The tempo of a phenom A chat with pi­anist Gon­zalo Rubalcaba


TWOpi­ano pow­er­houses share the stage at the Len­sic Pe­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Satur­day, July 28. With 13 Grammy or Latin Grammy awards be­tween them, Chucho Valdés and Gon­zalo Rubalcaba prom­ise to elec­trify what will prob­a­bly be a sold-out crowd at the New Mex­ico Jazz Fes­ti­val event.

Valdés, born in Ha­vana in 1941, is best known for the many-fla­vored Irakere, a band he led from 1973 to 2005. He is also a vet­eran of work with his fa­ther, Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, and with Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera. Rubalcaba was born into a mu­si­cal Ha­vana fam­ily in 1963. At age six, he was drum­ming for his fa­ther’s orches­tra and two years later shifted to the pi­ano “just to please my mother,” as he once put it. To­day, Rubalcaba has made more than 20 al­bums as leader. He has had long mu­si­cal re­la­tion­ships with Brazil­ian vo­cal­ist Ithamara Koorax and with jazz bassist Char­lie Haden, who died in 2014. Rubalcaba’s cred­its list in­cludes Haden’s Noc­turne (2001) and Land

of the Sun (2004) and two al­bums by sax­o­phon­ist Jane Bun­nett: Spir­its of Ha­vana (1993) and Spir­its of Ha­vana/Chama­longo (2016).

Pasatiempo talked to Rubalcaba by phone. He was in Mi­ami, where he has lived since 1996 and teaches at the Frost School of Mu­sic, Univer­sity of Mi­ami.

Pasatiempo: Gon­zalo, how long have you been mak­ing mu­sic with Chucho Valdés?

Gon­zalo Rubalcaba: I think this is the first time we’re do­ing a con­cert of duets. We did a con­cert in Is­tan­bul a long time ago, also one in Greece and in Ha­vana in the 1980s on a TV show, where we played a three-pi­ano con­cert with Frank Emilio [Flynn]. This is the first time we sat down and said, “Let’s do some­thing, we should tour,” and that was about a year and a half ago. We have been in Eu­rope and Asia and we did a few con­certs in the last month in the States.

Pasa: You’re a lit­tle more than 20 years, or a gen­er­a­tion, apart. How would you de­scribe your dif­fer­ences and your sim­i­lar­i­ties?

Rubalcaba: I pre­fer to talk about the sim­i­lar­i­ties. We can talk about sto­ries with dif­fer­ent mu­si­cians in Cuba, we can talk about hav­ing the same ex­pe­ri­ence in many as­pects of life in Cuba be­cause I was liv­ing in Cuba un­til I was twenty-seven years old, so we have a lot to share. Chucho is the kind of mu­si­cian and per­son who is al­ways look­ing to see what is hap­pen­ing out there. He’s not some­one just at­tached to his own gen­er­a­tion, he’s al­ways talk­ing to you about new guys, like, “Did you hear that al­bum?”

Pasa: Chucho came up in a time when mu­sic more of­ten was played for danc­ing, rather than sit­ting and lis­ten­ing.

Rubalcaba: Yeah, but look, I made a lot of danc­ing mu­sic when I was in Cuba. I’m com­ing from a fam­ily that has been in­volved in danc­ing mu­sic for a long time. My grand­fa­ther, my fa­ther, my un­cles, my two broth­ers all worked with the most typ­i­cal Cuban mu­sic, like danzón, son, guaracha, and boleros ,andI heard a lot of this mu­sic in my house when I was a kid. And I played with Orquesta Aragón and other bands and singers in Cuba when I was re­ally young, bands that were well-known — by peo­ple, be­cause this is fes­tive mu­sic, pop­u­lar mu­sic.

Pasa: One of your re­cent al­bums is Char­lie. Is that about Char­lie Haden?

Rubalcaba: Ex­actly. That was an obli­ga­tion. I had to do that, and I have in mind to do one or two more al­bums with mu­sic that I know he en­joyed. I feel very blessed to have had the chance to hang around with Char­lie and tour with him. He came to Cuba in 1986 with his Lib­er­a­tion Mu­sic Orches­tra. They played a con­cert as part of a fes­ti­val program and I was sup­posed to play af­ter them with my own band; I had a septet at that time. Char­lie and his wife stayed af­ter and saw us play, then they came back­stage. He said, “Hey, we need to find a place to play in Ha­vana, be­cause I want to bring a record­ing of you and me play­ing to the States.” We had a few hours in a record­ing stu­dio in Ha­vana and we played a few tunes and he took a cas­sette and brought it to Bruce Lund­vall’s of­fice at Blue Note Records. He told Bruce, “You have to sign that guy and bring him here.”

