Recording of November 1991: Discovery

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Charlie Haden, bass; Paul Motian, drums
Blue Note CDP 7 95478 2 (CD only). Charlie Haden, prod.; David Richards, eng. DDD? TT: 54:06

Couldn't figure out what jazz release to review this month. Nothing, as Elvis said, moved me; I wanted to get real, real gone this time. I stopped into Nick Potter's Books & Used Records. Nick was waiting for me.

"Ever heard of Gonzalo Rubalcaba?"


"Gonzalo Rubalcaba—28-year-old Cuban pianist. This's his first recording outside Cuba. Lissen to what he does with 'Well You Needn't'."

He hit Play on his store's CD player. Was I moved? Well, it was kind of hard to tell, the earth was moving so much...

Just do what I did: "Well You Needn't." You'll be convinced that, well, you do need to. Gonzalo Rubalcaba has things to say.

I almost wish Nick had given me a blindfold test so I could've made a fool of myself in a noble cause: I defy anyone to listen to this disc and not think of Keith Jarrett in his gospel-fugue prime. ('Course, it doesn't hurt to be backed up by Jarrett's old rhythm section.) But Rubalcaba is no mere Jarrett clone imprisoned by awesome chops and hero worship. This guy zaps out lines, runs, and aikido-chop chords that I've never even heard the King of Chops himself pull off. And no empty pyrotechnics either: Rubalcaba's senses of humor, wit, grace, rhythm, harmony, and variation are simply breathtaking. This musician will consistently surprise you with gifts of time in places where other jazz musicians don't even have places.

Rubalcaba shares with Jarrett a long classical training, a love of gospel voicings, a passionate romantic bent, and an ability to make the piano speak with a full, lush voice. But his playing is more sharply etched than Jarrett's, his emphasis more on savagely meticulous articulation than on Jarrett's long architectural gaze. Rubalcaba's playing is full of fierce joy, and his relationship to the piano is one of pure, absolute mastery—unlike Jarrett, who often seems to be trying to become the piano. The Cuban's "Prologo Comienzo" sounds simultaneously through-composed and divinely inspired, so exactly, feelingly placed is each of the thousands of notes in its bed of rhythm. Compare Rubalcaba's "All the Things You Are" with Jarrett's in the Standards series: Jarrett's is a wistful, bittersweet lament; Rubalcaba assaults the tune with barely contained passion.

Charlie Haden, who is to be thanked for "discovering" Rubalcaba and producing this excellently recorded disc (great piano sound!), provides his usual earnest, unornamented accompaniment, the intonation problems that plagued him in his Jarrett days entirely cured. Paul Motian's loose, open drumming is the embodiment of "free time"—he doesn't really drive, but his grooves fully support anyone behind the wheel.

This is only the beginning; Rubalcaba's 2 is being released as I write. Who'd have thought there was anything more to say? This man says a lot, and I'm happy to hear him out. You will be too.—Richard Lehnert