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Journey to the Self: Gonzalo Rubalcaba journeys inward on his album 'Inner Voyage.'

Fantastic Voyage

Jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba takes an introspective road with new album

By Marianne Messina

IT'S EASY TO SEE why Gonzalo Rubalcaba's latest release on the Blue Note label is called Inner Voyage. Most of the songs have a delicate sound and their titles are names of close friends or family. The effect is impressionistic, yet as personal as a photo album. And this comes on the heels of the feisty Antiguo, a brash, eclectic suite of explorations: electronic fits and starts in "Eshun Agwe," Latino jazz fusion in "Circuito IV," delightful Yoruban singing set to African rhythms in "Ellioko," and an urban jungle of shock and rupture in "Circuito III."

The technically gifted Cuban native is not above pushing the range of his inner instrument as well. Some of his best performances are fraught with tension, be it rhythmical, tonal, or simply manual as in 1989's "Prelaudio Projecto Latino," a nimble piece of early solo work which pits one hand against the other.

But lately, Rubalcaba has played with a different kind of tension--the tension of silence and anticipation. In copious liner notes, Rubalcaba tries to explain the personal culture from which Inner Voyage evolves. He talks about "communication, answer, and surrender being the absolute elements of the unique act we call concert." His touring band often surprises critics for daring to take a song like "The Hard One" on the road. The song's complexity requires concentration, and more especially, trust between musicians. But these live connections are what Rubalcaba carries into the recording studio, because for him, the recording process is imbued with aloneness.

He associates the song "Here's That Rainy Day" with that same solitude. It seems painfully light, the bare piano a paused breath anticipating some infusion. But it is actually a matured response to "Cuatro Veinte" (Mi Gran Passion, 1989), in which the melody toys with space and then emerges plodding and dark, as if lost in a maze.

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The mature suggestion of Inner Voyage is that out of aloneness comes connection. The first and last songs on the CD are named for two of Rubalcaba's children and are attempts to capture the varied personalities of each child. There's a hang-back emptiness in these songs that evokes not a rendering, but a waiting, as if the biggest component of understanding is attention. The songs oscillate between silence and communication. In track after track, it is almost palpable; playing merges with listening, like quality time spent with a child.

This self-exploratory departure is just another bold artistic choice for Rubalcaba, who could easily have sat on his laurels and reworked the classical and Gillespie-era elements that served him so well in Mi Gran Passion. But that would be trading a formulaic kind of talent for the intrepid spark that once launched his career. The story goes, Rubalcaba was giving a live concert in which he improvised a variation of "Green Dolphin Street" (redubbed "Green Dolphin on the Street"). When bassist Charlie Haden caught the performance, he was so amazed that he arranged for the pianist to appear at key jazz festivals, and thus Rubalcaba went on the map.


Gonzalo Rubalcaba performs at the San Jose Jazz Festival on Sunday, Aug. 13, at noon on the Southwest Airlines Main Stage in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Admission is free. (888.SAN.JOSE)

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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