From Then To Now: Latin Jazz Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba

by chip on June 21, 2013

One of the things that sets jazz apart from other musical styles is the value of a long career and the interest in the way that an artist’s music will change over the course of several years or even many decades.  Pop music spends a lot of time looking for the next big thing, glorifying the charms of youth and setting older musicians aside as a reflection of a forgotten past.  While we often marvel at the daring improvisational feats of young jazz musicians, we also look at mature artists with a sense of respect and wonder, admiring the refined performance skills and taste that comes from yeas of experience.  This provides an interesting perspective on the music, letting us not only hear a musician’s current sounds, but also letting us go back in time and follow their evolution.  We get to see what initially inspired a musician to pursue a certain artistic direction, look at the different influences that they experienced throughout their career, and then see how they blended all of those factors into something new and exciting.  We’re going to look at the extremes with this series, taking a video from early in an artist’s career and then contrast it a current video, getting some perspective on the journey that took these musicians from then to now.

Hailed as a revolution when he was first introduced to stateside listeners in the eighties, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba actually started his creative journey much earlier during his years in Cuba.  His father, Guillermo Rubalcaba was a well-respected pianist in Havana, and in addition to spending years hearing his father performing, young Gonzalo was exposed to some of the island’s finest musicians during his early years.  He shared time between the drums and the piano until he began his formal education as a pianist, moving through the Maneul Saumell Conservatory, the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, and Havana’s Institute Of Fine Arts.  Towards the end of his schooling, Rubalcaba toured extensively with Orquesta Aragon and later recorded two albums in the Egrem Studios, Inicio and Concierto Negro.  Rubalcaba began to move onto the world stage when he started recording on the German Messidor label, producing Mi Gran Pasión, Live In Habana, and Giraldilla.  In 1986, Rubalcaba connected with bassist Charlie Haden, who became a strong advocate for the young pianist, and led him to record with both EMI and Blue Note Records.  During this highly productive period, Rubalcaba recorded a series of highly influential albums that included Discovery, Images – Live At Mt. Fuji, The Blessing, Diz, Inner Voyage, Nocturne, Paseo, and many more.  He won a Latin Grammy for Best Jazz Album in 2002 for SuperNova and he has garnered over fifteen Grammy nominations across a variety of categories for many of his albums, including Avatar, Rapsodia, and Antiguo.  As he continued producing top notch music, Rubalcaba became a highly respected figure in both the Latin Jazz and modern jazz worlds, leading him to perform with a diverse roster of musicians such as Ron Carter, Issac Delgado, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and many more.  In 2010, Rubalcaba founded the record label and production company 5Passion, as a home for his own albums and the development of promising artists.  The label has released two albums from Rubalcaba thus far, and XXI Century, as well as Alex “Sasha” Sipiagin’s From Reality and Back.  They’ve currently got plans to produce additional recordings from a number of artists, including drummer Ignacio Berroa, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Jose Armando Gola.  From his time watching his father perform in Cuba to his current role as a producer, Rubalacaba has grown into an inspiring role model that walks the line between modern jazz and Cuban tradition with a defined artistic vision.

These two videos serve as bookends to Rubalcaba’s powerfully influential career, a musical journey that promises to grow extensively into the future.  The first video finds Rubalcaba performing with his band Grupo Proyecto in 1985 at a club in Cuba.  You’ll notice Rubalcaba’s massive command of jazz improvisation is firmly in tact, but his approach leans more towards the groove; he’s also playing electric keyboards.  In addition to hearing a young Rubalcaba, this video offers an opportunity to hear another important Cuban musician that has made a splash in the modern jazz world, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. The second clip provides an interesting contrast, finding Rubalcaba in the studio during the 2011 sessions for his XXI Century album along with percussionist Pedro Martinez, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and bassist Matt Brewer.  His band holds a son groove firmly entrenched in Cuban tradition, but Rubalcaba stretches his improvisation both harmonically and melodically into any number of modern directions.  The group eventually follows his lead, with Gilmore adding extensive colors and Brewer taking a solo that walks through the outer edges of the harmony.  There’s some interesting accompaniment from Rubalcaba as Martinez and Gilmore both improvise with rhythms that are both tipico and new.  It’s a fascinating look at Rubalcaba, who even as a young musician, had a solid concept about blending jazz and Cuban styles, and today, has refined that approach into a defined musical identity overflowing with personality.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba In 1985

Gonzalo Rubalcaba In 2011

Check out Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s website.
Check out some recordings from Gonzalo Rubalcaba:

XXI Century

Inner Voyage


Check Out These Related Posts:
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Gonzalo Rubalcaba
4 Contemporary Cuban Pianists The Moved Latin Jazz Into The 21st Century
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Miles Español
Latin Jazz Conversations: Hilario Duran (Part 4)


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