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"What makes Gonzalo unique is that he can play traditional jazz as a traditional jazz piano player, but when he delves into the rhythms of his Cuban background, it's really strong," says Bromberg. "But he separates it -- if he doesn't play in that style, you'd have no idea he's even Cuban."
Other musicians have been impressed, even a little surprised by Rubalcaba's grasp of American jazz idioms. "He's interested in playing as wide a library of sounds as he can get his hands on," says bassist Ron Carter, who has performed and recorded with the Cuban pianist. "He's as knowledgeable as anyone who's kind of been shut off from the world can be."
Rubalcaba's first exposure to jazz came from a stack of worn records that belonged to his father. "They were really old records by old jazz players like Jimmy Dorsey, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner. There was one by Dizzy Gillespie," recalls Rubalcaba. "Scratched LPs with horrible sound. But the most important thing was the music."
The Rubalcaba household in Havana was always filled with music -- and musicians. Gonzalo's grandfather, Jacobo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, was a well-known composer and trombone player who penned danzones that became Cuban standards, notably "El Cadete Constitucional" and "Linda Mercedes." He was 65 when he died in a car accident on the way home from a performance. Gonzalo's father, Guillermo Rubalcaba, a pianist, has carried on the tradition. He played with the band led by Enrique Jorrin, originator of the cha-cha-cha, and went on to lead his own popular dance orchestra. He often held rehearsals, or more informal jams, at home; the great blind piano player Frank Emilio Flyn, bandleader Antonio Arcano, percussionist Tata GYines, bolero singer Pacho Alonso, and Jorrin were among those who dropped in. From the time he was a toddler, little Gonzalito found instruments put in his hands.
Because his older brother Jesus was already playing piano, Gonzalo started on drums. But by age eight he was playing piano as well. As a boy he began to perform with his father in a group made up of Rubalcaba relatives. While he learned the basics of Cuban popular music at home, he studied classical music at Havana's Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. In his teens he entered the National Art School. Like all Cuban music students, he was given an exhaustive education in music theory and performance based in classical music. In the early years of the revolution, teachers at Cuban conservatories prohibited their students from playing jazz, but by Rubalcaba's time, in the late Seventies, they had begun allowing students to experiment with the American art form.
"It's a gift to have this kind of education with all of the intellectual, technical, theoretical, and experimental tools that you have access to," Rubalcaba says. "I think they're tools that allow you to work with traditions, to reorganize traditions, and to extend those traditions further into the universal language of music."
Rubalcaba made his recording debut when he was only eighteen, on a 1981 album by bolero singer Marta Valdes. On one track, "Y Con Tus Palabras," he breaks into Valdes's sultry ballad singing with a stomping piano solo.
"When you find the thing that you have a greater vocation for, you know it," says Rubalcaba. "I think that jazz was always inside me."
The year before, he'd traveled outside Cuba for the first time, not to play jazz but to join Beatriz Marquez, a Cuban singer of popular Latin songs, at a music festival in Colombia. Rubalcaba's reputation as an innovative pianist and composer grew quickly. He did stints with the leading Cuban dance band Los Van Van and the seminal Cuban jazz ensemble Orquesta de Musica Moderna. He performed during cabaret shows at Havana's Hotel Riviera, accompanying popular singers such as Omara Portuando and Elena Burke. In 1983 Rubalcaba went on tour with Orquesta Aragon, traveling in France and Africa. The next year he formed his own band, Proyecto, with musicians he'd met in school. They started to experiment with electronic jazz fusion that incorporated basic Cuban rhythms.
Rubalcaba was just 22 years old when Dizzy Gillespie wandered into the bar of the Hotel Nacional during Havana's 1985 Jazz Plaza Festival. Rubalcaba was playing in a jam session that was part of the weeklong event. "He was such a nice, spontaneous kind of guy," remembers Rubalcaba. "He came up to me and pulled some sheet music out of his pocket and said, 'Do you think we could play this together tomorrow?'" The young performer, then a skinny kid sporting a short Afro, joined Gillespie's orchestra two nights running at the Teatro Karlos Marx. The trumpeter and the pianist played a duet on Gillespie's "Con Alma," moving Gillespie to proclaim that Rubalcaba was the best piano player he'd heard in ten years.
Rubalcaba jammed with Gillespie at the Havana jazz festival again the following year, when Proyecto went on-stage right after Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra.
"The whole group was great," recalls Haden during a phone interview from his home in Malibu, California, "but when the pianist started taking his solo on an electric keyboard, my wife Ruth and I were astounded.