pianism has acquired a quiet intensity and even greater harmonic subtlety, as we see in this 2010 recording from Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. Here, his fellow-musicians are Mike Rodríguez on trumpet and flugelhorn, Will Vinson on alto and soprano saxophone, Matt Brewer on bass and Clarence Penn on drums. In Peace (21:40), we see an example of his new style, with its suppressed smokiness; the overcast atmosphere is enhanced by some exceptional trumpet-playing. At 24:11 the pianist seems to be imitating Satie’s Gnossiennes, and I’d love to see the chords he hits in minutes 28 and 29 written out on paper.

Finally, here is a video about the making of his 2011 album XXI Century that features sequences in which we see Mr Rubalcaba and his fellow-musicians – Lionel Loueke, Pedro ‘Pedrito’ Martinez, Matt Brewer, Marcus Gilmore, Ignacio Berroa, Mario Garcia and Jim Anderson – enjoying themselves in the recording studio. Notice the guy who starts scraping that conical object (it looks like a head of maize) at 12:28: he keeps it up, without in any way varying what he is doing, for ages. What a nice way to spend one’s life! At 19:03, after a series of clusters, the pianist goes berserk (try writing out the score for this one!) before hitting a series of rhythmic sweet spots.

Listen to this recording as you lounge in your hammock (virtual or otherwise), sipping some innocent beverage in the haze of a torrid afternoon. Yaz geldi artık (summer is here), the trees are in bloom, so let Gonzalo Rubalcaba whisk you off to Havana!

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