Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba made history on May 14 with a triumphant American debut at New York City’s Lincoln Center. And somewhere in heaven, Dizzy Gillespie must have been smiling. Gillespie, a longtime champion of Latin music, tried to bring Rubalcaba to the United States in 1989, calling him the greatest pianist he had heard in more than a decade. But his plans were thwarted by Washington’s hostile relations with socialist Cuba. When Gillespie died in January, the U.S. state department granted the Cuban a one-day visa so that he could attend the funeral. But Rubalcaba remained shut out as a performer until the music industry successfully lobbied for the concert this spring. Even then, the terms of his visa meant that the artist could not be paid for his performance, which drew a prolonged standing ovation. Still, 30-year-old Rubalcaba, who is performing at jazz festivals in Toronto Qune 30) and Montreal Quly 2), will surely continue to rise above such obstacles. “He’s overwhelming,” says John Norris, publisher of the Toronto jazz magazine Coda. “He’s like a young Oscar Peterson—people are blown away by his virtuosity.”
Through a legal loophole, Rubalcaba’s recordings have found a way to sidestep the U.S. blockade against doing business with Cubans. He is officially signed to Japan’s Toshiba-EMI, whose U.S. subsidiary, New York’s renowned Blue Note label, has released four of the pianist’s albums. Each recording has made Billboard magazine’s jazz charts. And critics constantly compare Rubalcaba to such keyboard greats as Peterson, McCoy Tyner and, especially, Keith Jarrett, who is also performing at the Toronto and Montreal festivals. Classically trained, Rubalcaba is both a composer and an interpreter, as comfortable with jazz standards as he is with pop favorites. On his most recent album, Suite 4 y 20, he brings a percussive accent to Perfidia and a stately elegance to The Beatles’ Here, There and Everywhere.
A self-described child of the Cuban Revolution, Rubalcaba was born in 1963, four years after Fidel Castro took power. Growing up in a musical family, he was immersed in Cuban traditions. His father, pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba, performed with the bandleader who invented the cha-cha, while his grandfather Jacobo is one of the country’s best-known composers. Speaking last week through a translator on the phone from Colombia, where he was performing,
Rubalcaba recalled that he grew up “seeing music not just as entertainment, but as a serious discipline. And yet I was never pressured to play any instrument.”
Nor was he restricted to learning only Cuban music. After taking up the piano at age 8, Rubalcaba enrolled at Havana’s music conservatory and studied the classics. Through his father’s collection of 78-r.p.m. records, he also acquainted himself with American swing and bebop. And when he turned professional, at the age of 17, he began collecting recordings by Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others. He acknowledges that staunch Communists in his country have viewed American jazz as imperialist culture, but says that never deterred him. “In every society, there are people with negative attitudes,” he said. “But you simply can’t pay attention to such mediocrity.”
Unlike some Cuban artists, Rubalcaba has chosen not to defect. But he is the first performer from his country to be allowed to travel freely. And two years ago, he established a second home base, in the Dominican Republic. According to such Cuban expatriates as saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, now a U.S. citizen, Rubalcaba is a pawn of the Communist government—a sort of cultural ambassador. Rubalcaba himself tries his best to avoid political issues. “I don’t feel that my generation is responsible for what has happened historically between Cuba and the United States,” he says. “We’re a lot more positive and optimistic.” With his career soaring around the world, Rubalcaba has good reason to be both.
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