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The tempo of a phenom: An interview with Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Paul Weideman – The New Mexican

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two piano powerhouses share the stage at the Lensic Peforming Arts Center on Saturday, July 28. With 13 Grammy or Latin Grammy awards between them, Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba promise to electrify what will probably be a sold-out crowd at the New Mexico Jazz Festival event. Valdés, born in Havana in 1941, is best known for the many-flavored Irakere, a band he led from 1973 to 2005. He is also a veteran of work with his father, Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, and with Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera.

Rubalcaba was born into a musical Havana family in 1963. At age six, he was drumming for his father’s orchestra and two years later shifted to the piano “just to please my mother,” as he once put it. Today, Rubalcaba has made more than 20 albums as leader. He has had long musical relationships with Brazilian vocalist Ithamara Koorax and with jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who died in 2014. Rubalcaba’s credits list includes Haden’s Nocturne (2001) and Land of the Sun (2004) and two albums by saxophonist Jane Bunnett: Spirits of Havana (1993) and Spirits of Havana/Chamalongo (2016).

Pasatiempo talked to Rubalcaba by phone. He was in Miami, where he has lived since 1996 and teaches at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.

 Pasatiempo: Gonzalo, how long have you been making music with Chucho Valdés?

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: I think this is the first time we’re doing a concert of duets. We did a concert in Istanbul a long time ago, also one in Greece and in Havana in the 1980s on a TV show, where we played a three-piano concert with Frank Emilio [Flynn]. This is the first time we sat down and said, “Let’s do something, we should tour,” and that was about a year and a half ago. We have been in Europe and Asia and we did a few concerts in the last month in the States.

Pasa: You’re a little more than 20 years, or a generation, apart. How would you describe your differences and your similarities?

Rubalcaba: I prefer to talk about the similarities. We can talk about stories with different musicians in Cuba, we can talk about having the same experience in many aspects of life in Cuba because I was living in Cuba until I was twenty-seven years old, so we have a lot to share. Chucho is the kind of musician and person who is always looking to see what is happening out there. He’s not someone just attached to his own generation, he’s always talking to you about new guys, like, “Did you hear that album?”

Pasa: Chucho came up in a time when music more often was played for dancing, rather than sitting and listening.

Rubalcaba: Yeah, but look, I made a lot of dancing music when I was in Cuba. I’m coming from a family that has been involved in dancing music for a long time. My grandfather, my father, my uncles, my two brothers all worked with the most typical Cuban music, like danzón, son, guaracha, and boleros, and I heard a lot of this music in my house when I was a kid. And I played with Orquesta Aragón and other bands and singers in Cuba when I was really young, bands that were well-known — by people, because this is festive music, popular music.

Pasa: One of your recent albums is Charlie. Is that about Charlie Haden?

Rubalcaba: Exactly. That was an obligation. I had to do that, and I have in mind to do one or two more albums with music that I know he enjoyed. I feel very blessed to have had the chance to hang around with Charlie and tour with him. He came to Cuba in 1986 with his Liberation Music Orchestra. They played a concert as part of a festival program and I was supposed to play after them with my own band; I had a septet at that time. Charlie and his wife stayed after and saw us play, then they came backstage. He said, “Hey, we need to find a place to play in Havana, because I want to bring a recording of you and me playing to the States.” We had a few hours in a recording studio in Havana and we played a few tunes and he took a cassette and brought it to Bruce Lundvall’s office at Blue Note Records. He told Bruce, “You have to sign that guy and bring him here.”

Charlie and I spent a lot of time talking and playing and touring and recording a few albums, and I learned a lot from him. He had a very strong personality musically and he was very openminded, musically. I remember when we made the album about Cuban and Mexican boleros, Nocturne, he called me and said, “I want to do a new record but I don’t want do a bebop record or a straight-ahead jazz record. I want something totally different. What can you suggest?” I told him, I know you like ballads and beautiful harmonies and melodies, so I will send to you a CD compilation of Cuban and Mexican boleros. Listen to that and call me and maybe we can make a recording. He called back and said, “We have to do that music. You do the arrangement and the production, but we have to go right now.”

