Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the genius

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Gonzalo rubalcaba, the genius. «I always say that rhythm, harmony, articulation of forms, structure should be your way of thinking as a musician, and as a human being. We don't have to try to do more than we can, but we have to make music the way we know how to do it ».

Also sprach Gonzalo Rubalcaba, during a long interview he gave me a few years ago, before a memorable solo piano concert. Transcendental pianist, unparalleled manipulator of styles, forms and languages, the Cuban musician, who has been transplanted to the States for years, will hold a masterclass on Monday, November 15, at the Casa del Jazz, organized by the Saint Louis College of Music.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a more unique than rare opportunity to listen and measure yourself with a musical thought of enormous depth, absorb an articulated and exciting vision of the world directly from the voice (and hands) of a genius of the jazz piano.

That Gonzalo Rubalcaba has been expressing, for almost forty years now, along a very dense career, which eventually returns (almost always) to Cuba.

"From a rhythmic point of view (Gonzalo is a phenomenal percussionist, ed) Cuba is a very rich country, and there is much more rhythm than is known. It is a country with very different music, some of which are not well known at all.

When I was little I had the opportunity to get in touch with these expressions: folklore, religious and dance music. And this for various reasons: first of all because I come from a family of musicians, and this was a fundamental training ground for me; second, because I studied classical music; third, because from a very young age I came into contact with the world of jazz. So, my music is a combination of many different elements.

I would almost say a space in which to put all these influences that are in my head, in an organic way. It can be difficult when you first read the scores. But, after all, all we do is study our traditions, rely on the information we have, and reorganize everything in different spaces, different chords, different sounds, different forms. A sort of expansion, an extension of the world to which we belong.

The rhythmic articulation, then, represents exactly one of our peculiar characteristics, such as the way we speak or walk. What interests me is the fluidity, the rhythmic flow, and our ability to converse, play, share these rhythmic flows ».

Rhythmic flows that inhabit his music, even when Rubalcaba expresses himself in piano solo, or in a piano / voice duo, as has often happened to him, even on long tours. The live dimension is what he prefers, as he told me.

“It's nothing predetermined, nothing predetermined. I believe that the same song can take on a different meaning every night. Maybe we play the same music every time, but the emotions that music made you feel yesterday are not the same as you feel today because you react differently.

I've always thought that concerts shouldn't be seen simply as musicians playing their instruments: concerts are so much more. A concert is: the musicians, the instruments, the environment, the audience, the acoustics; all this set of elements conditions the behavior of the musicians, their mental attitude in that context.

For me, the skill of a good musician lies in putting together different expressive skills, in having the means to play what is appropriate at all times. This is why, for me, it is so important to be technically prepared: this is the only way to be free. Free to do whatever you want, including those few notes you referred to with good sound and good intention, or aggressive phrasing, or whatever. You have to practice a lot, and at high levels, if you want to be able to take the music wherever you want ».

Finally, allow me a self-quote. The following is the short review I wrote of that just unforgettable piano.

«Rubalcaba, on a solo level, is a spectacle. But, paradoxically, it is much more spectacular to witness his soundcheck. It lasts an hour, during which the Cuban pianist not only tests the instrument or tests the acoustics of the room, but studies.

Exercises, scales with hands together (and at illegal speed), technique for warming up. And then a series of passages, which Gonzalo first studies very slowly (Benedetti Michelangeli also said so), and then plays them at the right speed.

And then improvisations, skeletons of rhythms, bebop-style phrases. It is clear, then, that for the pianist's expression, technique is a fundamental picklock, the guarantee of being able to play whatever comes into his head (Wynton Marsalis also said it). But the real surprise is that, in concert, two hours later, Rubalcaba offers a repertoire in which there is not the slightest concession to the blatant gesture, to the virtuoso flicker, to the easy solution, to captivating keyboard gymnastics, to rogue exhibitionism.

No. The concert is a condensation of what the pianist probably knows best: interpreting with rigor and participation, giving weight and meaning to each note. Thanks to a prodigious sound and breath, and to a superior technique, the pianist enchants the packed audience, even though the music is dense, sometimes harsh, sometimes difficult. It is the total participation of him, the symbiosis with the keyboard to kidnap. He doesn't play so much to flex his muscles, but to tell stories. And he does it like few others ».

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