Latin Jazz pianists commonly have a multiple repertoire, including nightclub and jazzless (whether from their own native Cuba, Argentina or Brazil). There are also combinations ranging from merely jazz-influenced Latin (almost jazzless) to an almost Latinless jazz. In this case, there’s a little of the last and not much more of the others, the main thing being a love of a repertoire whose beginnings were in Debussy’s translation of Spanish musical material. Incorporated were previously taught harmonic lessons from Wagner, and learned touch and phrasing, evoking atmosphere, float lines and harmonies. Suddenly Debussy’s piano muse said, on peut jouer cette musique espagnole au piano.
There was the medium which Debussy and Ravel pioneered in France, a piano language for Granados and Falla and more Latin Americans than I have heard of. Gonzalo Rubalcaba seems to be paying heartfelt tribute to Hispanic, indeed Cuban, music of the Western line which to some people matters personally, and at least equally, beside other music with no highbrow associations.
The sources of the music are various, but since Blue Note has provided your reviewer with ridiculously inadequate information, his references to these will be at best sketchy.
As to the music itself, the results are usually stunning, beginning with the Debussian miniature “Rezo (Praise Be)” and proceeding through the seven minutes of drama, which “Quasar” is. “Silencio” might be found as a ballad interlude in a classically trained jazz pianist’s programme. It’s referred to as “a Cuban bolero”.
The first of four improvisations founded somehow on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, “Improv #1”, is a little looser in comparison; slighter, with stock phrasing, but a pause in concentration before the sublime quality of a one-minute lullaby worth waiting for. Incredible! After “Improv #2”, which hints at jazz with concert-room sonorities and a striking ending, the second lullaby, “for a black child” floats into an even more amazing conclusion over a tolling left hand part.
“Faro (Beacon)” has a simple ostinato bass, a transition section and a loud climax; after a subdued passage, a bigger build prior to fuller, more complete culmination into which the simple left hand figure is worked, and within which it is developed with imagination. Then “Improv #3” proceeds with more consistent direction than its two predecessors into something like a hymn.
The miniature “Dream of the Dolls” is exquisite, a lullaby with even greater depth of atmosphere than anything prior. The fourth and final “Improv” develops into long linear passages for each hand, with a sense of leading on to somewhere: perhaps into “Prologo (Prologue to a Fantasy)” with a congenial intellectual playfulness alternating between something like Spanish piano music of a century ago, and the dance-hall.
“Here’s that Rainy Day” appears as the object of a considerable challenge, since this wonderful jazz ballad could hardly have produced anything much different from parody. “Prologo” stayed in later nineteenth, early twentieth century Madrid, and wholly European. Yet now, with the same weight of fingering, dedicated to precise articulation of phrasing and especially rhythmic emphasis, comes the perfect jazz mainstream ballad performance, with the same restraint as elsewhere, ruling out any prospect of profligacy with notes, any tendency to variety which might issue in something more interesting. The pianist lets nothing emerge below a certain tension and strength of utterance. After which Charlie Haden’s “Nightfall” comes as something of an unwinding, as what was very much needed after so much concentration and resistance to any superfluity. There has been no abandon, but an intense sounding, self-disciplined preoccupation with phrasing and with timing. This prepares everything for a “Besame Mucho” of intensely meditative character and slow deliberation. It is nothing but magnificent, and the seal on a very remarkable solo piano recital. This is art at its most mature and engaging.