Pasa: You brought your trio to Santa Fe in 2001. In an interview then, you said your early musical inspirations from the jazz world included Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and Charlie Parker. Who were your Cuban-music mentors?

Rubalcaba: My family. The house where I grew up was my first school, my first musical reference. I was able to see my father rehearsing and also talking and delivering different comments and ideas with other great musicians around, many people who were the biggest names in Cuba at that time. They used to go to my house and talk about music and life, and also make music. I saw so many people at a very high level of performance with deep concepts about how to do music and a vision about what should be, at that moment, the Cuban music. That was an unbelievable reference to me.

Pasa: Are you working on a new record?
Rubalcaba: Man, I’m always working on something. I believe that the only way to find something else is to keep yourself working. When you mention working, people automatically think about playing on stage in front of people, but working to me is not that. It is when I’m home spending hours and hours with the instrument and writing music exploring and searching. I’m composing a piece for piano and symphony orchestra that I’m supposed to premiere in November in Istanbul and in Italy and Croatia. At the same time, I’ll be doing a concert of Gershwin for piano and orchestra.

Pasa: Can you talk about your relationship with Dizzy Gillespie?

Rubalcaba: Two years before Charlie, I had the opportunity to play with Dizzy and he wanted to see if I could fly to the States with him, but it was impossible because of visa problems between Cuba and the United States. Dizzy was a combination that you usually don’t see. He was a genius, he was a guy with a vision of music and a trumpet player but also an amazing human being. He was always in the attitude to help people. He was always promoting young guys, trumpet players and piano players not only from here but from Latin America.

Dizzy went to Cuba in the 1970s and he played in Havana. I was a very young guy and I didn’t get to see that concert. The entrance was very controlled by the government. But he came in 1984 and we met. I was playing at the old Hotel Nacional. He had a room there and the day he arrived I was playing there. They took him there to eat and listen to some music and I was playing with my band. When I was finished, he came backstage and he was very funny because he had his trumpet and he took out some sheet music and he said, “Do you think you can play this without rehearsing?” I saw the music and it was very complicated, very difficult to play. I said, “Well, you have to give me 24 hours to check that and then we can play.” He said, “No, no, that was a joke, but I want you to play with me tomorrow.” That was the first day of the festival. I was twenty or twenty-one years old, and after that I played with him in Havana. He was amazing. He pushed me very strongly.

I started touring with my own bands in Europe and many people said, “I know about you because Dizzy was here and he was talking about you.” I owe him a lot. I always said that at twenty-one years old, if you have names like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden trust you and trust what you are doing, you cannot ask for any more. ◀

Gonzalo Rubalcaba opens the Red Sea Jazz Festival

GONZALO RUBALCABA . (photo credit: ANNA TURAYEVA)

HONEST TO GOODNESS MUSIC

Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba opens the Red Sea Jazz Festival later this month

BY
AUGUST 15, 2018 19:15

Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is quite simply one of the most dynamic and explosive performers to have graced the Red Sea Jazz Festival stage over its 32 years-andcounting history. Considering the glittering array of pantheonic artists that have strutted their polished stuff down South over the past three-plus decades, some might consider that more than a little heretical. But anyone who has seen Rubalcaba produce his magic live can testify to the man’s effusive charm and electrifying keyboard work.

The Cuban is one of the star attractions at the forthcoming festival, which for the first time has been pared down to three days (August 26-28) from its perennial four-day format. But what the program may have lost in terms of quantity is more than compensated for by the quality lined up by artistic director Eli Degibri. The stellar imports include such 24-carat acts as saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and preeminent 78-year-old evergreen pianist Herbie Hancock.

