Return Engagement

Watching as the imbroglio surrounding Los Van Van's Miami concert played out on local television last month, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba felt as though he had tuned in to a rerun of old news. "I feel sorry that they had to have that disagreeable experience," sighs Rubalcaba, who was performing in Japan the night Los Van Van appeared at the Miami Arena. "I was really surprised. I thought people here had started to see things differently."

Rubalcaba, of course, became inscribed in the annals of Miami intolerance in 1996, when screaming, spitting Cuban-exile demonstrators swarmed the Gusman Center in protest of the pianist's refusal to publicly break with the Cuban government. Swinging flagpoles and pickets, they harassed ticketholders who had come to hear him play his first local concert. Despite bomb threats, warnings from colleagues and friends, and without his Cuban band members, who returned to the island fearing problems with the State Department, Rubalcaba performed before a sparse audience that night. Although he has lived in Broward County for the past three years, he has not played in South Florida since.

"I thought things had changed, but now I see they remain the same, with the same actions and reactions as before," Rubalcaba says in Spanish during an interview on a recent afternoon in an Aventura restaurant. "I think the Cubans who have come to live here are losing their opportunity to escape from the confrontational system that exists in Cuba. You see this controversy and it's like all of a sudden you don't know where you are. You say, 'Am I back in Cuba?' Independent of the political essence that inspires that type of behavior, it's expired. It's just out of date for the times that we live in."

Rubalcaba says he was never afraid to give a repeat performance in Miami, though he understands why promoters have not been forthcoming, reluctant to gamble on a financial loss by booking him here. Mostly the pianist has been busy. Blue Note recently released Inner Voyage, the 36-year-old's ninth album on the esteemed jazz label. And he has been touring constantly over the past three years, in Europe, Japan, and the United States. But a fortuitous break in his schedule will allow him to headline the Hollywood Jazz Festival this weekend.

Inner Voyage finds Rubalcaba in a quiet mood, departing from the aggressive, acrobatic keyboard pyrotechnics that have become his signature in the jazz world. Featured with him on his new album are compatriot Ignacio Berroa on drums, bassist Jeff Chambers, and Michael Brecker on saxophone. For the jazz festival gig, Rubalcaba will perform with bassist John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette, the celebrated American drummer featured on Miles Davis's seminal 1969 album Bitches Brew, and who subsequently anchored Davis's groundbreaking electric band the following year.

Since his prodigious jam with Dizzy Gillespie at the Havana Jazz Festival in 1985, and a widely lauded performance with Charlie Haden there the following year, Rubalcaba has consistently collaborated with major American players, both onstage and on record. Such associations have enriched his music and also have discouraged descriptions of Rubalcaba's output from being classified under the catchall term for instrumental music played by Latin-American musicians: Latin jazz.

"If you had to assign some classification to my music I don't think Latin jazz would be the most appropriate," the soft-spoken pianist admonishes, going on to criticize the current tendency to deem anything sounding even vaguely as though it's from the Caribbean or South America "Latin music."

"People hear Cuban music and they call it Latin, or they listen to music from Puerto Rico or Colombia and they say, 'Hey, that's Latin music,' " Rubalcaba laments. "Or maybe they call it salsa. I think we have to start to recognize what belongs to each country. Although we're from a general geographic area, I think each country is very defined in the music it generates. Everything has been imprisoned in this immense category 'Latin music,' which really defines nothing at all."

Cuban music is another story. Raised in a musical family whose patriarch was Jacobo Rubalcaba, a noted composer of danzones, Rubalcaba considers himself an heir to the Cuban tradition. He is a Cuban musician foremost, in spite of his explorations in the jazz world. "Cuban music is Cuban music, and it has its characteristics which make it such," stresses Rubalcaba, who travels to Cuba when he can to visit his family. "In my music you won't find cumbia or bomba, but you will find traces of danzón or Cuban rumba or bolero. Certain movements from the Cuban musical tradition appear in all of my work in some way: sometimes as color, sometimes in the presentation. It may be more or less evident, but it's always there. And when it's not in the musical language, it's in the story of each song, who a piece is dedicated to, or who inspired it."

Seven of the nine tracks on Inner Voyage were composed for those close to Rubalcaba. He wrote the graceful "Promenade" for bassist Ron Carter. "Blues Lundvall" invokes his fond feelings for the president of Blue Note. And three of the songs were written for the pianist's three children: Joao, age nine, Joan, six years old, and Yolanda, age three.

"I think of these songs for my children as a suite," Rubalcaba explains. "It's difficult to capture the spirit of children in a song when they're so young. I try to capture the time that each one moves in. Joan is a bit of a dreamer; he has a regular rhythm but at the same time he's nostalgic, a little introverted. Joao has a more irregular beat; he can be concentrating on one thing, then jump to something else. And Yolanda, she's a contrast who goes from sheer tenderness to a very strong personality. She's a little girl but she has qualities that make you feel like you're in the presence of a grown woman.

"Those are traits that I try to put into the pieces," Rubalcaba reflects. "But harder than writing the pieces was making them such that each child would identify with his own composition. Now each one knows it; they feel identified with their music. Whenever I'm home and I sit down to play, they say, 'Hey, that's my song.'"

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Judy Cantor