Honest to goodness music

Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba opens the Red Sea Jazz Festival later this month

(photo credit: ANNA TURAYEVA)
Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is quite simply one of the most dynamic and explosive performers to have graced the Red Sea Jazz Festival stage over its 32 years-andcounting history. Considering the glittering array of pantheonic artists that have strutted their polished stuff down South over the past three-plus decades, some might consider that more than a little heretical. But anyone who has seen Rubalcaba produce his magic live can testify to the man’s effusive charm and electrifying keyboard work.
The Cuban is one of the star attractions at the forthcoming festival, which for the first time has been pared down to three days (August 26-28) from its perennial four-day format. But what the program may have lost in terms of quantity is more than compensated for by the quality lined up by artistic director Eli Degibri. The stellar imports include such 24-carat acts as saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and preeminent 78-year-old evergreen pianist Herbie Hancock.
Playing solo must be one of the greatest artistic challenges of a jazz musician, but Rubalcaba’s lone show on August 26 – the festival curtain raiser at 7:15 p.m.
– should keep his audience duly riveted and enthralled.
If you have sampled any of the 55-year-old’s expansive oeuvre and noted an underlying percussive element to his ivory-tickling, you would have been right on the rhythmic money. As a wee lad, Rubalcaba started out on his road to musical excellence on drums.
“The piano came up when I was eight or nine years old,” he explains. “It wasn’t because I wanted to play the piano. I never put my eyes on the piano.”
That last statement needs a little qualifying. Rubalcaba comes from a family seeped in music-making.
“I never had any other wish than to become a musician. In my family, every day what I saw was music,” he recalls. Considering his genes, that is hardly surprising.
My father, older brothers and uncles on both sides, were involved mainly in music. And not only music. They were also involved in dance, painting – so, art in general.”
And if the family surroundings weren’t enough to help the youngster on his way, there was even more support from the wider local circle. “The neighborhood of Havana where I grew up was, and is still, well-known for its musicians,” adds the pianist. “So I heard a lot of folkloric music, and saw people dancing art parties.
There was just so much music.”
It didn’t take the lad too long to get in on the act himself. “I remember my first experience playing music was when I was four or five years old, playing AfroCuban percussion. So I played drums and all these percussion instruments before I put my hands on a piano." WHEN RUBALCABA finally got around to exploring the sonic possibilities offered by what was to become his professional instrument of choice, it was more a result of emotion than intent.
“The piano was always there, at home, because my father was a piano player. And my middle brother, who was eight years older than me, was also playing the piano by then.”
Even so, Rubalcaba’s infant musical aspirations remained firmly rooted in the percussive avenue of expression. “I had the feeling that the piano was too difficult for me,” he says. “My mind was focused on drums and percussion.”
Eventually, officialdom pointed Rubalcaba in the right direction.
“When I went to a new school, I had a music test, but they said I was too young to go to the percussion department. They gave me two choices – violin or piano. I didn’t want either of them,” Rubalcaba chuckles. Maternal intervention settled matters.
“She said I should try the piano.
She told me that it would be useful if, for example, I wanted to compose later. She said that every musician should know how to play the piano, and that I should try it for a while, and that we would see later how I felt. I agreed, not because of the explanation she gave to me, but because of the love I have for her. She was right. I said ‘Yes, if you’re happy with that, let’s do it.’” Rubalcaba has been doing it, with great success, ever since. Close to 40 albums as leader, and countless high-profile synergies, with such jazz icons as bassists Charlie Haden and Ron Carter, pianist Chick Corea and guitarist Al Di Meola, not to mention nine Grammy Awards, the pianist is a bone fide member of the jazz A-list roster.
But even with his undoubted gifts and wealth of experience in the jazz field, Rubalcaba says it still takes work to produce the goods – especially when there is no one else on stage with you – to share the limelight and the onus of keeping the audience on board. “You have the pressure and responsibility to keep the people interested in what you are doing. But to get that you have to be in real connection with yourself. Before you think about people and the audience and whether people like what you do, you have to be serious about what you do, and honest. That’s the most important.”
With a couple of one-man efforts in his lengthy discography, Rubalcaba is clearly well-equipped to produce an entertaining and compelling solo performance in Eilat later this month.
Meanwhile, on the local side of the Red Sea Jazz Festival agenda, you can find veteran pianistvocalist Mati Caspi teaming up with the Eyal Vilner Big Band, a reprise for early 1970s left-field pop-rock trio Ketzat Acheret, Andalusian– influenced jazz pianist Omri Mor and longtime New York resident Israeli bassist Omar Avital and his Project Qantar. Add to that French accordionist Richard Galliano, drummer Johnathan Blake and British acid-jazz pioneers Incognito, it is not difficult to see Degibri packing ‘em in at the Port of Eilat.
For tickets and more information go to http://redseajazz.co.il.