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Gonzalo Rubalcaba first glimpsed the New York skyline in 1993, when he was granted permission to travel from his native Cuba to attend a memorial service for Dizzy Gillespie. Ironically, Gillespie had been angling to bring the young pianist to the U.S. to tour with him, but had been repeatedly denied the proper permits. A year later, Rubalcaba received a work visa and an invitation to play Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with his Cuban quartet, as well as with two more of his jazz-world champions, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette.
“That was, to me, a moment that I dreamed of, to see myself in New York,” says Rubalcaba, who has reunited with drummer DeJohnette and another early supporter, bassist Ron Carter, on his recent release Skyline (5Passion). The 2018 session took place at New York’s Power Station studios with another longtime friend and associate, recording engineer Jim Anderson.
Of course, Rubalcaba’s situation has improved dramatically since his first forays in the Big Apple. The pianist and his wife, Maria, live in an airy, spacious house in the South Florida suburb of Coral Springs, where they raised three now-grown children. He’s performed all over the world, earned Grammys for his own recordings, as well as for his contributions to others’, and has operated his 5Passion record label for a decade.
The couple greet me from the open garage door of their home in this quiet gated community, its winding streets named for trees. Gonzalo and I settle into white-cushioned seats in the high-ceilinged living room, with one wall handsomely appointed in stone, another containing a sliding-glass door that leads to a patio and pool. Fit and trim at 58, wearing a loose-fitting button-down shirt, skinny jeans and sneakers and sporting blue-framed eyeglasses, Rubalcaba looks very much like a hip, suburban dad who might be seen walking and biking the neighborhood.
“The album, as I see it, is a reunion,” Rubalcaba says of Skyline. “And also it’s an homage, it’s a tribute from me to Jack and Ron. They were, and still are, some of my heroes. They helped me a lot when I just arrived here, even before I arrived here to live.”
Rubalcaba is delighted to be working with his old colleagues again and had been searching for an opportunity to do so. Thirty years have passed since the pianist recorded The Blessing, a breakthrough trio album with DeJohnette and Haden, and it’s been nearly that long since 1993’s Diz, a tribute album to Gillespie, featuring (and co-produced by) Carter. “I was looking for a point where I could call them back again to the studio or stage and play together 30 years later,” Rubalcaba says. “Just to say, through the music, thank you.”
For that same reason, Rubalcaba requested his colleagues bring some particular songs of their own to the session. Threaded through the album, which also includes a couple of traditional Cuban pieces and Rubalcaba originals — and one lively group improv, captured by Anderson who wisely left the tape rolling during a break — are compositions by Carter and DeJohnette that date back decades: “A Quiet Place,” from Carter’s 1978 recording Songs for You, and “Gypsy” from his 1979 release Parade; and DeJohnette’s “Silver Hollow” from 1978’s New Directions (and reprised on The Blessing) and “Ahmad the Terrible” from 1984’s Album Album.
Rubalcaba was in his teens and early 20s when this music was first released. Living in Cuba, he had no access to the recordings, which were forbidden by the government. Still, foreign musicians would smuggle in cassettes, which were eagerly copied and passed around by Rubalcaba and his friends, and a half-hour radio broadcast (hosted by Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez’s dad) supplied a limited but soul-sustaining weekday infusion of jazz. Rubalcaba certainly knew of Carter and DeJohnette, especially from their work with Miles Davis, but he didn’t hear their own recordings until years later, while touring outside of Cuba. “When I had the ability to start buying music for myself and traveling around the world, I tried to get as much information as I could,” he says. “Then I discovered a lot of stuff.”
The pianist culled a couple of tunes from his own songbook, as well, both of which are close to his heart: “Siempre Maria,” which he wrote for his wife back in the ’80s, and “Promenade,” which he dedicated to Carter. “I don’t know why I had that image of Ron Carter, just walking,” he says of his inspiration for the latter, which first appeared on his 1999 release Inner Voyage. “He’s elegant, a kind of classic gentleman. The way he dresses, the way he communicates, the way he plays is connected always with elegance. And this is what I tried to put inside [the song], that kind of movement.”
He selected the traditional pieces with equal intention. Miguel Matamoros’ beloved “Lagrimas Negras” and José Antonio Méndez’s “Novia Mia” represent distinct eras in the history of Cuban music. Rubalcaba challenged himself to find new expression in songs he’d been listening to since childhood and was aided by his bandmates, who approached the material with fresh ears. “I just said, ‘OK, I would like to do this Cuban piece, it’s very well known,’” he says. “‘But what I want you to do is just to add what you think should be in there. So you play what you want to play.’ And this is what happened. Three or four takes. And then we decide, ‘That one.’”
Years ago, Rubalcaba was stung by criticism that his music wasn’t “Latin enough.” However, the pianist’s stature, among critics, audiences and fellow musicians, has grown exponentially as many have caught up with his wide-ranging approach. Cuban music laces his DNA — his culture, his training, his life on the island inform so many of his aesthetic choices — as far from it as he may venture.
“When you say ‘Cuban music,’ there are still some people who need the stereotype, some mode that tells them you are Cuban, that what you are doing is Cuban or not,” he says. “And to me it’s impossible. I don’t pretend to compete with anybody else, to believe what I do is Cuban or not Cuban. To me, the most important thing is to move people spiritually, emotionally. After that, if you think of this as English music or Cuban music or Afro-Cuban music, or whatever, at the end, it’s not relevant.”
Such concerns were far from his mind as Rubalcaba convened with Carter and DeJohnette for this pre-COVID session. As someone who’s never really comfortable in the studio, he nonetheless enjoyed the experience. “It was very relaxing. Everybody was in a very good mood,” Rubalcaba says. “Jack is always telling me stories about everything he loves, boxing, Muhammad Ali. And Ron has a very particular humor. I love to see when he laughs; he’s normally very serious. And when you see him laugh, it’s a sign that he’s comfortable, that he’s in a great environment. It was a reunion that I think everyone wanted to happen. We were there to make music, but also to laugh, to eat together, to talk, to enjoy the moment.” - Bob Weinberg