Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Rubalcaba, Gonzalo (Gonzalo Julio Gonzalez Fonseca)

Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba has built a career, and with it, a musical bridge, to span the rich musical traditions of his native Cuba with North American jazz. Grounded in a deep command of classical technique, his playing can go from silent to explosive, and from subdued to mind-boggling, in a flash.

Gonzalo Julio Gonzalez Fonseca was born on May 27th, 1963 in Havana, Cuba. Rubalcaba was born into an extremely rich musical family. He is the grandson of Cuban trombonist Jacobo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, who composed a number of famous danzones including El cadete constitucional and Linda Mercedes. His father was pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba and his two brothers were also musicians, Jesús a pianist and William a bassist.

Gonzalo grew up immersing himself in the musical traditions of Cuban music as well as the music of jazz pianists like Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk. Early in his life, Gonzalo studied both piano and drums. At the age of nine he began his classical music studies at the Manuel Saumell Conservatory and studied piano during his teenage years at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory.

In 1980, Rubalcaba toured Africa and France with Orquesta Aragón, a dance band originally formed by Orestes Aragón Cantero in late 1939, which still continues to perform. In 1983, Rubalcaba obtained his degree in musical composition from Havana's Institute of Fine Arts.

It was also during this time that he formed his group Grupo Proyecto, which featured some of the finest Cuban musicians of his generation including saxophonist/flutist Rafael Carrasco, bassist Felipe Cabrera and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernández. Rubalcaba first recorded for Cuba's national record company, Egrem, in Havana during the early 1980s. Several of these sessions have been released as Concierto Negro while a series of solo piano performances have been released as Inicio.

Grupo Proyecto had its international premiere on a European tour in 1985. The group played several high level engagements including the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Berlin Jazz Festival and at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott's. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie "discovered" Rubacalba at a jam session at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, when he visited the island to perform at the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival. Gillespie then invited Rubacalba to join him onstage at the festival, and the two became friends. In 1993, Rubacalba was a pallbearer at Gillespie's funeral.

In 1986, Rubalcaba met American jazz bassist Charlie Haden while he was in Havana. Through Haden, Rubalcaba came to the attention of Blue Note label head Bruce Lundvall, creating an alliance that lasted over twenty years as EMI/Japan and Blue Note were his main labels before, during and after his immigration to the United States. Also in 1986, Rubalcaba began recording for the German label Messidor.

The German company released three albums by the young pianist. On Mi Gran Pasion, in 1987, Rubalcaba shines on the track "Cuatro Veinte." This song is a solo opus that features sprinklings of rhythm 'n' blues and classical music with virtuosic melodic figures. On "Principe Nino," Rubalcaba is joined by a full band. This song features Rubalcaba in an ensemble atmosphere and more importantly shows his ability to blend in as an ensemble player, particularly during the cha-cha-cha section of the tune.

On the 1990 live release Discovery: Live at Montreux, Rubalcaba displays his blistering command of the piano with a captivating rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't." On this track, Rubalcaba combines the melodic expressions of McCoy Tyner with his own harmonic sensibilities to create one of the most moving versions of the song recorded in the modern era. Rubacalba and Haden are joined by drummer Paul Motian for his rendition of the standard "All the Things You Are."

In 1991, Blue Note produced Rubalcaba's first official U.S. release, The Blessing. This album featured Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Several songs of note from this include the group's blazing interpretation of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and DeJohnette's "Silver Hollow."

In 1992, Rubalcaba moved to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic with his wife Maria in order to make travelling easier. In 1996, he and his family relocated to Miami, Florida. Rubalcaba was scheduled to perform on April 30th, 1996 at Gusman Center in Miami, but more than 200 protesters violently protested outside because Rubalcaba didn't openly denounce the regime of Fidel Castro. Unlike many Cubans in the United States, Rubalcaba had left Cuba legally, rather than risk his life to defect. The concert went ahead as scheduled but similar events that week at the Center were cancelled.

The early to mid 1990s were a period of growth for Rubalcaba. Being able to openly travel to the United States was extremely beneficial for his career. He made his U.S. concert debut on May 13th, 1993 at Lincoln Center. Joined by Haden and DeJohnette, the live recording was documented on the 1993 Blue Note release Imagine. Other notable releases from this period of Rubalcaba's career include Diz, a tribute album to the late trumpeter. Songs of note from Diz include "Con Alma," "Donna Lee" and "I Remember Clifford."

In the balance of the decade, Rubacalba continued to tour but his recording output slowed. Aside from the 1998 recording Antiguo and his 1999 Blue Note album Inner Voyage, Rubalcaba didn't release any new material until the 2000s. In early 2001, Verve released the collaborative album Nocturne between he and Charlie Haden. The album featured reinterpretations of boleros and won a Latin Grammy Award in 2002.

In 2004 and 2005, Rubalcaba released the albums Paseo and Solo for Blue Note. This was followed up with 2008's Avatar, which was his first interaction with some of New York's young generation of jazz players. Featuring drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Matt Brewer, the trio is also joined by trumpeter/flugelhornist Mike Rodriguez and alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry. This album features complex material, dense arrangements and heady improvisations from the ensemble. Songs of note include "This Is It" and Horace Silver's "Peace."

In a career that has spanned several countries and three decades, Rubalcaba has demonstrated an ability to combine his strong musical heritage with an appetite for learning and evolution, creating a complex hybrid of jazz, Cuban and classical music.

Select Discography

As Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Mi Gran Pasion (Messidor, 1987)

Live in Havana (Messidor, 1989)

Discovery: Live at Montreux (Blue Note, 1990)

The Blessing (Blue Note, 1991)

Rhapsodia (Blue Note, 1992)

Imagine (Blue Note, 1993)

Diz (Blue Note, 1994)

Antiguo (Somethin’ Else, 1998)

Inner Voyage (Blue Note, 1999)

Supernova (Blue Note, 2003)

Paseo (Blue Note, 2004)

Solo (Blue Note, 2005)

Avatar (Blue Note, 2008)

Contributor: Jared Pauley