Having matured and no longer needing to prove his chops to others or himself, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba has turned his attention to ensembling and orchestration, and in no other work is this more evident than Avatar. Only after multiple listens does it become clear how the compositions are driving the improvisations and not the other way around, and how the Cuban-born pianist/composer manages a wonderful balance between freedom, interpretation, and restraint, between composition, orchestration, and the soloing of his band mates.
Of Avatar's seven compositions, only one belongs to Rubalcaba, "Infantil (Dedicated to John McLaughlin)," originally written for piano, and which magnificently shows his skills as transcripter and arranger. Fellow Cuban-born saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry, a talent coming into his own, contributes three tunes"Looking in Retrospective," "This Is It," and "Hip Side," while young but graceful bassist Matt Brewer chips in with "Aspiring To Normalcy," a ballad or bolero that goes hand-in-hand with the other two compositions, Horace Silver's "Peace" and Alejandro Garcia Cartula's "Preludio Corto No.2 For Piano (Tu Amor Era Falso)."
Also backed by unassuming drummer Marcus Gilmore and trumpeter/flugelhornist Mike Rodriguezboth of whom, despite not given much solo time, add color and texture to each pieceRubalcaba has surrounded himself with a top-of-the-line ensemble that has the feel of a big band or orchestra rather than a quintet, in the process redefining or doing away with the term Latin jazz. Indeed, it is as if Rubalcaba's saying: "This is just good, challenging music, so forget the genre." Highlights include an impeccable rendition of "Peace," "Hip Side," and "Infantil (Dedicated to John McLaughlin)."
Not taking anything away from the improvisations which are so appropriately intertwined with the compositions themselves, but like Andrew Hill's Dusk (Palmetto Records, 2000), Avatar is about the music and its architecture. Rather than being about the players per se, it's about the compositions and how each member or component of the quintet comes together to recreate them piece by piece, time and time again. With wonderful music and an even grander vision, Avatar is one of the top releases of this or any other year.
Personnel: Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano, keyboards; Yosvany Terry: alto, soprano and tenor saxophones, percussion; Mike Rodriguez: trumpet, flugelhorn; Matt Brewer: acoustic bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums.