The Quiet Cuban

When he appeared in Miami last year, jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba ignited a firestorm of controversy. Though he now lives in South Florida, he just wants to play music, not politics.

For Paquito D'Rivera, who sought political asylum in 1980 and lives in New York, it is unthinkable for Rubalcaba to be living so near the capital of Cuban exile without taking a tough stance against the revolutionary government. "It's like being a Nazi and then moving to Israel," says D'Rivera. "I have nothing personal against Gonzalo Rubalcaba. But he has to make up his mind [to defect] or move to another place."

Rubalcaba sees no reason why he should. He plays jazz and therefore finds it only logical to perform with American jazz musicians, to share their recording projects -- and their freedoms. Bookings for concerts and recording sessions all over the United States -- except Miami -- now crowd his calendar. These would all involve complicated international negotiations if he didn't live here and if the red tape of travel visas were still an issue. And, he says, if he lived in Cuba, he would have to be more selective about his U.S. engagements, since he would not be paid for them. (The U.S. State Department has the discretion to allow Cuban nationals to perform here, but they cannot be paid for their appearances.)

For Rubalcaba the path is clear, and politics has nothing to do with it. "Anyone who's interested in jazz has to come to the United States," he asserts. "This is where you find the real thing."

A photographer and his assistant snap publicity shots as Rubalcaba sits at a black Steinway grand in one of the soundproof rooms of a large recording studio in midtown Manhattan. Stylish in black jeans, black T-shirt, and square-toe suede shoes, his hair cropped short, the pianist pulls his dark gray cardigan tight against the air-conditioned chill and launches into what one reviewer once dubbed his "typewriter mode." His fingers sprint from one end of the keyboard to the other in a series of scales, a dizzying preview of his athletic technique.

Such high-speed playing is a Rubalcaba trademark, and it tends to provoke passionate, if not always positive, responses. (Critics have referred to his rapid-fire drilling as both "dazzling pyrotechnics" and "macho bullshit.") But Rubalcaba's skill at the keyboard and his highly interpretative style have frequently prompted comparisons with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner, as well as Afro-Cuban jazzman Chucho Valdes, who has called the younger musician the best Cuban piano player today.

"He has complete command technically of the piano," says American bass great Charlie Haden, who met the pianist a decade ago in Cuba and has since recorded with him on several albums. "He has such a great ear and a feeling for music. He combines natural talent with technical ability -- and there you have a great musician."

Rubalcaba finishes his warmup and rests his hands in his lap, staring down in silent conversation with the piano keys. Time is short. He is in New York for two days to record with bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Dennis Chambers for one of his three CDs scheduled for U.S. release in the next few months by Blue Note Records. Already finished is an album with saxophonist Joe Lovano, as well as a four-year project called Antiguo, recorded with Cuban musicians and combining jazz fusion with Afro-Cuban religious chants.

Today Rubalcaba and the two American musicians will record some of the tunes they performed during a recent two-week club tour in Japan: jazz evergreens made popular by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other legends. Chambers, a hot young drummer known for his work with former Miles Davis guitarist John Scofield, and Bromberg, a Los Angeles-based session man, are in separate rooms adjoining the pianist's. The trio can see each other through the Plexiglas walls.

In the control booth, recording engineer James Anderson looks over a list of tracks that includes the jazz standard "On Green Dolphin Street." He flicks a switch on the control board, opening a mike in the studio. "Hey, Gonzalo, Green Dolphin Street -- isn't that the street where you have an apartment in Havana?"

Rubalcaba looks up quizzically as Bromberg and Chambers grin behind their instruments. Anderson repeats the question, and Rubalcaba chuckles, getting the joke a beat behind his American colleagues. Recording studios have become a kind of language lab for Rubalcaba, who spoke only a few words of English on his first trip to New York four years ago. Now he can get a point across fluidly, with a light accent, but much of the studio banter still escapes him.

"Although I'm living here among the American musicians now, there are always going to be cultural barriers," he says in Spanish. "The most important thing here is to find some point of communication, and that can be obtained through the music. We relate by instinct -- a look, an interpretation, a transmission of energy takes on more importance than language."

During breaks in the studio, Rubalcaba makes up for a lack of conversation by throwing friendly punches at Bromberg or locking the lanky bassist in a hug. The two first played together in a San Francisco club earlier this year, and they've performed frequently since then.

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