five things to know about:
May 5, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin
Gonzalo Rubalcaba is one of the greatest pianists of recent decades. That’s not hyperbole.
When American jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden first encountered him in Cuba in the mid-1980s, they were dumbstruck by his astonishing command of the keyboard. He played in those days with an urgency and confidence that verged on cockiness. Now he is 59, and other qualities have come to the fore. He plays with exquisite touch, with charm and a sense of deep reflection — though he still improvises with an accumulating energy that can land with a rhythmic jolt.
In April, Rubalcaba’s Skyline — a trio session featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette — won the GRAMMY award for best jazz instrumental album. Last year, his Viento y Tiempo: Live at the Blue Note Tokyo — co-led by Cuban singer Aymee Nuviola, a lifelong friend — received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album. Their new album, recorded last summer at the Jazz in Marciac festival in France, is Live in Marciac.
On June 9, he and Nuviola will bring their eight-piece band to SFJAZZ to perform songs from that joyful recording, on which they revisit popular songs from their Havana childhoods.
Here are five things to know about Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
- Born and raised in Havana, he comes from a musical dynasty. His grandfather, Jacobo Rubalcaba, was a bandleader and composer of danzóns; he helped popularize the musical form throughout western Cuba. His father, pianist Guillermo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, played in the band of Enrique Jorrin, the violinist credited with inventing the cha-cha-cha. His parents’ living room was a musicians’ hangout and rehearsal space where he met many of the period’s eminent figures: vocalist Omara Portuondo, pianist Frank Emilio Flynn and Los Van Van drummer Changuito.
- The drums were his first instrument: “It’s part of my innards,” he says. “That is the instrument that took me into the music.” Some of his formative influences are drummers, including Max Roach and Elvin Jones — and Changuito, who blew his mind by playing scales on coconuts and inventing rhythmic structures that seemed to arise out of Changuito’s “different mental structure.”
- Both now live in Florida, but he and Aymee Nuviola met as children in Havana: “We went to the same school. In the beginning, she was a piano player, too, and at some point she became this great singer of Cuban music. And we met here in Miami after many years, and every time we saw each other we were talking about the possibility of putting something together. And then we prepared a band and we put together a repertoire of Cuban music from the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s — music we used to hear on the radio in Cuba when we were teenagers.”
- Conservatory-trained, he has performed Bartók with symphony orchestras and recently has been composing his own piano concerto. He has recorded dozens of albums as a leader and is comfortable playing in a variety of styles: straight-ahead jazz, fusion, folkloric Cuban. He speaks of the “essence of Cuban music — the Black factor, the African roots. In Cuba we found a way to explore and develop all those roots together with the European classical music, and together with the music of other countries, like Mexico, and with America’s jazz culture.”
- He credits his mother, Yolanda Fonseca, with turning him into a pianist. “She was the first one to say, `It would be a great idea if you receive piano class. Because even if you don’t become a piano player, the piano will still allow you to explore music harmonically. Maybe in the future you’ll want to compose. The piano is the instrument for you.’”
Gonzalo Rubalcaba performs at SFJAZZ on June 9. Tickets are available here.
A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.
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