Playing solo must be one of the greatest artistic challenges of a jazz musician, but Rubalcaba’s lone show on August 26 – the festival curtain raiser at 7:15 p.m.– should keep his audience duly riveted and enthralled.

If you have sampled any of the 55-year-old’s expansive oeuvre and noted an underlying percussive element to his ivory-tickling, you would have been right on the rhythmic money. As a wee lad, Rubalcaba started out on his road to musical excellence on drums.

“The piano came up when I was eight or nine years old,” he explains. “It wasn’t because I wanted to play the piano. I never put my eyes on the piano.” That last statement needs a little qualifying. Rubalcaba comes from a family seeped in music-making.

“I never had any other wish than to become a musician. In my family, every day what I saw was music,” he recalls. Considering his genes, that is hardly surprising. My father, older brothers and uncles on both sides, were involved mainly in music. And not only music. They were also involved in dance, painting – so, art in general.”

And if the family surroundings weren’t enough to help the youngster on his way, there was even more support from the wider local circle. “The neighborhood of Havana where I grew up was, and is still, well-known for its musicians,” adds the pianist. “So I heard a lot of folkloric music, and saw people dancing art parties. There was just so much music.”

It didn’t take the lad too long to get in on the act himself. “I remember my first experience playing music was when I was four or five years old, playing AfroCuban percussion. So I played drums and all these percussion instruments before I put my hands on a piano.” WHEN RUBALCABA finally got around to exploring the sonic possibilities offered by what was to become his professional instrument of choice, it was more a result of emotion than intent.

“The piano was always there, at home, because my father was a piano player. And my middle brother, who was eight years older than me, was also playing the piano by then.” Even so, Rubalcaba’s infant musical aspirations remained firmly rooted in the percussive avenue of expression. “I had the feeling that the piano was too difficult for me,” he says. “My mind was focused on drums and percussion.”

Eventually, officialdom pointed Rubalcaba in the right direction. “When I went to a new school, I had a music test, but they said I was too young to go to the percussion department. They gave me two choices – violin or piano. I didn’t want either of them,” Rubalcaba chuckles. Maternal intervention settled matters. “She said I should try the piano. She told me that it would be useful if, for example, I wanted to compose later. She said that every musician should know how to play the piano, and that I should try it for a while, and that we would see later how I felt. I agreed, not because of the explanation she gave to me, but because of the love I have for her. She was right. I said ‘Yes, if you’re happy with that, let’s do it.’” Rubalcaba has been doing it, with great success, ever since. Close to 40 albums as leader, and countless high-profile synergies, with such jazz icons as bassists Charlie Haden and Ron Carter, pianist Chick Corea and guitarist Al Di Meola, not to mention nine Grammy Awards, the pianist is a bone fide member of the jazz A-list roster.

But even with his undoubted gifts and wealth of experience in the jazz field, Rubalcaba says it still takes work to produce the goods – especially when there is no one else on stage with you – to share the limelight and the onus of keeping the audience on board. “You have the pressure and responsibility to keep the people interested in what you are doing. But to get that you have to be in real connection with yourself. Before you think about people and the audience and whether people like what you do, you have to be serious about what you do, and honest. That’s the most important.”

With a couple of one-man efforts in his lengthy discography, Rubalcaba is clearly well-equipped to produce an entertaining and compelling solo performance in Eilat later this month.

For tickets and more information go to http://redseajazz.co.il.

Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba in “Trance” Upcoming video documentary by niCcolo Bruna

The New Bosendorfer 280VC

Pisa … Grazie!

Cuba, embajadora hispana

ULAB MUSIC
IGNACIO GONZÁLEZ 27 Feb | 11:29 AM EST
Fotos: Robert Torres en el Jordan Hall, cortesía de Stephanie Janes, by Celebrity Series of Boston

Luego de llenar el Jordan Hall y el Chicago Symphony Center, Chucho Valdez y Gonzalo Rubalcaba parten hacia Europa para tocar en las salas más prestigiosas del mundo.

