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Performance review

Article: Gonzalo Rubalcaba at Lincoln Center, May 14

by Diane Gordon

The media circus that publicized the defections of Cuban jazz musicians Paquito d'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval in recent years took a strange turn in the case of virtuoso jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. His well-publicized, sold out concert at Lincoln Center last May 14th, which was part of the center's jazz program, marked his first performance in the States.

Oddly enough, the event was sanctioned by both the Cuban government and the Clinton administration. The president granted Rubalcaba a visa after he had been denied entry to the United States for years during the tenure of Republican presidents. The hitch being that he couldn't accept payment for his concert at Alice Tully Hall, because of U.S. embargo restrictions on trade with Cuba. Things have changed, but not by much.

Now living in Santo Domingo, again, with the blessing of the Cuban government, Rubalcaba's career seems set, with recordings on both the German Messidor and Blue Note labels. The American debut at Lincoln Center, certainly a coup for the 30-year-old pianist, reflected the strains of international politics with a somewhat subdued concert.

Rubalcaba began with a set with bassist Charlie Hayden and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Most apparent here was a glaring absence of the ubiquitous tumbao one finds in the music, speech and gait of the best Cuban musicians. An ill-advised duet with Blue Note artist Diane Reeves was even worse. The present writer couldn't help but contrast this musical walkabout-to-nowhere with a more successful interlude during his concert at the Martinique Jazz Festival last December. There, he took a break from the down-driving intensity that marks his playing with a tender rendering of the McCartney-Lennon tune "Here, There, and Everywhere." Reeves sang "You Taught My Heart To Sing" — but one wishes she would have done so elsewhere.

A decided electricity charged the stage after the intermission, when Rubalcaba reappeared with his quartet; drummer Julio Barreto, bassist Felipe Cabrera, and trumpeter Oreste Melian Alvarez. Finally, one was reminded why Dizzy Gillespie called Rubalcaba the best jazz pianist to emerge in years. Barreto's drumset, Cubanified with alterations such as a cajon played with a foot pedal and cowbells of various pitches, pulled the music together and brought it home. Another oft-quoted Dizzy saying is that the Cubans understand our music better than we do. ¡Que rico, Gonzalito!

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