Picks and Pans Review: Discovery (live at Montreux)
Butterflies as big as bats swirled in the stomach of the young Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba when he sat down to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival last summer.
He had reason to be tense. He was being presented as the festival's annual "Mystery Guest"—a great-expectations slot previously occupied by Bonnie Raitt, Sting and Steve Jordan. The house was primed for the evening's headliner, David Sanborn, who plays a more commercial kind of jazz. Rubalcaba's accompanists were the fluid duo of Charlie Haden (bass) and Paul Motian (drums), but they had had just half an hour to rehearse. To put him further at ease, digital mikes were poised to capture every note.
But with his opening number—a furiously churning version of the medium-tempo Monk tune "Well, You Needn't"—the pianist blew away his own jitters and any doubts the audience had.
Rubalcaba, 28, can bring other pianists to mind: an ebullient Erroll Garnerian cascade, a single-note fusillade that suggests a more harnessed Cecil Taylor, a pool of reflecting colors worthy of Bill Evans. But each of the seven songs on this album generates its own distinct mood. The marvel is how well the artist integrates everything, even his Cuban heritage.
On his father's side, Rubalcaba's family has been musical for generations. He took up piano at 8 and began listening to American jazz records at 10. Conservatory trained in Havana, he began touring abroad in 1980, then met Haden in Cuba when the bassist was with his Liberation Orchestra at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana in 1986.
Recently, Haden returned from a European tour with the Cuban. "Every time Gonzalo sits down, he concentrates on creating something that never existed before," he says. "His depth of expression goes far beyond what I imagined. Montreux was not even one of his best nights."
Mercy. (Blue Note)