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Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Avatar

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Although his sound is as blazing and inspiring as ever, Gonzalo Rubalcaba's new album may mark something of a departure. Recorded at the famed New York studio of the same name, Avatar provides listeners with a unique melting pot of songs and styles, while also implying new freedom and possibility for the renowned Cuban pianist. Only one of the seven tunes on this album is a Rubalcaba original, but the majority are written by his bandmates. The virtuosic turn that was a signature of his younger musical persona has been replaced by an ensemble-mindedness: here, Rubalcaba appears to be turning outward.

Avatar opens with two compositions for the quintet by saxophonist Yosvany Terry, each one a different take on the same angular 5/4 bass melody. Following Rubalcaba's cryptic entry on "Looking in Retrospective," the full band bursts in with a tight, warm sound, hugging every curve in the piece while losing none of their bristling speed. Marcus Gilmore's drumming is particularly responsible for this brilliant unity: he manages to allude to the Latin rhythms that anchor Rubalcaba's brand of jazz, while also giving the ensemble space to experiment in an open, nebulous environment. At certain moments, the quintet sounds like they're making a foray into a very free, boundless kind of jazz. But just as quickly, Gilmore raps out a quick cue on the snare drum and they're back in an intense, dazzling groove.

Beginning on his early albums and even carrying on into the late 1990s, Rubalcaba placed paramount importance on texture. As a younger musician, he played the piano with a full, honeyed tone, even on up- tempo pieces. This sound is still apparent when Avatar slows down for ballads: the trio setting of Horace Silver's "Peace" recalls the hovering rubato of tunes like "I Remember Clifford" from the 1995 release Diz (Blue Note). But now, the Cuban master's pianism is principally concerned with a more complicated set of musical possibilities.

Essentially, time is the core concept for this record. From the three fast tunes by Yosvany Terry, which focus on embracing tight ensemble grooves over an almost-inscrutable downbeat, to the delicacy of "Aspiring to Normalcy" and "Peace," which hover ethereally outside of time, the Rubalcaba band fashions its aesthetic out of a shimmering, ever-changing vision of what meter can be. Yet, even when the sound gets propulsive, abstract, or cutting-edge, filled with the New York City in which they recorded this set, they never lose track of certain essences of the Latin groove: a deep rhythmic pocket and a lyrical virtuosity, even on the most inventive, burning tunes.

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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