Rapsodia

I write this in addition to an article in Jazzwise (Feb 2018) – as I enjoyed the interview with Brian Glasser while having much more left to say!  I first heard this album in the year of its release on Blue Note – and it was a revelation on several levels. I listened again (and have had to reorder it and put it in a safe as I have not idea what happened to my original copy! …well several house moves might have explained it but many other albums have survived!). This was on CD (I was not online then) and on the recommendation of several musicians who had only just heard of Gonzalo. The album was eventually grammy nominated in 1995 and features these musicians to make up what I think is his seminal quartet: Reynaldo Melian (Trumpet), Felipe Cabrera (Bass), and Julio Barreto (Drums).

I had never heard both a style of piano so convincingly powerful in attack and intent since my introduction to jazz via the stylings of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. So this was another moment to dig into an album (and this one filled my listening – for the rest of that year and beyond). The piano playing reminded me of the absolute command of the aforementioned legends – but then being filtered through a Cuban music sensibility (as if Salsa, Cha Cha, Mambo and more had been put through a fractal synth – being selected and reassembled in constantly surprising ways!) , and different eras of Classical piano (in this case I can hear the echoes of the Russian school that would have produced Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Richter, Gilels etc). The idea of a certain kind of danceable but incendiary energy in the improvising was evenly matched with prepared composed sections that demanded super precision. Each of these elements – in this stylistic approach – would have been highly satisfying to me – on their own. But together – they opened up a sound world in which high precision, and controlled abandon via an experimental landscape – was as exciting and different to me as the first time Cecil Taylors music made several lights come on for me. Melodic ideas made reference to Monk, Prokofiev, Palmieri, Valdez… harmonies from Messaien, Hancock, Mompou …rhythm from a number of different influences within each of these regions: Cuba, Africa, the US and Europe.  And a rhythmic attack that even when I got to see them live a few years later – had an acoustic energy that was very complimentary to me – to the drum n bass that was soon to become a more overt influence in culture here. There is also just a touch of synthesizer usage and a filmic quality to several of the tunes structures ( wonder if Weather Reports’ famous performances in Cuba in the late 70s made any impression..). Echoes of both the humour and synth flavours of Pascoal , Zawinul, and George Duke are in there for me in Tributo and Chancletera.  The intro to Circuito lays out the heart of a powerfully rounded pianistic vision. Cadences lead not to where you think – and once the band joins in him – you are on a hypersonic journey (long before they gave this name to the trains we might be riding soon ..!). Santo Canto shows a crystalline, gentle and patient approach to a more balladic tune and the virtuosity surrounding it make the contrast very large. Simplicity and economic clarity rule the universe of this beautiful piece. Moose the Mooch displays how a Charlie Parker composition is viewed in the Rubalcaba universe – just as epic but opening up new and distinctive avenues that have influenced subsequent generations (a number of whom Gonzalo has performed with or had in his groups). The gait and contour of the melody become a spine from which an original Cuban approach to rhythmic accent, re-harmonising and a fresh form for a long know tune all spring forth together. Rapsodia Cubana uses epic amounts of rhythmic sleight-of-hand right from the start – yet we also have a great sense of a goodbye song as the final salsa influenced vamp is used for lift-off…

I got to see this group live at a club called the Rhyhmic in 1996. As I had been extremely lucky to be involved with a jam session there (as a member of the Tomorrow’s Warriors) – the personal issue of seeing many pianists bring their own sound to a piano I had gotten to know well was also fascinating. The gig was phenomenal (as the band and music had developed from what was already a classic album for me). But I have a weird feeling accompanying the memory as so few people were at the gig ! That is the subject for another blog…maybe the group had not been to the UK in this format before, or there was little or poor promotion or both…I do remember Mark and Mike Mondesir being right at the front. So I was in the right place but scratching my head as to why it was relatively empty. An amazing venue – it did soon close (and it would have been a fantastic place to continue to represent music of this calibre).

So this album not only joined dots from the likes of Chucho, Eddie, Dizzy, Machito, Cachao, Tito etc to where we were – it opened up my awareness to the ongoing evolution of Cuban music (years before I was able to go there for myself). A few years later I was able to start to play with a number of incredible musicians from Cuba – including two from this very album. Julio Baretto took part in several gigs I also did with Steve Coleman in 1999 (after taking part in his Sonic Language Of Myth album earlier that year). He was playing percussion on these shows (but I vaguely remember there was a two drumkit battle between him and Sean Rickman on one encore!). A beautiful spirit from a very musical family – by the time of this meeting – the quartet with Gonzalo had come to an end. He is one of the great Cuban rhythm masters whose groove and accuracy are effortless (in a way that people who witnessed Art Tatum would say they couldn’t understand the relative relaxation but yet such a virtuosic result). Since then I have been able to perform with other greats from the same incredible island – my great friend Omar Puente, Ernesto Simpson, Yelfris Valdez, Javier Campos, Dayme Arocena and recently the bass player on this album Felipe Cabrera. Felipe and I play in the group – Julien Lourau and the Groove Retrievers for the last two years. It does not surprise me given the quality of his note choices in weaving the ideal support for people like Dizzy Gilespie and Gonzalo amongst others – that he himself is a great composer (please checkout his tunes ‘Samuel’ and ‘Congo’ on the Groove Retrievers debut).It has and continues to be a pleasure to have witnessed, play with , and learn from the power, control, quality and deep expression that flows through the sound of both Julio and Felipe’s talents. So this has kept the album in my spirit so many years down the line.

Like all the great albums that become personal landmarks in terms of their influence – this one made me look at the piano renewed. It throws down a challenge to every musician and composer to spare nothing in pursuit of your own language…and to do this with musicians who are committed to this as deeply as the leader. This album as in love with pin sharp accuracy as it is with risk, with harmony as it is with dissonance, with absolute collective symbiosis as it is with the individual , with a wide number of traditions and unashamed singularity and innovation. Gonzalo – like Charles Lloyd –  has subsequently had a number of stellar bands – but this one occupies a special place in my sensibility. There is a biographical website being developed by Gary Galimidi  – and I look forward to seeing how that develops.

I can nothing further except – to please check out the album Rapsodia!!

(Any chance of this coming out on vinyl ?!!)