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Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Duo and Trio



Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Gonzalo Rubalcaba

There has always been only one Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Afro-Cuban pianist who left the island but whose heart resides there; an artist possessed of a genius for music characterized by a singularly restless creativity. But over a 35+ year-long journey in improvised music the pianism known for a virtuosic, powerful fists-of-fury – lightning fast with both hands – has given rise to a more erudite approach to the keyboard.

The nervy fingered pointillism is now often stretched by dreamily languid, long-limbed phrases and improvised melodic lines. Of course, even now, when the impulse to adorn melodicism with dazzling harmonics Mr Rubalcaba can turn on his afterburners and make his music ascend like vertically driven improvisations on the wings of a song.

Speaking of which, Mr Rubalcaba’s playing is infinitely more songful today, whether he is accompanying a vocalist [Aimée Nuviola is a prime example, or – in the instance of this duo with the French improvising alto saxophonist Perrick Pédron – you sense in the pianist’s playing a kind of vocal-conception], by which I mean he seems to launch melodies as if singing them. His piano remains an orchestral implement and the greater the interaction between his hands the more symphonic the sound he extracts from it.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Gonzalo Rubalcaba

But essentially, he seems to favour the kind of song-like approach, that is evocative of a singer involved in a glorious lieder performance. Through it all, Mr Rubalcaba maintains the same distinctive pianism that made him all the rage when Dizzy Gillespie [and Charlie Haden] first heard him in Havana and pulled out the stops to open the doors to world of music to his all-consuming musical genius.

These two recordings – one a duo with the French musician Perrick Pédron, and the other a trio recording with Mr Rubalcaba’s Trio D’été – with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland] are distinctive additions to his discography and benchmarks of pianism. Each, in its own way, confirms the explosive nature of the pianist’s genius, his meteoric rise in music.

Best of all, both recordings – with their astutely-selected repertoire – show how Mr Rubalcaba bends like a reed in a running stream, enabling music to flow through him, around him and from him into participating musicians, who feed off his genius to ascend greater heights along their own path as musicians.   

Pierrick Pédron & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Pédron/Rubalcaba The repertoire on this album is a judicious mix of familiar pieces – standards, if you will – and a couple of precious little rarities by familiar composers. The musicians appear to navigate the horizontal melodic lines in sine waves and parabolas that loop and bop and weave in and out of [the melodies] their harmonic patterns often sharply angled and occasionally swerving as if the linear motion of the music has been gently interrupted – guided, seductively by the bows and arches of French curves.

Pierrick Pédron & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Pédron/Rubalcaba
Pierrick Pédron & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Pédron/Rubalcaba

This may take the form of a divertimento prompted by a wiggle from Mr Pédron’s horn, seemingly on an infinite trance-like foray directed as if into the music’s vanishing point. Mr Rubalcaba, for his part will pick up a cue a listener might have all-but-missed and propelled the song – seemingly wrong-footed – into the rarified air, only to be joined by the saxophonist.

Together they bring the song back to earth via a glorious dénouement or a coda almost magically indistinguishable from its original melody. Cue the brilliantly impressionistic Lawns by Carla Bley, or Pretty Girl from the brushstrokes of Billy Strayhorn.

You’ll find yourself catching your breath as emotions run bright and high and dark and depth-defyingly low; and you’ll be bathed in warmth; the turn teary-eyed as these two fine musicians navigate this music, daringly nimble-fingered and with beautifully colours spreading magically on a musical canvas.    

YouTube Video – Pédron Rubalcaba: Si tu vois ma mère

Music – 1: The Song is you; 2: Ezz-Thetic; 3: Lawns; 4: Si Vu vois ma mère; 5: Dreamsville; 6: Five will get you ten; 7: The folks that live on the hill; 8: Pretty girl.

Musicians – Perrick Pédron: alto saxophone; Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano.

Released – 2023
Label – Gazebo [GAZ 217]
Runtime – 48:45

Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Trio D’été: Turning Point Once the boy wonder of the brave new world of Afro-Cuban pianism, Gonzalo Rubalcaba is now not yet 60 years old. Yet his music remains fresh, forever challenging you to make leaps of creative faith with him as he races along the musical continuum. Along the way he constantly butts heads with what are [considered to be] conformist ideas about how music in general should navigate the waves that continue to beat against the great walls that surround tradition.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Trio D’été: Turning Point
Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Trio D’été: Turning Point

Mr Rubalcaba has – from the very onset of his public performances – has always worshipped at the altar of originality. Moreover, as a musician Mr Rubalcaba’s music always seemed to suggest that “tradition” – whether created by artificial barriers of “jazz” or “Latin-Jazz” – was a wonderfully reality. But not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is always to innovate, is a prison. And so, his music has – should we say – been in conflict with age-old protocols of how piano music should sound.

And so, like all his music from the iconic Mi Gran Pasión [Connector/Timba, 1987], Giraldilla [Pimienta, 1990], Suite 4 Y 20 [Blue Note, 1993], Supernova [Blue Note, 2001] and even Straight Ahead [Yemaya, 2003]… right up to this recording – Turning Point – by actively throwing overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have been expressively blunted through overuse, he builds from what might – or might not – be left.

Every piece here is played with angular, yet languid ease by Mr Rubalcaba, Matt Brewer and Eric Harland. Through uncommon understanding of each other’s point of view, pianist, bassist, and drummer play with languid ease, each variation following the other quite inexorably, sumptuous colours and textures – indeed overall sound – has been brilliantly caught on this recording. The apogee may easily be divined as the two-part invention entitled Turning [Parts I and II respectively].

Deo gratis…

YouTube Playlist – Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Turning Point

Music – 1: Infantil; 2: Otra Mirada; 3: Turning I; 4: Iku; 5: Turning II; 6: Hard One; 7: Joy, Joie; 8: Pretty girl.

Musicians – Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano; Matthew Brewer: contrabass; Eric Harland: drums.

Released – 2023
Label – 5 Passion Records [5P-080]
Runtime – 44:09

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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