Char­lie and I spent a lot of time talk­ing and play­ing and tour­ing and record­ing a few al­bums, and I learned a lot from him. He had a very strong per­son­al­ity mu­si­cally and he was very open­minded, mu­si­cally. I re­mem­ber when we made the al­bum about Cuban and Mex­i­can

boleros, Noc­turne, he called me and said, “I want to do a new record but I don’t want do a be­bop record or a straight-ahead jazz record. I want some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent. What can you sug­gest?” I told him, I know you like bal­lads and beau­ti­ful har­monies and melodies, so I will send to you a CD com­pi­la­tion of Cuban and Mex­i­can boleros. Lis­ten to that and call me and maybe we can make a record­ing. He called back and said, “We have to do that mu­sic. You do the ar­range­ment and the pro­duc­tion, but we have to go right now.” Pasa: You brought your trio to Santa Fe in 2001. In an in­ter­view then, you said your early mu­si­cal in­spi­ra­tions from the jazz world in­cluded Th­elo­nious Monk, Er­roll Gar­ner, and Char­lie Parker. Who were your Cuban-mu­sic men­tors?

Rubalcaba: My fam­ily. The house where I grew up was my first school, my first mu­si­cal ref­er­ence. I was able to see my fa­ther re­hears­ing and also talk­ing and de­liv­er­ing dif­fer­ent com­ments and ideas with other great mu­si­cians around, many peo­ple who were the big­gest names in Cuba at that time. They used to go to my house and talk about mu­sic and life, and also make mu­sic. I saw so many peo­ple at a very high level of per­for­mance with deep con­cepts about how to do mu­sic and a vi­sion about what should be, at that

mo­ment, the Cuban mu­sic. That was an un­be­liev­able ref­er­ence to me. Pasa: Are you work­ing on a new record? Rubalcaba: Man, I’m al­ways work­ing on some­thing. I be­lieve that the only way to find some­thing else is to keep your­self work­ing. When you men­tion work­ing, peo­ple au­to­mat­i­cally think about play­ing on stage in front of peo­ple, but work­ing to me is not that. It is when I’m home spend­ing hours and hours with the in­stru­ment and writ­ing mu­sic ex­plor­ing and search­ing. I’m com­pos­ing a piece for pi­ano and sym­phony orches­tra that I’m sup­posed to pre­miere in Novem­ber in Is­tan­bul and in Italy and Croa­tia. At the same time, I’ll be do­ing a con­cert of Gersh­win for pi­ano and orches­tra. Pasa: Can you talk about your re­la­tion­ship with Dizzy Gille­spie? Rubalcaba: Two years be­fore Char­lie, I had the op­por­tu­nity to play with Dizzy and he wanted to see if I could fly to the States with him, but it was im­pos­si­ble be­cause of visa prob­lems be­tween Cuba and the United States. Dizzy was a com­bi­na­tion that you usu­ally don’t see. He was a ge­nius, he was a guy with a vi­sion of mu­sic and a trum­pet player but also an amaz­ing hu­man be­ing. He was al­ways in the at­ti­tude to help peo­ple. He was al­ways pro­mot­ing young guys, trum­pet play­ers and pi­ano play­ers not only from here but from Latin Amer­ica.

Dizzy went to Cuba in the 1970s and he played in Ha­vana. I was a very young guy and I didn’t get to see that con­cert. The en­trance was very con­trolled by the gov­ern­ment. But he came in 1984 and we met. I was play­ing at the old Ho­tel Na­cional. He had a room there and the day he ar­rived I was play­ing there. They took him there to eat and lis­ten to some mu­sic and I was play­ing with my band. When I was fin­ished, he came back­stage and he was very funny be­cause he had his trum­pet and he took out some sheet mu­sic and he said, “Do you think you can play this with­out re­hears­ing?” I saw the mu­sic and it was very com­pli­cated, very dif­fi­cult to play. I said, “Well, you have to give me 24 hours to check that and then we can play.” He said, “No, no, that was a joke, but I want you to play with me to­mor­row.” That was the first day of the fes­ti­val. I was twenty or twenty-one years old, and af­ter that I played with him in Ha­vana. He was amaz­ing. He pushed me very strongly.

I started tour­ing with my own bands in Eu­rope and many peo­ple said, “I know about you be­cause Dizzy was here and he was talk­ing about you.” I owe him a lot. I al­ways said that at twenty-one years old, if you have names like Dizzy Gille­spie and Char­lie Haden trust you and trust what you are do­ing, you can­not ask for any more.

“I was able to see my fa­ther re­hears­ing and also talk­ing and de­liv­er­ing dif­fer­ent com­ments and ideas with other great mu­si­cians around, many peo­ple who were the big­gest names in Cuba at the time. They used to go to my house and talk about mu­sic and life, and also make mu­sic.”

Chucho Valdés and Gon­zalo Rubalcaba

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