Ode to Joy

Blissing Out on Cuban-Born Jazz Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Between March 1, 1947 and July 11, 1948, legendary groupie Dean Benedetti tailed Charlie Parker from New York to L.A. and logged some 461 live recordings of the saxophonist. I know that these meticulously organized and annotated 78-rpm albums--now digitally scrubbed and available on Mosaic records--are an indispensable part of Bird's legend. But it wasn't until October 10, 2000, during the second set at St. Paul's Dakota Bar & Grill, that I finally fully understood Benedetti's obsessive gene.

On that night, I heard Cuban-born jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba play the original composition "Yolanda Anas" for the fourth time in three consecutive evenings, and I was suddenly struck with an urge to quit my job, buy a high-powered microphone, and follow the guy like a groupie--just on the off chance that I might be able to take another hit, somehow bottle the stuff for future generations. I started wondering: How did that Benedetti character always manage to wiggle his way into the front row? Could I save money in my new, nonprofit recording career by sleeping in the car? Would my wife wait for me while I was on tour?

I admit to this very real, albeit cliché pipe dream because it seems a good way to begin explaining that, to my ears, Rubalcaba is one of those rare musicians who--like Parker or Jimi Hendrix or Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins--truly has a singular voice: distinctive, rarely if ever repetitious, dripping with spiritual integrity. And yes, I know that in certain circles such comparisons are tantamount to heresy. This is not a review. It's a rave. A confessional. Let him who has not sinned write the first letter to the editor.

Inner voyage: Gonzalo Rubalcaba's shows are so sublime as to launch a groupie on a jazz pilgrimage
Michael Dvorak
Inner voyage: Gonzalo Rubalcaba's shows are so sublime as to launch a groupie on a jazz pilgrimage

Early in his career, the 38-year-old--who first caught the ear of bop pioneer and Latin-lover Dizzy Gillespie--was known for his bombast: the ability to scoot across the keys like a salsa dancer on speed, whirling across the chord changes, sweating the beat to a burst. For evidence from that era, one need only turn to live recordings such as 1990's Discovery: Live at Montreux, his American debut, or Charlie Haden's Montreal Tapes, on which Rubalcaba backed up the bassist and drummer Paul Motian in 1989. When I first talked with Rubalcaba in March of 1996 (before the first of four visits to St. Paul), he told me that he had spent his teenage years much like his father, the pianist Gonzales Ponseca Rubalcaba: pulling all-nighters in Cuban dance clubs or playing in percussive street carnivals. When the son starts at a sprint, which he still does (often to open an early evening set), you can hear the father's influence overtly: the danzón, the mambo, the rumba, even some old-school rag.

Over the past five years, though, Rubalcaba has been more and more apt to vary the temperature, slow-cooking his Afro-Cuban roots for complexity, then quick-searing for flavor. The result is a pleasing pastiche of influences, sumptuously melodic, spiced with disparate rhythms that the grizzliest of ears will find exotic. His most recent compositions, laid down for Blue Note on Inner Voyage in 1999 and Supernova in 2001, are designed to work on the listener like a massage. The first strokes are slight, gentle as a pre-dawn kiss. During these passages, there are echoes of Rubalcaba's childhood, when he studied classical percussion and piano at Cuba's Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, then graduated from Havana's Institute of Fine Arts.

But in the studio, these opening interludes often end up being the musical highlight. This is the reason, I'm guessing, that Rubalcaba hasn't enjoyed the same praise as some of his lesser peers. Compositionally, his songs show a high level of integrity. But there's not enough drama, no one swings for the knockout--which frustrates critics who are used to the ebullience of countrymen such as Chucho Valdés. Rubalcaba is more likely to find what he refers to as that "personal sound," when he can work the muscles slow, go in at different angles, vary the tension, even take breaks to recover. Very few studio recordings offer the spatial luxuries required to spark this type of improvisational burn, which is why it's particularly unfortunate that Rubalcaba hasn't released a live record in nearly a decade.

When I've seen Rubalcaba onstage at New York's Village Vanguard and at the Dakota Bar & Grill, he has somehow managed to build expectations from line to line, tune to tune, set to set, even night to night. There's no reason to think that this week's visit will be any less inspired. Rubalcaba has a special place in his heart for the St. Paul club, where he made one of his first appearances in North America. In the liner notes to Inner Voyage, the pianist goes so far as to thank Dakota proprietor Lowell Pickett by name.

"What happens onstage is dictated by whether or not you feel a sense of community with the audience," Rubalcaba told me during his last visit. "Usually a club feels cold; there's no personal relationship. At the Dakota there is warmth. When you go onstage, you feel a sense of trust, and that pushes you to explore. This is one of the few places I would play for free."

There is indeed a meditative quality to Rubalcaba's performances that is difficult to articulate without sounding trite: The soft, slow passages are marked by a dark, delicate beauty that conjures tears. The more explosive turns, when the piano growls savagely or rumbles through the room like jet wash, literally make me laugh. And while listening, I find myself wishing for a way to preserve the purity.

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