“Oh Vida” – Esperanza Fernández and Gonzalo Rubalcaba

“Oh Vida!” – Gracias!

Oh Vida (2018)

Esperanza Fernández and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – “Oh Vida!”



photography by © Clara Pereira / text by Filipe Freitas

…..The second night of the festival closed with the vertiginous rhythms and tempos of Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and his trio, which includes fellow countrymen Armando Gola on electric bass and Ludwig Afonso on drums. Displaying a remarkable agility with both hands and a masterful command of the post-bop and Afro-Cuban idioms, Rubalcaba captivated the audience since the very first minute through Pat Metheny’s “Hermitage”, which was delivered with superior melodic and rhythmic sensibilities. The trio attempted to defy gravity through intense, energetic tunes such as “Volcan”, filled with intricate unisons and pulsating undertows for a more experimental post-bop setting; and “Sin Punto”, notably funkified at its core while adhering to odd meters and a samba-like rhythm that restores the invigorating mood of Chick Corea’s music from the late 60s and early 70s.
The pianist dove deep into his roots when interpreting “El Cadete Constitucional”, a piece written in the 30s by his grandfather Jacobo Rubalcaba and previously recorded on the album Supernova (2001) with his former trio; and also Chucho Valdés’ “Pónle La Clave”, in which Gola helped to cultivate the fusion ‘culture’ by remaining in funk mode. The pianist ended the concert with one of his most emblematic compositions, “Nueva Cubana”, leaving everyone in the room with a smile on the face and overflowing with energy.

Encore Chucho Valdes : Gonzalo Rubalcaba Ibirapuera Park , Sao Paulo

Red Sea Jazz 2018 – Gonzalo Rubalcaba

SEPTEMBER 2, 2018 20:26

The 32nd edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival presented the faithfuls with something of a new look. Gone was the traditional four performance area format, with the program trimmed down to three days from the original four.

The latter may have been down to budgetary considerations, but artistic director Eli Degibri, with his seventh tilt at drawing the crowds down to our most southerly resort, clearly had a generous sum of readies made available to him. The musical agenda featured some bona fide big guns, the likes of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, French accordionist Richard Galliano, trumpeter Tom Harrell and preeminent pianist-keyboardist Herbie Hancock.

All of the aforementioned appeared in the New Port Arena – presumably, the name of the new slot is a play on the title of the 64-year-old-and-counting Stateside Newport Jazz Festival, or references the Port of Eilat location.

In years gone by, all the audience and stage areas were cordoned off by freight ship containers on all four sides, piled two high. This year, the stages were positioned on the side of the sea, with no containers behind. While that made for aesthetic viewing, especially with the full moon rising over Aqaba during the first slot each evening, it also unfortunately meant that the stage was exposed to the blustery conditions that were particularly palpable on the first evening.

Some of the jazz aficionados around me in the audience questioned the decision to open the festival proceedings with a solo piano show. They suggested that Degibri would have been better off with a numerically bigger act as a curtain-raiser. The experienced heads may have had logic on their side, but Rubalcaba is one hell of a powerhouse character and artist. Anyone who attended the festival around a decade and a half ago will have witnessed the Cuban’s scintillating virtuosity as he compensated for the absence of his bass player in what had been planned as a trio concert. Back then it was fascinating to watch Rubalcaba’s forays to the nether regions of the keyboard, as he managed to fuse melodic intent with rhythmic underscoring.

Last Sunday Rubalcaba unfurled his prodigious technique coupled with expansive emotional intent, oscillating seamlessly between feral thunderclap attacks to gossamer lyricism, laced with Monkesque lines and romantic departures reminiscent of Bill Evans. Even the gusts of hot dry wind, which threatened to blow his sheet music into the nearby sea, didn’t manage to put the evergreen 55-year-old off his creative stride.

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“The best pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years,” noted Dizzy Gillespie on first hearing young pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in 1985. A year later, Charlie Haden who was equally impressed described Rubalcaba as “a smart hearth”.  These encounters paved the way for this Cuban artist to jazz audiences in the United States and a fascinating international career. Rubalcaba (55) was born in Havana and grew up in a home filled with music and melody. His grandfather, Jacobo Rubalcaba, was the composer of classic danzóns – the official traditional Cuban dance and music genre. His father, pianist and composer Guillermo Rubalcaba, played in the Enrique Jorrín orchestra of, the creator of cha-cha-cha. Gonzalo was a child prodigy performing as a drummer by the tender age of six, before continuing to study the piano at the age of eight following his mother’s advice. He recalls her saying that “the piano will give you an important background, you can use the piano to compose, you can use the piano to harmonize, so it can give you something else,” and concludes, “She was totally right.” As a teenager, he worked as a drummer and pianist in hotels, concert halls, and clubs in Havana. He absorbed the Cuban culture and tradition while further pursuing his classical music studies and achieving a degree in composition. “I had two schools,” he said in an interview with the New York Times, “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 music.” Later he gradually began to explore jazz, which for political reasons was scarce in Cuba up until the outset of the 1980s. The few jazz records that he happened to come across introduced him to artists such as Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, sparking his passion for jazz. The tripartite base of Cuban music, western classical music training and techniques, and jazz has led Rubalcaba to become one of the most prominent jazz pianists in the world. To date he has been nominated sixteen times for the Grammy Awards and won two Grammy Awards as well as two Latin Grammy Awards. With 46 albums released, he has collaborated with a great many musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Richard Galliano, Tony Martinez, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Ron Carter, Mike Rodriguez, Marcus Gilmore, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, and more. British conductor sir Simon Rattle has titled him, “the most gifted pianist on the planet” and Ben Ratliff of The New York Times depicted him as the “meticulous jazzman of the world”.

Rubalcaba’s solo performance in Eilat is an excellent opportunity to glimpse into the essence of his phenomenal virtuosity. Acclaimed for his infinite technique and abundant imagination, Rubalcaba is able to produce soft and delicate sounds of chimes with his classical piano. The New York Times reported that, “he has an almost eerie control over his sound, as if he were playing the strings directly instead of using the keys as intermediaries”. Composer and musician, Rubalcaba has developed a unique voice that challenges the traditional partitioning of music while stretching from Straight Ahead, Bop, Afro-Cuban and Jazz to the realms of Mexican and Cuban ballads, Bolero and classical Cuban music. In any language he chooses, his works are both moving and authentic, bearing the initial artistic intent of transforming the everyday routine to accentuate beauty and substance. “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 ahead.”

Red Sea Jazz Festival

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



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

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

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