 
En el Jordan Hall del conservatorio de Nueva Inglaterra es común escuchar piezas de Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky y Beethoven. Sin embargo, en esta oportunidad la anfitriona es la música de Cuba. En este templo de la música, donde los hispanos pocas veces acceden, hay dos Steinway enfrentados, listos para una conversación entre dos de los mejores pianistas del mundo: Chucho Valdes y Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

Ambos nacieron en Cuba, y en su musicalidad está presente la formación clásica europea, el jazz, y la tradición afro cubana. La convivencia de estos tres elementos fluye con total naturalidad, y son reflejo de la que quizá sea la escuela musical más potente a la que un músico pueda aspirar: la unión de Europa, Estados Unidos y África.

Eso es Cuba, una miscelánea cultural, llena de desprejuicio, que hace de la carencia una oportunidad para inventar la realidad que todavía no existe. El espectáculo se llama “Trance”, y se presentará en las salas más prestigiosas del mundo, incluyendo la Konzerthaus de Viena, Chicago Symphony Center y Kölner Philarmonie.

En medio de su gira por Norte América, U-Lab conversó con ellos acerca del show, del presente de la música cubana y de cómo mantener viva la creación sincera en un contexto donde el arte se ha reducido a entretenimiento.

U-Lab: ¿Cuándo fue la primera vez que escuchaste a Chucho?
Gonzalo Rubalcaba (GR): Yo vengo de una familia de músicos. En mi casa se hablaba todo el tiempo de música, y venían muchos colegas de mi padre a ensayar. En ese contexto fue que llegué a Chucho, con sus primeros trabajos en una de las orquestas más emblemáticas que hubo en esa época que se llamó Orquesta de Música Moderna. Por ahí pasaron Chucho, Paquito (D´Rivera), Arturo (Sandoval), etc. Recuerdo ir a ver un concierto de ellos en el teatro Amadeo Roldán. Muchos de los músicos de esa orquesta, luego formaron Irakere. A partir de los once años, aproximadamente, empiezo a seguir de cerca su carrera. Todos los jóvenes estábamos pendientes de lo que hacía Chucho.

U-Lab: ¿Qué admira usted de Gonzalo?
Chucho Valdes (CV): Es un talento fuera de serie. En aquel momento estaba en desarrollo, pero ahora ya está súper maduro. Hemos ido por líneas paralelas y nos hemos encontrado. Desde el año pasado estamos haciendo tours por todo el mundo.

U-Lab: ¿Cuáles son los elementos que más le atraen de la música de Chucho?
GR: Tanto Chucho como yo venimos del mismo estrato social, y hemos estado ligados a la cultura afrocubana. El interés de Chucho por mezclar elementos de la tradición afrocubana con el jazz y la música clásica viene de ahí. Él pasa de uno a otro de estos géneros con total naturalidad y desprejuicio.

 U-Lab: ¿Cómo se explica esto? Los cubanos pasan de la música clásica al jazz, y del jazz a los cantos yorubas. Son lenguajes muy distintos…
CV: Es algo orgánico, que tiene que ver con la formación desde que somos niños. Por la mañana yo estudiaba en el conservatorio a Chopin y a Bach, y por la tarde veía a mi padre ensayando con su Orquesta Tropicana, junto a Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, etc. Y luego los cantos yorubas y las santerías que había en mi barrio. Eso se fue metiendo en el disco duro, como te decía al principio, de forma orgánica. Mi universo musical está compuesto de cada una de estas manifestaciones.

