The singular pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 54 today. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about Gonzalo, most recently in 2015, when I spent some time with him and the members of his amazing group, Volcán, in Barcelona. I’ve pasted below that most recent piece (written for Downbeat), which also discusses the circumstances behind his epic CD Suite Caminos.
On November 24th the quartet Volcán—pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, all 52, and electric bassist Jose Armando Gola, 37—convened at Barcelona Conservatory’s L’Auditori for the opening installment of a fortnight of consecutive concerts across Europe. To conclude their 90-minute soundcheck-rehearsal, the drummers launched the dark, elemental rumba beats that bedrock Rubalcaba’s “Sin Punto,” documented on Volcán’s eponymous 2013 CD [5Passion]. Hernandez flowed through endless clave permutations; Hidalgo, unable to hand-strike his six-conga set because of an infected finger, deployed sticks in a way that made them sound like a new instrument; Rubalcaba goosed the dance with darting lines, stacking and signifying upon the rhythms.
“We travel through time,” Hidalgo said shortly thereafter in the dressing room. “Every night, we jump from 1910 to the present, differently every night. It’s one of the most avant-garde groups ever.” This was a spot-on description of the ensuing concert, in which the ensemble synchronously navigated seven Rubalcaba charts with kinetic grace and freewheeling discipline, switching on a dime between ideas suggested by the codes of danzon, son, mambo, guaguanco, rumba, songo and timba. Rubalcaba himself improvised with an orchestral conception, executing harmonically erudite, percolating lines and phantasmagoric shapes on piano and Korg, sometimes at levels of propulsion and metric complexity that transformed him into the ensemble’s third drummer, sometimes at levels of dynamic nuance that evoked conductor Simon Rattle’s encomium that he is “the world’s most gifted pianist.”
“Gonzalo makes even something very complicated very easy,” Hernandez had remarked the previous evening. “He writes transparently, logically, super-precise, putting on paper exactly what he hears in his head.” He observed that, whereas three decades ago in the pathbreaking, Havana-based ensemble Grupo Proyecto that they co-founded in 1984, Rubalcaba “sometimes experimented with a chord or a rhythm at a certain point, now there’s nothing to change. Then, Gonzalo was the centerpiece of everything—the arrangement, the improvisation. Now he shares more. He lets the others help.”
In 1992, Rubalcaba moved from Cuba to the Dominican Republic; in 1996 he moved to Miami. Concurrently, Hernandez migrated to Italy, then settled in New York. They next made music together in 2012, when guitarist Stefan Glass called Rubalcaba, Hernandez, Hidalgo and Gola—Rubalcaba’s frequent partner since 2001—for a Miami recording session.
On the second day, Hidalgo approached Rubalcaba—they first met in 1980, when the conguero came to Havana with the Puerto Rican group Batacumbele—with a proposition: “We need to do a quartet, and its name is going to be The Fourth Volcano.”
“That was it,” Hernandez confirmed. “We didn’t have to say it twice.”
“My response was, ‘Of course we should do that,’” Rubalcaba said. He immediately began to coalesce repertoire. “The idea is to propose a new music—to play original pieces but also versions of important compositions in the history of Latin music, whether Cuban, Brazilian, North American or Mexican, that contain both the past and the way we see it now. Everyone has a strong relationship with jazz vocabulary and a deep connection to Cuban and Afro-Cuban roots, not only musically but spiritually and as a religion. Everyone has space to expose what they can do individually, but at the same time the band works as a band. Our purpose is musical creation, not a commercial thing.”
Volcán was Rubalcaba’s third recording for 5Passion, which he co-founded in 2010 with Gary Galimidi, the CEO of Gables Engineering, a South Florida-based manufacturer of avionic controls. They met that March, after Rubalcaba played a concert in Homestead, Florida, supporting the 2008 CD Avatar, which featured a New York-based quintet comprising Yosvany Terry on alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. It was his 14th album for Blue Note, concluding a relationship that began in 1990 with Discovery: Live in Montreux, a trio date with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian that introduced Rubalcaba’s pianistic and recompositional brilliance and abiding soulfulness to the international jazz community.
Circa 2008, Rubalcaba was looking for “people who provoke me to react differently. It’s better they use their own speech, even if they phrase differently than a Cuban musician. I become a reference, an example in some way that seduces them to trust what I am doing. I was thinking that New York is home to a new generation of players, many of them friends, even roommates, with a new voice that results from a new technology, a new way to listen to music, to get information, to dress, to live.”
