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Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio in Seattle

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Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio in Seattle
Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley
August 8th, 2000

I don’t have many pet peeves, but this is one of them: Why is it that so many jazz musicians, when performing live, neglect to say much of anything to the audience? Is this a phenomenon passed down from the bebop era, a time when many jazz musicians played the role of cryptic, illusive outsider? Is it the influence of Miles Davis, who often exhibited a detached, coolly observant on-stage presence? What gives?
Perhaps it’s just that a number of jazz musicians are, by nature, more on the introspective side. And one could argue that, ideally, we should just let the music speak for itself. This would certainly fit the bill for Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Cuban-born pianist who has been wowing American jazz fans for the past decade. Gonzalo’s music has always, to these ears, had a certain inwardness about it. Not to say that it can’t be intense, even incendiary, at times–Gonzalo wouldn’t be Gonzalo without those volcanic left-hand rumbles and screaming upper-register runs. Still, even the tempestuous stuff is framed by the pianist’s larger musical vision, one that prizes introspection and attention to detail as much as outward displays of technical bravura.
Rubalcaba, joined by trio-mates Ignacio Berroa (drums) and Jeff Chambers (bass) visited Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle last week for a six night set. It seems that Gonzalo has established quite a following here in the Northwest–when I arrived at the Alley shortly before 8:00, the club was packed. It was quite noticeable that folks had been anticipating this performance.

Gonzalo did not disappoint. Additionally, I must say that the trio, as a whole, exhibited an empathy that is rare in most working groups. Many of the tunes they performed were Rubalcaba originals from his latest album, Inner Voyage, including “Yolanda Anas,” a pretty ballad penned for his young daughter; “Promenade,” an in-the-pocket swinger dedicated to Ron Carter; the iconoclastic, Tyner-esque “Blues Lundvall”; and a very pretty reading of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” featuring a long intro by Gonzalo. The trio ended the set with an otherworldly performance of Gonzalo’s own “The Hard One,” with its rapid-fire melody and tortuously intricate structure. Rubalcaba navigated this treacherous tune with ease, pounding out sonorous fifths low down on the keyboard, and executing thrilling left-hand runs up high, a la Kenny Kirkland.

Yet for all of Rubalcaba’s fire and flair, there still remains that inwardness, that sense of quiet introspection. Witness, for example, the way he voices chords on ballads and mid-tempo tunes: He favors simple, left-hand voicings over the thick, compact clusters popularized by Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (among others). Often, he’ll play short countermelodies with his left hand that complement what he’s doing with his right; or he’ll just play guide tones with his left hand, emphasizing the harmonic motion of the piece being played. It’s a very sensitive, very precise approach, one that I found interesting in a day and age where so many pianists (this one included) just thwack out chords in the left hand that might or might not have something to do with their right-hand improvising. With Gonzalo, left hand and right hand are more directly dependent on each other. The only other pianist that I can think of who’s doing something similar–if I’m allowed to make a comparison–is Brad Mehldau, whose playing has often been labeled as “classically” influenced.

Back to the show. The only thing that had me a bit irked was that Gonzalo 1) didn’t name the tunes he was playing; and 2) didn’t say much of anything to the audience. But how can I complain, when the trio performed such a quietly perfect set? This was the kind of show where the musicians take the stage, perform a killer set with determination and diligence, and leave as quietly as they came in. And when the music speaks for itself with such assurance, as it does with Gonzalo Rubalcaba...well, who’s arguing?

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