U-Lab: ¿Cómo se lleva con el diálogo entre la tradición y la vanguardia?
GR: Nunca me planteé una barrera entre ambos. En ese sentido la formación de mi casa fue determinante. Uno es reflejo de la familia. Ese componente de libertad a la hora de escuchar que había en mi casa fue fundamental. Se escuchaba a Cachao, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Leo Brouwer, un toque de santos, de rumba, etc. Transitaba por todo eso, y luego iba a la escuela y recibía una formación académica europea. Eso va creando una estructura mental que dicta formas de transmitir. Nunca puse barreras entre uno y otro. Siempre procuré que la tradición estuviera presente en todos mis planes, pero con un apetito de evolución y transformación.

U-Lab: El show se titula “Trance”, y al escucharlos en vivo uno puede ver un profundo recorrido por distintas tradiciones. ¿Cuáles son los puntos fundamentales de este recorrido?
CV: Es un recorrido por distintos caminos, a partir del lenguaje de la música afrocubana y el jazz. Cuando brindamos un concierto, aunque toquemos los mismos temas, siempre lo hacemos de forma distinta. Intentamos, justamente, no ensayar demasiado para no mecanizar, para que se mantenga un diálogo fresco entre dos generaciones que tienen el mismo punto de partida.

U-Lab: Estamos en una era de hyper información, y ustedes hacen una música que exige la participación activa del escucha. ¿Es más difícil hacer música en este contexto?
GR: Cada uno tiene un camino. Cada vez hay más ruido que intenta sacarnos de ese camino. Pero en última instancia, la música es lo que me empuja a seguir adelante. Yo vivo en la lucha que vive todo el mundo, de perfeccionarme. Porque tengo la bendición de ver mis falencias. Y eso es lo que me invita a sentarme frente a un piano todas las mañanas. No estoy en contra de ninguna manifestación musical. Esto no quiere de decir que yo esté a favor de todas. Lo que me interesa es que la gente se encuentre a sí mismo. Hay que dejar de hacer cosas para llamar la atención o para gustar. Tiene que haber una relación más profunda con lo que hacemos, que nos identifiquemos como personas con lo que hacemos, más allá del mercado.

U-Lab: En esta gira van a tocar en alguno de los lugares más prestigiosos del mundo, donde la música hispana casi no llega. ¿Cómo lo viven internamente?
CV: Es producto de todo una vida de trabajo. En América Latina está lleno de talento. Esta música tiene calidad y riqueza, puede estar a la altura de cualquier otra manifestación cultural de alto nivel.
GR: Hay lugares donde estamos llegando por primera vez. Esto no forma parte de una pose o una vanidad. Es una responsabilidad que viene atada a una vida entera de trabajo. Estoy de acuerdo en que llegar a esos lugares de tanto prestigio es un mensaje potente para la comunidad hispana en Estados Unidos, pero también es un mensaje potente para nuestros países de origen, donde en muchos casos no podemos compartir nuestra música. Pasa en Cuba, pero pasa en todo América Latina y el Caribe. Nada es negro y blanco. Hay matices. En mi caso, yo tuve que salir de Cuba para buscar nuevos espacios. Si me hubiera quedado en mi país no hubiera hecho la carrera que hice. Le pasa a muchos artistas que deben salir de su tierra de origen y crear nuevos públicos fuera de su país. En este sentido, hay que hacer un trabajo con nuestra gente. Cuando uno ve el público que va nuestros conciertos, son principalmente de origen anglosajón y europeo. A veces este público valora más nuestra tradición que nosotros mismos. Quizá hay factores económicos, pero también en muchos casos hay prejuicios. Es importante trabajar el público hispano.

U-Lab: Gonzalo, usted pasó muchos años sin poder tocar en Cuba. ¿Cómo se lidia con el desarraigo?
No te lo sé decir. Yo salí muy joven, con mucho camino para recorrer y construir nuevos espacios. Esa fue la ventaja que me ayudó a reinventarme y armar mi vida en otro lugar.

