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Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Avatar

J Hunter By

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Listening to Avatar—pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba's first release since 2006—is kind of like eating unshelled lobster: It takes hard work and a will of iron to get to the meat. And while that meat may be succulent to some, the taste may not be for everybody.

The problem originates with the "shell" that surrounds most of the seven tunes on Avatar. Rubalcaba gets some terrific performances from his quintet, and does his usual stellar job at the piano. Unfortunately, there was a conscious decision to make most of the heads exceedingly dense—not dense in terms of intelligence (the compositions are nothing if not smart), but dense in terms of the amount of musical information the listener must process right from the outset.

"Looking in Perspective"—one of three tunes by Yosvany Terry—sets the tone: Prefaced by a conflicted in-the-clear solo by Rubalcaba, the rhythm section leads the listener into a signature melody that features the frontline performing immensely complex charts; that Terry and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez executes the tight harmony and rapid-fire lines is admirable, but the charts themselves are unnecessarily intricate. The piece eventually breaks out into an enticing conversation, where Rubalcaba and the frontline expertly pass the solo between themselves, but not before the opening sequence is repeated twice more, which is twice too many.

This enforced convolution is repeated throughout the disc, taking the edge off some very nice performances. Both Terry's "This Is It" and Rubalcaba's "Infantil" have a serious groove at the base, and a pronounced feeling of spontaneity, while bassist Matt Brewer's "Aspiring to Normalcy" employs marvelous subtlety as it asks simple-but-searing questions. Again, the over-complexity of the pieces hobbles them with a sense that the players are trying to prove they are smarter than the listener. The fact that all the pieces are long-form doesn't help matters, and the labyrinthine closer, "Preludio Corto #2 for Piano," leaves the listener feeling like the survivor of a very long, occasionally interesting lecture.

This is a shame, because the meat inside Avatar is pretty darned tasty. Rubalcaba's powers of expression are as vibrant as ever: His trio take on Horace Silver's "Peace" is marvelously intimate, and his solo on "This Is It" is both percussive and powerful, even though he's not trying to be either. Terry's reed work is electric, and is a perfect partner to Rodriguez. For his part, Rodriguez's flugelhorn on "Normalcy" makes the protagonist's sorrow seem even deeper. Brewer and drummer Marcus Gilmore transcend the music's denseness to offer a rock-solid foundation, with Gilmore delivering solos that are both substantive and appropriate.

Like Charlie Haden's Land of the Sun (Verve, 2004)—Haden's second collaboration with Rubalcaba—Avatar is kept from greatness by its own best intentions. The best moments are the simplest ones, and they should definitely be experienced. It's getting to that meat that's the problem.

Track Listing: Looking in Retrospective; This Is It; Aspiring to Normalcy; Peace; Hip Side; Infantil; Preludio Corto No. 2 for Piano (Tu Amor Era Falso).

Personnel: Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano, keyboards; Yosvany Terry: alto, soprano & tenor saxophones, percussion; Mike Rodriguez: trumpet, flugelhorn; Matt Brewer: acoustic bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums.

Title: Avatar | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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