[JPL] Meticulous Jazzman of the World

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Sat Feb 16 15:43:23 EST 2008

February 17, 2008
Meticulous Jazzman of the World 

THE Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who over the
last 15 years or so has become one of the greatest
musicians in jazz, is meticulous about music. You can
tell this by the first unaccompanied notes of
“Avatar,” his complexly beautiful new album. He has an
almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were
playing the strings directly instead of using the keys
as intermediaries. 

He is also meticulous about ideas. He tends to
classify music rather exactly, and he talks about jazz
in terms of codes and information. He prepares his
records — “productions,” he calls them — with
conceptual rigor. 

Mr. Rubalcaba has spent about a decade living in
southern Florida in a quiet gated community about
half-hour from Fort Lauderdale. His life looks more
like that of a classical-music virtuoso than a jazz
musician. He goes to the airport, tours, comes home
and dives back into practice. 

“I always wanted to have silence when I got home from
working,” he said, sitting in the living room of his
house last week, dressed entirely in white. Mr.
Rubalcaba, who has a wife and three children, is 44,
though he looks younger, and talks older. He is small
and compact, with boyish freckles on his nose, but
discusses his music with lofty self-assurance, almost

“Avatar,” which came out this month on Blue Note,
represents his first serious interaction with the
younger jazz musicians on the New York scene in his 15
years of playing in America. (He is to appear at the
Village Vanguard, from Tuesday to next Sunday.)

New York can use him. An exciting recent undercurrent
of music in the city has been a new kind of Afro-Latin
jazz, with greater intellectual complexity,
compositional ambition and cultural precision.

But Mr. Rubalcaba has mostly not been part of it.
Instead he has been making his records and working
around the world with his trio; he has also been
involved in album projects with Charlie Haden and Joe
Lovano, and has been devising a solo-piano repertory. 

Mr. Rubalcaba comes from a musical family in Cuba: his
father and grandfather were prominent members of
popular orchestras. (His father, Guillermo Rubalcaba,
was for a time the pianist in the band of the
violinist Enrique Jorrín, who created the
cha-cha-cha.) Born in 1963, he grew up regularly
seeing the best Cuban popular musicians playing in his
house: Jorrín, the bassist Juan Formell of Los Van
Van, the pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, the percussionist
Changuito, the singer Omara Portuondo. 

This was a perfect complement for Mr. Rubalcaba’s
studies at Cuba’s musical conservatory, where he
learned European classical music. “I had two schools,”
he said. “The school that I could get in my house, the
music of the street coming through my father and my
family, and the orthodox school, the classical school,
that didn’t want to hear anything about popular

In 1992 he legally left Cuba and went to the Dominican
Republic, where he lived for six years; he then he
applied for permanent residence in the United States.
(He is now a United States citizen; each time he
returns to Cuba to see his family, he must apply for a

Last year Mr. Rubalcaba put “Avatar” together in a
hurry, after trying and failing to tease out a concept
for another piano-trio record. He decided he was tired
of the format, having done it consistently for at
least 15 years. (He has made more than 20 albums.) He
heard a broader instrumental sound in his head, and
enlisted a quintet, member by member. 

He started with the saxophonist Yosvany Terry, a
slightly younger Cuban living in New York, whom Mr.
Rubalcaba knew from school days in Havana. He found
Mike Rodriguez, a young trumpeter in Charlie Haden’s
Liberation Music Orchestra, and Matt Brewer, a bassist
with Greg Osby’s band. At the end of the process, at
Mr. Brewer’s suggestion, he added the drummer Marcus
Gilmore, whom Mr. Rubalcaba had never heard. Mr.
Gilmore had the task of learning some ferociously
complicated music in three days. Three weeks of
performances followed, then the making of the album in
New York.

In the context of Mr. Rubalcaba’s career the record is
unusually cooperative. He asked his band members to
contribute compositions; Mr. Terry wrote three pieces
for the album, and Mr. Brewer wrote one. And the
quintet is as up-to-date a jazz group as can be found.

Sizing up Mr. Brewer and Mr. Gilmore, both in their
20s, Mr. Rubalcaba spoke not so much of what they are
playing — their techniques or licks — but the wide
range of what they are absorbing, what they are
listening to, where they’re getting their input.
“They’re part of a new generation of musicians that
has more hunger about other things outside of jazz,”
he said. “And they don’t see those things as exotic.
They see them as serious and deep.” 

Mr. Rubalcaba himself learned jazz in bits and pieces.
Until the late 1970s Cuban musicians were severely
discouraged from playing it, for political reasons.
Beyond that was the problem of what he calls
information. In the mid-1980s Mr. Rubalcaba used to
listen to a half-hour jazz show on Cuban radio, but
the music didn’t go past the early ’60s; the disc
jockey kept replaying items in his limited library,
Mr. Rubalcaba remembered. 

He also had the option of searching for the few
American jazz records that had been licensed to record
labels in Communist-bloc countries or learning about
records from friends who had traveled outside Cuba.
Keith Jarrett, for instance, was not a big influence
among Cuban musicians in the ’80s because his records
were hard to come by. But Mr. Rubalcaba found his way
to Mr. Jarrett’s solo album “Facing You” when a friend
brought back a copy from America. And in 1983, when
Mr. Rubalcaba went on tour with the dynastic charanga
group Orquesta Aragón, someone in Paris gave him a
copy of Mr. Jarrett’s “Survivor’s Suite.” To his
amazement, six years later he would play with Charlie
Haden and Paul Motian, musicians on that album.

He has several things going now: his current tour with
his new band; his continuing performances of
solo-piano repertory, in which he bridges Cuba’s
classical and popular music with improvisation and
chilling focus; a collaboration with the Cuban-born
singer Francisco Céspedes, his second; and a studio
session with the French jazz accordionist Richard
Galliano in the spring .

He has also been rehearsing in Los Angeles for an
opera called “Revolution of Forms,” which may have its
first performance in 2011. Set in Havana in 1961, it
describes the planning of Cuba’s state art schools.
The story tells how various architects and politicians
— including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara — argued
about the correct way to fuse art with politics and
history. (Mr. Rubalcaba, who attended the school, is
working on the score with another composer, Anthony
Davis; the libretto is being written by Charles
Koppelman and the Mexican-born journalist Alma
Guillermoprieto, who taught dance at the school in the

Mr. Rubalcaba is a serious cultural syncretist: he
talks analytically and philosophically about combining
aesthetic elements from Cuba, America and Europe, of
mixing ancient and modern. “We have reached a point in
the evolution not only of music, but of the world,
where people have less resistance to being mixed,” he
said. “It is a time to be open and anxious to learn
beyond your own space. And it doesn’t take anything
away from you. In fact it brings rich things to you.”

But he disdained the idea of working according to a
grand project. He applies himself to whatever is in
front of him, he explained. “I work as if the thing
I’m working on will be the last thing I do,” he said.
“It’s much better than looking around it to see what’s


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

Be a better friend, newshound, and 
know-it-all with Yahoo! Mobile.  Try it now.  http://mobile.yahoo.com/;_ylt=Ahu06i62sR8HDtDypao8Wcj9tAcJ 

More information about the jazzproglist mailing list