U-Lab: En la administración de Obama hubo un avance en las relaciones con Cuba. En esta administración parecería que hubo un retroceso.
GR: La administración de Obama tuvo una apariencia de flexibilidad y aceptación. Yo no estoy de acuerdo con eso. La administración de Obama fue muy inteligente, porque fue capaz de crear condiciones iguales, y dejar de ver a Cuba como la víctima.

U-Lab: ¿Cómo ve la salud de la música cubana?
CV: Hay una generación de músicos muy bien formados, que continúan y expanden el legado de la tradición. La lista de nuevos talentos es inagotable: Harold López Nussa, Rolando Luna, Tito López Gavilán, y especialmente David Virelles, un verdadero fenómeno de la nueva pianística cubana.
GR: Afortunadamente, siguen saliendo grandes exponentes de Cuba. David Virelles, Alfredo Rodríguez, Yosvany Terri, Harold López Nussa, Michelle Herrera, etc. Cuba ha sido bendecido en las artes, y especialmente en la música.

 

 

Review: Valdes and Rubalcaba: Cuban keyboard giants at Orchestra Hall

Chicago Tribune

Two concert grands. Two colossal virtuosos. One indelible evening.

Howard Reich Contact Reporter

 

Granted, listeners who packed Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center on Friday evening already had high hopes for Cuban piano masters Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, judging by the long and raucous ovation that greeted them before they played a note.

But their music exceeded expectations, and not because the pianists played faster, louder or more brilliantly than their reputations suggested. No, it was the clarity, balance, sensitivity and tonal sheen of their work that made this a model of what two-piano improvisation can be — but rarely is. Add to that the well-established wizardry of their technical achievements and the Afro-Cuban pulse of all the music they played (albeit at widely varying tempos), and you had an avalanche of piano virtuosity on a level rarely attained.

Had Valdes and Rubalcaba been paid by the note, they could have retired when they left the auditorium (not that they would have wanted to).

Amid the keyboard fireworks and profoundly stated musical ideas, another theme was at play: a dialogue between pianists of two generations, both born and nurtured in Cuba and now living within minutes of each other in Florida. The tug between their distinct concepts of harmony and musical structure enriched their dialogue, the audience hearing 76-year-old Valdes and 54-year-old Rubalcaba viewing Afro-Cuban tradition from distinct perspectives.

And yet they matched tone and touch so closely that from the evening’s first selection, Rubalcaba’s “Joan,” you sometimes couldn’t tell which pianist had begun a solo without looking. As the music segued between the two, each replicated the timbre of the other, a feat far more difficult to achieve than they made it appear.

“Joan” opened as a lullaby, Rubalcaba’s softly stated legato lines not hinting at the storms yet to come. Valdes entered the proceedings by echoing what he’d heard, the two pianists intertwining lines as if from a single instrument and sensibility. It’s in transparent passages such as these that duo pianists reveal their strengths and shortcomings. And it was obvious that these musicians felt rhythm in sync, thereby avoiding the painfully common ker-plunk effect of two musicians struggling to nail downbeats simultaneously.

During one of Valdes’ solos in “Joan,” he quoted a composer he would return to throughout the evening: George Gershwin, this time with a few phrases from the first movement of the Concerto in F. When Valdes played them, he looked up and smiled, as if half-surprised that Gershwin suddenly would assert himself in the midst of the music-making.

Valdes’ “Mambo Influenciado” not only lived up to its title but offered the pianists an opportunity to produce showers of notes at remarkable velocity. Playing zillions of pitches quickly, however, is not an art. Doing so from two pianos, while maintaining the clarity of each note and sustaining utter transparency of ensemble sound, is. For in this piece, and others, Valdes and Rubalcaba took pains to work in different registers of their respective keyboards and to otherwise avoid too-thick blocks of sound. Thus the music proved texturally lucid no matter how fast and furiously these 20 fingers were flying.

