The man sure can play

They're not supposed to make them like this anymore. But Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba has proved them wrong time and time again.
Click to follow
In a jazz age still overshadowed by the Edmund Hillary-like heroes of the Fifties and Sixties, who scaled the peaks in mohair suits, with a cigarette in their mouths and a monkey on their backs, it's rather alarming to come across a contemporary musician whose sheer genius announces itself from the off. But the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba - who plays Edinburgh's Queen's Hall on Saturday - demonstrated on his debut Blue Note album, Live at Montreux, in 1991, exactly the kind of brilliance that is not supposed to happen any more. With Charlie Haden on double-bass and Paul Motian on drums, he clearly had good taste on his side already, but from the opening notes of the first track's reworking of Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't", lights flashed, bells rang and the elusive jazz jackpot's coins poured out in a flood.

He began with a full-tilt vamp on the chords, Afro-Cuban rhythms driving manic repetitions, until Monk's lop-sided theme emerged amid a welter of virtuoso effects, a double-time salsa chorus leading into a second ascent on the tune until it slowed down to a dirge before the appropriately Monkian plinky-plonk ending. His unaccompanied solo on the self-composed third track was even better, a playful cadenza that mixed the history of post-war jazz piano styles with a ferocious Cuban lilt. And then he played a ballad so tenderly it almost made you weep. He was 27 and suddenly the most exciting pianist in the world.

Unfortunately for his career, he was also Cuban. The son of a renowned Havana musician, whose own father was one of Cuba's most illustrious danzon composers, Rubalcaba entered the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory at the age of eight to be taught by his mother before studying composition at the Arts Institute of Havana. By the time of his Blue Note debut (actually leased to the label by the Japanese subsidiary Something Else, in order to circumvent the US economic blockade of Cuba) Rubalcaba had already recorded a number of albums and toured Europe. Indeed, it was his fate to be "discovered" over and over again, by Dizzy Gillespie, who played with him at Havana's 1985 jazz festival; by Charlie Haden, at the same festival in 1986, and by the German label Messidor, who released albums by him in 1988 and 1989.

Now a genuine star, with a further four Blue Note albums behind him, Rubalcaba has remained a citizen of Cuba, although he lives in the Dominican Republic in order to practice his profession more easily than Cuba's isolation allows. When he was invited to New York for a Lincoln Centre concert in 1993, a diplomatic row broke out, with the State Department considering him persona non grata, and exiled musicians like Paquito D'Rivera protesting his presence. He still managed to play, but critics carped that he was either too Cuban or not Cuban enough for the jazz tradition. His Edinburgh solo concert - a British debut - is something of a coup, but he will be back in the autumn for a tour with the classical pianist Katia Labeque.

I interviewed him in Germany, with his responses translated into English by his manager. Technique, which Rubalcaba is alternately praised and cursed for, is, he says, "something to which you don't just have the key in your pocket, to use at your will. The more you have, the more you need to think about how you will use it, and in my case, I always have a sense of its limits." His first musical influence was Cuban traditional music, especially the heavily African-flavoured music of the church. "After that," he says, "was Cuban popular music - also very African - and the music I played in my father's band. If I have a style of my own, it is because I have been using jazz as a reference while also taking in the Cuban and African background which was itself an important influence to jazz musicians in the US."

Rubalcaba is also a much more varied player than he is credited for - he even does a nifty version of John Lennon's "Imagine". The tune, he concedes, was suggested by his manager, but he remains a Fab Four fan, because, he says, he's in sympathy with "the ideology of the time". One fondly imagines Fidel himself grooving to Sgt Pepper in a natty camouflaged Beatle-jacket.

n Booking: 0131-668 2019

Comments