Speed and unquestionable technique, the hallmarks of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s five-album career at Blue Note, were in abundance at Wadsworth Theatre during the Cuban pianist’s second concert in the U.S. He found his greatest success in softer moments of introspection and classically informed romanticism.
After an introduction by National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences prexy Michael Greene, Rubalcaba and three Cuban compatriots performed the pianist’s daunting originals, which straddle a line between bebop and Weather Report-style fusion that relied less on interplay than solo.
Rarely did the band swing and never did it find any comfortable grooves. Instead, drummer Julio Barreto supplied the intensity with a broad base of polyrhythms and daring stickwork that failed to support Rubalcaba’s flourishes.
Rubalcaba — who, Greene announced, will be able to tour the U.S. now that he is a resident of the Dominican Republic — gave many of his lines extra power as he showcased his studied and stylized speed. He would often abruptly stop as if he ran out of things to say, but would just as quickly pick up and head on another tangent.
Once bassist Charlie Haden — the musician who brought Rubalcaba to the attention of Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall — joined Rubalcaba, the two went on an intimate dialogue that brought to bear all the passion and emotional weight Rubalcaba possesses.
The two worked on an intuitive level that’s heard too seldom in jazz, delivering a performance as welcome as a warm bath after a hard day at the office.
Rubalcaba closed the evening with a medley of Latin melodies and some solo piano that together amplified his roots and aspirations. Again, his playing was softer and more complete in thought — the perfect notes to complete the picture on this exciting new talent.
As Rubalcaba gets greater exposure to audiences — already top jazz musicians have praised him as perhaps the best young player in the world — his challenge will be to cut through the preconceived notions of how jazz should sound. There are no blues roots, no church influences, no common Latin rhythms in this man’s vocabulary.
While jazz has become a universal language, one of its finest students is showing how much of a struggle it can be to not only graft a culture onto the music but add a personality as well. As long as Rubalcaba struggles, jazz fans everywhere will benefit.