Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Paseo
Occasionally I like to take advantage of hindsight and see what appraisal I've given to an album long after the review has run and the disc has had time to remain or reappear (or neither) in my player. What I often find is that a disc I've assessed as "good," to eschew more loaded and potentially confusing adjectives, doesn't necessarily have the durability and enduring allure one might expect from a "good" disc, even though it could not by any stretch of the malicious imagination be called a "bad" disc. This is because an album can be very strong on the scale that measures technical skill, passion, interpretation and voice, and yet utterly lacking when it comes to adventurousness, vision and daring. Star ratings and Manichean good/bad distinctions should therefore always be put in their proper context, and credit given where it's due.
Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is, quite simply, one of the intrepid types. He struck me as such the first time I, as a relative newcomer to jazz, saw him perform in a trio at Dmitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle back in 2000 (he was touring on the back of Inner Voyage then), and that definition of him has been firmly burned into my mind by his subsequent live and studio recordings as leader and sideman, among them Supernova , Charlie Haden's Nocturne , and now Paseo. He usually has at least one foot planted outside the conventional confines of his art. What Rubalcaba attempts on these albums does not always work, but the fact remains that he leaps where others tiptoe.
Paseo is unique among Rubalcaba's discography in that he revisits directly the music of his homeland. Not that he hasn't always operated within the Afro-Cuban mode; but here, years after his emigration to America, he has struck up an intelligent and challenging conversation with the music that is now a part of the very foundations of his culture and likewise his personal development. The mere act signifies that he has enough confidence in his own wisdom and originality to tinker with the fundamentals. He also feels he's matured sufficiently to tackle some of his own material for a second time ("Santo Canto" from 1992's Rapsodia , for instance), even retitling "Supernova II" as "Quasar."
Kicking off Paseo is "El Guerrillero," or "the soldier," a well-known Cuban folk tune. With a sly wink, Rubalcaba intros simply enough; but then he commences to dissect this familiar and unsophisticated melody in as many ways as possible, savoring single notes and toying with chord variations. Luis Felipe Lamoglia later follows this breezy, lighthearted lead while Rubalcaba girds the saxophonist's solo with firm, insistent statements that are comically overzealous. And is that a Jew's harp twanging away in the background, or just one of the quirky synthesizer effects? To treat this music too reverentially, Rubalcaba acknowledges, would be missing the point of it.
The pianist takes a distinctly Monk-informed route on his colorful, stuttering interpretation of the Cuban composer Hilario González's "Preludio en Conga No.1," featured here as just "Prelude in Conga," which slowly segues into Rubalcaba's self-penned, somewhat ungainly "Homage to Hilario." Longtime drummer Ignacio Berroa and electric bassist Armando Gola drive this second part - Berroa fleet and delicate, almost dainty, Gola gurgling and bubbling. The surprise comes at the end: a shimmering electronic splash and synthesized marching band horns.
The bright tropicality of "Paseo con Fula" is tempered only by its casualness. Lamoglia goes note-for- note on an extended passage with Rubalcaba, repeatedly spelling out the gently zig-zagging melody; and this is followed by Rubalcaba's fairly tame keyboard solo. Along with the funky boost of the electric bass and Berroa's zesty drumming, as well as lush keyboard emphases, it sounds too self-consciously fusion for its own good. The same characteristic could be said to affect the fiery, shifting jam "Quasar." But Paseo shouldn't be considered a foray into fusion per se, rather a resolutely Afro-Cuban jazz recording that incorporates elements associated with fusion. Admittedly, there are still moments where the rationale seems as questionable as Bill Evans and his thankfully brief affair with the electric piano.
"Meanwhile" and "Bottoms Up" skittishly dance around either side of the primary melody. Teeming with intricately packed solos and group dynamics, these are two of the more convoluted and demanding compositions to be found on Paseo. "Encantation" is the album's hidden gem, a samba-like ballad that is both sensual and ambient. "Los Bueyes" closes out the album in the same way as it opened, a quaint, folky tune being subjected to various mutations and finally restored to its former state, a good-natured pat on the behind as it scampers off.
All these songs, regardless of their respective highs and lows, have the advantage of merging together without sacrificing their self-contained distinctiveness. I think this is why Paseo feels so wonderfully unified and seamless, and also why the album's 75-minute running time seems like half that, despite my recent grumblings elsewhere about the longwindedness of other discs. Rubalcaba and his first-rate New Cuban Quartet do not land on their feet after every new venturerare is the artist who canbut even their most outlandish moves are executed with commensurate grace.
Track listing: 1. El Guerrillero (5:31); 2. Prelude in Conga/Homage to Hilario (8:02); 3. Bottoms Up (7:36); 4. Sea Change [also See, So Far] (6:53); 5. Paseo con Fula (10:22); 6. Meanwhile (9:47); 7. Santo Canto [also Encantation] (7:57); 8. Quasar (14:08); 9. Los Bueyes (4:42).
Personnel: Gonzalo Rubalcaba (piano, keyboards, percussion); Luis Felipe Lamoglia (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones); Jose Armando Gola (electric bass); Ignacio Berroa (drums).