For Terry, Rubalcaba’s musical production has consequentially influenced the contemporary New York sound. “I hear Gonzalo’s influence in many people, not just Cuban musicians or pianists,” he said. “Musicians I work with have Gonzalo’s CDs in their iPhones or iPads or iPods. Pianists are looking at the sound he produces, his choice of notes and rhythms, the musical decisions for his compositions. Drummers are fascinated because of the challenge he poses. He played the instrument, and all the parts make sense—he writes specifically for the exact register, color and timbre he’s looking for.”
“I did piano for a career, but the truth is that I have a percussionist inside,” Rubalcaba clarified. His father, pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba, ran rehearsals at home that included master percussionists Tata Güines and Changuito, from whom Gonzalo learned the Afro-diasporic codes by example. He “showed aptitude” for timbal, claves and bongos, and received a drum for his sixth birthday. “I saw the drum, sat down, took the stick, and played.” Soon thereafter, Hernandez recalls, his parents called him to the television to see Rubalcaba, in short pants, drumming in Guillermo Rubalcaba’s family band.
“I had many different simultaneous references,” Rubalcaba said. He soaked up folkloric chants, dances and rituals in his Centro Havana neighborhood, and heard his father’s LPs of jazz, Cuban music and the Euro-canon. His older brother, Jesus, practiced Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven on a daily basis. “But percussion had a special space. It wasn’t just for colors and flourishes. It was a first plane, a first voice. When I write music, I see myself playing the drum part and the percussion part. The percussion is essential in the musical speech I am trying to put together, so the percussionists in my band will be pushed to do a lot.”
Rubalcaba pushed hard to bring Avatar to fruition. Although Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall was a life-long friend, the label, itself circumscribed by sagging music industry economics, had long ceased to provide adequate infrastructural support for tours or album marketing, and was reluctant to provide Rubalcaba a budget sufficient to actualize the project to his exacting standards. Still, Rubalcaba decided, as the saying goes, to turn lemons into lemonade. “In Cuba we had nothing, not even instruments in good shape or places to rehearse, and were able to execute the music at a high level,” he said. “I realized I could spend my own money, or find an investor. The important thing was to connect with new musicians.”
When he met Galimidi, with Avatar concluded, Rubalcaba figured he had fulfilled his contractual obligations to Blue Note and was looking for a change. So was Galimidi, who “had been saving my money and was thinking about getting into some other business.” A long-standing fan of Rubalcaba and a self-described “frustrated musician” who “plays badly,” he’d purchased 20 tickets to the Homestead concert for his employees. One, who had known Rubalcaba in Cuba, asked the pianist to receive his boss backstage. Galimidi recalls that he shook Rubalcaba’s hand and received an autographed piano key; in Rubalcaba’s version, they didn’t meet. Whatever the case, the employee called Rubalcaba on the following day to extend Galimidi’s invitation for lunch. Himself an habitue of flight simulators and one-time owner of a high-octane Porsche, Rubalcaba accepted.
Their connection was immediate. Galimidi recalls Rubalcaba’s comment “that the money had dried up, which I understand—you put in a tremendous amount of money and don’t get much out.” He continued: “You need to be doing this for some reason other than return on investment. When I woke up the next day, I realized that I could fund his records, I’d learn about music and recording, and my wife, who is a graphic designer, could be involved. To me, it was a no-brainer, because Gonzalo can produce the shit out of anything. You just give him money, a studio, and help him call the people.
“I want people to know who he is, that what he does is divine. He plays, and he grabs your soul. You have no choice but to listen.”
Upon hearing Galimidi’s proposal to partner on a label that would allow him “to make music without restriction” and eventually to own his masters,” Rubalcaba recalled, “I thought I was dreaming.” After an offer of “very significant money” for Rubalcaba’s entire Blue Note catalog fell through, they spent $5,000 to release him from a provision that gave Blue Note a three-album option over a 56½-month span.
Then they discussed names. “Gonzalo suggested taking number-5, cinco, and putting the word ‘passion’ (which in Spanish has one ‘s’) behind it,” Galimidi said. “If you say it in Spanish, it’s ‘syncopation.’ Gonzalo was raised in santeria, and the number of his saint, Oshún, is 5. My wife developed the butterfly-like figure in the logo, which we trademarked, so that you can read it as either one ‘s’ or two.”
“It has been an amazing experience,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s so difficult to find someone who believes in the human being as a person, not in the numbers. I believe in Gary totally, and I know he believes in everything I do. We win together and we lose together.”
As if to signify on these sentiments, Rubalcaba launched 5Passion with Fé (Faith), a solo meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz. He plays with restraint and refined intention, honing in on lyric essences. He followed it with XXI Century, a double CD with Brewer and Gilmore, joined on various selections by guitarist Lionel Loueke, conguero Pedrito Rodriguez and drummer Ignacio Berroa, who played on all of Rubalcaba’s trio and quartet albums between 1998 (Inner Voyage) and 2006 (Paseo). Fortified by several days of immersive rehearsal and studio time, they stretch out on pieces by Rubalcaba, Loueke and Brewer, and find fresh paths into works by Bley, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano.
