Full Spectrum

Jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba takes Cuban music deep

The last time Gonzalo Rubalcaba played for a South Florida audience, conditions weren't exactly ripe for a good performance by the classically trained jazz pianist, born in Cuba but based in Coral Springs since 1996. And we're not talking politics this time, or inclement weather.

It was a little more than a year ago when Rubalcaba played for an audience in his adopted home region, in a band led by legendary and legendarily open-minded bassist Charlie Haden. The two collaborated on 2001's Nocturne, a lush, pointedly laid-back collection of Cuban and Mexican boleros, recorded two years ago at Hit Factory/Criteria Studios in Miami. Rubalcaba co-produced the disc, which landed on many critics' top ten lists, and won the Grammy for best Latin jazz album.

The exquisitely played and arranged material from Nocturne, all subtle shadings and subdued rhythms, was subjected to sonic squashing courtesy of another, significantly louder act on an adjacent stage at Music Fest Miami. The truncated show was "a disaster," the former teenage prodigy recounted during an interview at the Montreal Jazz Fest.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba and his Nocturne troupe return
Gonzalo Rubalcaba and his Nocturne troupe return

"That may have been the shortest gig in my life," Rubalcaba, 39 years old, said shortly after his own trio's sound check at the historic, ornate Monument National in late June. The pianist's four-night "Invitation Series" stand in Montreal -- Haden and saxophonist David Sanchez were among the special guests -- was proof positive of the pianist's status as a major player in the jazz world. "We started and even before the improvisation section Charlie stopped, because there was another stage with different people," he said of the aborted Miami show. "It was noisy. There weren't any political hassles."

Rubalcaba's return with the Nocturne band ought not be fraught with sonic danger this time: Haden, Rubalcaba, Sanchez, and two other South Florida residents, drummer Ignacio Berroa and violinist Federico Ruiz, will play material from the CD on October 10 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

The disc, which has demonstrated staying power, particularly on jazz radio, has gathered a following in part for its break from preconceived notions of the music of Rubalcaba's forebears.

"Cuban music is kind of in fashion around the world," he says. "But when you mention Cuban music, people think about dancing, kind of uptempo bright sounds and tempos. I know not many people around the world have the idea that we have that [other] music too, those slow tempos, very deep harmonies, beautiful melodies. I think that it was a really good moment to put this record out, among or between a lot of records [by acts] that people really know of, actually know about -- Buena Vista Social Club, Cubanismo, Los Van Van.

"I'm very glad that Nocturne won a Grammy," adds Rubalcaba, whose Supernova CD was nominated in the same category (translation: He was competing with himself). "That means that people really understand how important it is that a record complete the whole spectrum or the whole range of Cuban music, the vision of Cuban music around the world. The most important thing has been the reaction of the people. People really love that record, and I think it's even better now the way that we are playing that music, a year and a half after we recorded it. It's more creative, even more relaxed."

Rubalcaba's vision of his own music initially was shaped by the work of Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, and other classical composers whose pieces the pianist encountered as part of his conservatory studies. After touring with the popular Orquesta Aragon during the early 1980s, he organized his own band, Grupo Projecto, in 1985. Then came Dizzy Gillespie: The great bebop trumpeter hired Rubalcaba several times, for performances in Cuba and Montreal.

"Dizzy was one of the first Americans to believe in the relationship between Cuban music, or part of Cuban music, and bebop or American music," he says. "He was in love with it all the time, not only with the music but with Latin musicians, Latin American musicians. Ignacio was part of his band for more than fifteen years, Arturo [Sandoval], Paquito [D'Rivera], Giovanni Hidalgo, Claudio Roditi, Danilo Perez, Michel Camilo, David Sanchez, myself. The last time I saw him was in 1990, in Cuba. That was the last time that he came to Cuba.

"He saw, before many people did, how important that relationship is, that marriage between Cuba and the United States, musically speaking," Rubalcaba continues. "We have a lot of things in common -- freedom, harmony, even melodies. Maybe different accents, maybe different musical structures or forms. But we have a lot in common."

Haden, a former free-jazzer, long involved in studying and playing Latin forms, was, and is, Rubalcaba's other major mentor. The bassist caught Rubalcaba in Cuba in 1986.

"We did a recording session -- nothing serious -- in Cuba," recalls the pianist. "He brought that tape to the people at Blue Note in New York, to [label head] Bruce Lundvall's office, and said, 'You have to see this guy.' That was the beginning of my relationship with the people from Blue Note."

The veteran invited the younger musician to accompany him in Montreal in 1988. A recording of that festival show was released as part of Haden's Montreal Tapes album series. Discovery: Live at Montreux, released in 1990 on Blue Note, alerted an even wider audience to the depth and breadth of Rubalcaba's talent. He subsequently released eight CDs on the label, including the 1999 critically acclaimed Inner Voyage, and Diz, a 1993 disc featuring tunes associated with Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and other jazz standard-bearers.

Rubalcaba's relationship with Haden remains a living thing: "We established a kind of relationship that has been [based on] learning from him and his culture, his music," the pianist says. "And he has been learning with us about our culture. So that has been the great bridge, if you put together those two as part of the Nocturne record. He really has the feeling to play boleros and even some tumbaos. That's very special. That's not common."

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