As the evening developed, however, distinctions between the pianists’ work became increasingly clear. Valdes conjured herculean, Art Tatum-like technique in Valdes’ “Punto Cubano,” while Rubalcaba offered a light, sleek, even-keeled approach to high-speed passagework. And though Valdes punctuated bebop-tinged chord progressions with bursts of keyboard dissonance, Rubalcaba continuously pushed into provocative, unfamiliar harmonic regions. Both, however, reveled in quoting from the history of Western music, Valdes offering snippets of “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Ritual Fire Dance,” Rubalcaba responding with a bit of Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz and the jazz standard “Mona Lisa.”

Valdes tipped his hat again to Tatum in playing solo on “Over the Rainbow,” at times reharmonizing it via immense, Rachmaninoff-like chords. Once again, Gershwin appeared, this time with quotations from “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Rubalcaba’s solo version of “El Manisero” (“The Peanut Vendor”) illuminated the searching quality of his approach, the pianist constantly shifting tempo, sabotaging patterns and venturing into rarefied harmony. It’s not an overstatement to say that Rubalcaba’s most technically ambitious passages here evoked Vladimir Horowitz, a comparison one does not make lightly.

The two pianists made a fantasy of the “Gitanerias” movement of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Andalucia” suite, creating vast new melodic and harmonic structures upon it. And who could sit still during the surging energy they gathered in Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Rubalcaba’s jazz countermelodies and Valdes’ Gershwin-like repeated notes riding an unstoppable rhythmic pulse?

This was duo jazz pianism cast as high art, a rare occurrence indeed.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

 

Live in Armenia – Yerevan Jazz Fest 2017 – Gracias!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London jazz festival/Barbican Hall – The Guardian – Cuban wizards conjure a pulsating piano stampede –

London jazz festival/Barbican Hall
This wonderfully well-matched pair laid on an evening of dreamy improv that underlined the festival’s eclecticism and earned them a rapturous ovation

etween Friday morning’s opening shows and the arrival of Cuban piano maestros Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba at the Barbican on Saturday afternoon, some 40 events of the EFG London jazz festival’s 2017 programme had already hurtled by, with 300 or more still due in the coming days in venues all over the city. Valdés and Rubalcaba are in the league of stars with roots in both African and western tradition – able to thrill listeners anywhere, regardless of background or expectation – that this now huge and eclectic festival has been consistently pulling for 25 years. But the LJF has also nourished newcomers, music education, cultural fluidity and the understanding that jazz is buzzing somewhere every night, not just for 10 days in London. The standing ovation for Valdés and Rubalcaba felt like gratitude for that, as well as for the two Cubans’ immensely vivacious show.

Over two decades separate Valdés, the towering 76-year-old father figure of modern Cuban jazz, and the slight and nimble Rubalcaba. But the younger man is a virtuoso of comparable flair and drive – and there lay an absorbing contrast between Valdés’ rugged, drumlike sound and Rubalcaba’s blend of a softer touch and diamond-bright precision. They opened their single-set duet on two facing Steinways in dreamy rumination; Rubalcaba stoked the embers into a flame with silvery runs over a gathering groove, before they sprinted simultaneously into a polyphonic swinger that built to the first of the show’s slam-stop climaxes. Valdés then introduced a dancing Cuban son pulse, Rubalcaba teased it with banging chords and a churning left-hand vamp, and the two played a long double-taking game on various potential endings. They steered a quiet meditation towards a jazz waltz into which Rubalcaba neatly spliced Chopin’s Op 64 No 1, turned a playfully strutting chordal theme into a slinkier tango with Flight of the Bumblebee muttering through it, returning eventually to their signature collective-swing stampede.

If the show had a flaw, it was only that this pair’s astonishing virtuosity and the nowhere-to-hide exposure of a two-piano improv eventually brought overfamiliarity to those story arcs. But an encore on the Duke Ellington classic Caravan, introduced by Rubalcaba drumming on his piano, loosely sketched by Valdés at first and then turned breezily into salsa, was a masterful and a consummately musical gem.

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