Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Though this Gonzalo Rubalcaba fellow is an ace jazz pianist originally from Cuba, don't tag him a "Cuban" or "Afro-Cuban" jazz musician. Although he's been influenced by his homeland's traditions, Rubalcaba's approach has been likewise affected by classical music and the whole post-WWII jazz continuum, from bop to free to fusion. While one can hear shades of other great pianists in his playing — the deceptive simplicity of Thelonious Monk, the angular cool of Lennie Tristano — Rubalcaba has clearly and thoroughly absorbed their essences, but not their styles. He sounds like virtually no other. Avatar evokes Blue Note on-the-cusp-of-avant-garde classics such as Andrew Hill's Point of Departure and Tony Williams's Life Time.

The compositions are knotty and occasionally a bit thorny, but appealingly so, like a good movie mystery/drama (or a Monk tune) that elicits your close attention. Avatar always has a strong, rhythmic sense moving things along nicely; further, there's no long, meandering solos or tedious "explorations." Another expat from Cuba (and the Bay Area), multisaxophonist Yosvany Terry, lets loose some spirited but finely honed solos, and Matt Brewer's rippling bass is rock-solid. Hyperbole alert: This is one of the best jazz discs of '08.

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