On last year’s Suite Caminos, Rubalcaba unleashes the full measure of his powers on an eight-section recitative scored for alto saxophone (Will Vinson), tenor saxophone (Seamus Blake), trumpet (Alex Sipiagin), guitar (Adam Rogers), bass (Brewer) and drums (Ernesto Simpson), a coro of high-level Miami-based Yoruba practitioners, and himself on piano, synths, and church organ. He refracts the rhythms and melodies of specific Yoruba deities/orishas that, as author Ned Sublette writes in the program notes, “embody complex natural forces,” each “with its own gender and personality” and “its own set of multiple selves.” “The music was fearsomely difficult,” Vinson said, implying how Rubalcaba’s narrative represents the multi-dimensionality of his subjects. “We learned the parts over four or five days in the studio, but trying to feel your part, and fit it in with the rhythms, and navigate the sound and articulation in unison with Seamus and Alex made it 10 times more difficult.”
Suite Caminos gestated in 1995, after Rubalcaba completed Antigua, his first systematic exploration of Yoruban roots. During the ensuing 18 years, he worked not only with his own diverse bands, but performed Baroque, Impressionist and Spanish piano music and collaborated on tango projects with Richard Galliano and Al DiMiola, pan-Brazilian concerts with João Bosco and Ivan Lins, and on two albums of boleros—both instant classics—with Charlie Haden.
“I took risks to develop myself both as a piano player and a composer,” Rubalcaba said. “I put myself in contact with different spaces and musical visions, with people who wanted me to do things their way. Even when you are not totally comfortable with their ideas, you can always learn. Life is a palette with many tastes and flavors and colors and moments. If one moment is not sweet or illuminated, you try to be part of the darkness and force yourself to turn it into something bright. Even early in my career, when I had media exposure and Blue Note spent a lot to give me the privilege to play before large audiences at big venues around the world, I never was drunk with the applause. When I got home, I’d try to reset everything. I saw reviews or heard people say, perhaps with reason, ‘Well, he just played like that guy, he played fast,’ and so on. I considered every reaction, even when people didn’t express it in the best way. When you decide to live like that, the process is really long. You can feel really alone.
“So this work didn’t come to me like a revelation: ‘Ok, now I am in position to do this.’ It emerged from accumulating tools and reference and knowledge from a half-century of love, memory, and experience, so that I felt strong enough to do it as I did. In each tune, the chant talks about a specific issue of life for a human being.”
In Terry’s view, Suite Caminos “could only come from someone who immersed himself in the religious traditions that still exist in Cuba and prevail in the countryside. It contains a depth of spiritual understanding that speaks to a larger community than just musicians. I believe it’s the same spiritual feeling that was behind Mozart or Bach with the St. Matthew’s Passion or with the Requiem, and all of the great composers of sacred music.”
Rubalcaba explicates the opening selection, “Sendero De Aliento”—scored for vocals, Afro-Cuban percussion with batas, and church organ—as “talking about the very fine line between life and death,” he said. “The organ for me spiritually represents a lot of Christian and Catholic sound. When I visit cities like New York or Barcelona or Madrid, I try to visit churches, and often I’ve had the opportunity to see someone playing.” As an instance, he recalled being the only corporeal attendee at a female organist’s performance of a contemporary piece in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. “I believe that the saints were also there, and the spirits that I know as part of my family tradition—exactly what we are not commonly able to see,” he said. “I try to connect with that.”
In the wake of his father’s death in September, Rubalcaba is the last surviving member of his immediate family, no longer in a position to glean counsel and friendship from Lundvall, who died in May, or Haden, who died in July 2014. “I felt alone, but it’s not true,” he said. This notion is the animating imperative driving Charlie, on which Rubalcaba joins Vinson, Rodgers, Brewer and Gilmore through melodic, inflamed-soul treatments of his reharmonized charts of eight Haden originals and his own “Transparence.” The latter piece appears on the concurrently issued Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!), documenting an inspired 2005 Rubalcaba-Haden duo performance at Tokyo’s Blue Note.
“We created an environment for Charlie’s spirit to be there, rather than duplicating anything Charlie did on some day,” Rubalcaba said. “When we were recording, I was touring, talking, laughing with Charlie. We have to learn to continue life without the people we love, at least without seeing them every day. You have to find strong convictions about other ideas. This is what keeps you working, dreaming, living, playing.”