It’s only been recently that American audiences on the East Coast have been able to hear Cuban-born pianist and phenomenon Gonzalo Rubalcaba away from their CD players and in a concert setting. For two nights, Rubalcaba and his trio took the stage at Ann Arbor’s The Bird of Paradise, a club that has served as the town’s bastion of mainstream jazz for over 18 years now. Without much formality, the pianist and his trio (bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ignacio Berroa) presented two sets each evening, this reviewer catching the Saturday evening performances. Clearly, Rubalcaba’s serious demeanor communicated a sense of authority over the music, but unfortunately this also meant that there was a feeling of distance placed between the pianist and his audience that ultimately had an impact on the overall results. Or as a Down Beat reviewer once put it, the question becomes one of how you discuss music that is technically accomplished, but emotionally void. It didn’t help that not even as much as a “thank you” was muttered by anyone in the group over the course of the two sets. Compositions from Rubalcaba’s latest Blue Note effort, Supernova, served as a basis for most of the evening’s improvisations. “El Cadete Constitucional” got the most overt response from the audience, with bassist Henriquez bringing some smiles as he bowed “Stars and Stripes Forever” at one point in the chart’s form. Drummer Ignacio Berroa was particularly remarkable and his musical and incendiary solo spots were the highpoints of both shows. In total, there was no question as to the high degree of artistry that permeated Rubalcaba’s Latin explorations, but it was up to each listener to decide whether or not the pianist’s methods fit his or her personal tastes. As for this reviewer, maybe it’s just best to say that the jury is still out on this one.
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