Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Supernova

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Blue Note

I’m trying to find a way to talk about this album. I didn’t think it would be necessarily difficult, but then I started trying, and now it’s three weeks later and I’m still struggling. Let’s just start with the facts.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba is the greatest young jazz pianist in the world. Anyone who’s ever seen him live, or heard any of his records in the last 11 years, will understand. Born in Cuba to a musical family (composer grandfather, musician father), he toured the world as the leader of Grupo Proyecto, teaching everyone that Cuban jazz had progressed past Desi Arnaz. Charlie Haden, in Cuba for a musical sightseeing tour, was blown away by Rubalcaba’s attack, which is fast and nimble and forceful in ways that other piano players only dream about. Two early albums on Blue Note (both with Haden as his bass player) introduced this amazing young talent to the world: Discovery: Live in Montreaux showed what he could do in front of an audience, and The Blessing was a fascinating studio-based sprint through classic tunes. Notice had been served; there was a new Cuban sheriff in town.

For the rest of the ’90s, he released seven more albums on Blue Note and a few more on other labels like Melopea and Somethin’ Else. Most of these albums have been acoustic jazz, but he has also occasionally ventured into more experimental and electronic areas, utilizing synthesizers on albums like Antiguo and Rapsodia. Rubalcaba has also done Flying Colors, a fiery duet album with Joe Lovano, and guested with artists as diverse as Canadian latin jazz saxophonist Jane Bunnett, expert Cuban salsa man Isaac Delgado, and Brazilian vocalist Ithamara Koorax. (Yes, that’s her name. Honestly.)

But Rubalcaba has never quite attained the popularity of the heavyweights of modern jazz. Maybe he’s too radical, and maybe he’s too tame. Maybe he’s still carrying an early reputation as a wild piano-banger, and maybe he’s not out there on the edge enough. Either way, it’s a shame, because no one in the world can touch his technique, his multicultural reach, or his deep well of soul.

His crowning achievement so far has been his last record, 1999’s Inner Voyage. Seventy-three minutes of self-examination on one disc, it showed off a brilliant rhythm section (bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Ignacio Berroa) and a new introspection from Rubalcaba in his compositions. He wrote very different songs for each of his three children (“Yolanda Anas”, “Joao”, and “Joan”), a splendid and stately homage to Carter called “Promenade”, heartfelt tributes to friends (“Sandyken”) and record-label executives (“Blues Lundvall”), and technical workouts (“The Hard One”). He also managed to make “Caravan” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” seem new again; even saxophonist Michael Brecker, who guested on two songs, sounded re-energized. It was a towering achievement.

It also came along at the perfect time in my life. (I know, I know, but bear with me.) I was going through a difficult time when I found Inner Voyage, and it became my emotional soundtrack for the long walks and the longer drives I was taking to try to get rid of my early mid-life crisis. Something in me responded to every twist and turn and haunting melody of this perfect record, and I always felt like I was experiencing the music rather than just listening to it. It kept me sane, it held my hand, it was everything anyone could want from a great album.

This is relevant because now it’s 2001, and it is my task to review Supernova. How can I subtract myself from the equation and give this record a fair hearing? I could just stick to the facts. The album begins with “Supernova I”, a stop-and-start mambo that completely defies the very notion of “time signature”. Berroa, who could well be the most sympathetic drummer in jazz music today, works well with new bassist Carlos Henriquez to give this piece (and its later continuation as “Supernova II”) a solid foundation. Henriquez also shows himself an able soloist here, but he doesn’t seem to have Chambers’ calm assurance.

There are only five new original songs here out of nine tracks; besides the two “Supernova” pieces, we have the tense waltz of “La Voz del Centro”, a hushed music-box called “Otra Mirada”, and the pretty but trivial album closer “Oren”. The most impressive of these three is “La Voz del Centro”; the title is translated as “The Voice in Between”, and that seems to be a fairly accurate statement of where Rubalcaba is going here. None of the pieces on this album is as deep, none of the solos as gut-wrenchingly personal, as the ones on Inner Voyage. Is it just me? Or is Supernova an intentional pulling-back album, an attempt to find the voice in between naked emotionality and technical perfection?

The latter idea is perfectly achieved on several songs here. There are two lengthy covers worth noting. The first is “El Cadete Constitucional”, a Cuban classic written by Rubalcaba’s grandfather and then bastardized in our culture by the made-up lyrics, “Be kind to your web-footed friends….” It proves to be a superior composition, dignified but slightly silly, like a young soldier aspiring to more dignity than he has earned; Henriquez’ bowed solo introducing the melody is a nice touch, and the additional percussion supplied by Robert and Luis Quintero add a nice martial snappiness. The Quintero brothers also appear on “El Manicero”, which we know better as “The Peanut Vendor” — this song has been a standard in America since 1930, and it doesn’t lose much in this version. Rubalcaba also tackles his own Inner Voyage composition “The Hard One”, this time without Michael Brecker, and gives the lovely Mexican song “Alma Mia” a heartfelt reading.

But there’s something missing here, at least for me. Don’t get me wrong: Supernova is a wonderful record, with interesting work by everyone involved, and clearly proves that Gonzalo Rubalcaba is one of the greatest composers and pianists in the world. This would be a great entry-level record if you’ve never heard him before, and I hope it sells well. But, ultimately, Supernova is a step back in terms of Rubalcaba’s emotional commitment to his own music, and it doesn’t necessarily feature anything new for the dedicated listener. It could be that I’m asking too much from what is admittedly a fabulous album. But I hold out hope that this is just a breathing-period record, an attempt to find that voice in between, and that the next one will once again take us inside the fascinating soul of Gonzalo Rubalcaba.