9:48 AM CST, December 1, 2012
The music of Cuba stands at the very root of jazz, its rhythms and song forms intermingling with sounds that emerged in New Orleans as the 19th century slipped into the 20th.
Today, when we think of Cuban jazz, we tend to look nostalgically back to the radiantly romantic music of pre-revolution Cuba celebrated in the "Buena Vista Social Club" film and its many off-shoot recordings. Their high lyricism and seductive dance beats evoke images of gleaming 1950s cars and glamorous nights in plush Havana nightclubs.
All of which made Friday night's concert at Symphony Center an ear-opening tonic, for it thrust that music unflinchingly into the present. There was no revisiting past triumphs, no re-warming of Afro-Cuban musical clichés. Instead, a beautifully programmed double-bill showed how ancient ideas in Cuban music are being transformed for the 21st century and absorbing a vast range of influences from around the globe.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba ranks among the most accomplished jazz pianists in the world today and perhaps stands at the top of that elite group, thanks to a colossal technique and an unfettered musical imagination. In recent years, he has become increasingly introspective at the piano, particularly in solo work. For the most part, he has put aside his technical feats and explored, instead, the most intimate sounds and ultra-sophisticated harmonies he can draw from the instrument.
So his solo set, which opened this evening of Cuban music, amounted to something of a quasi-classical recital, albeit one laced with rhythmic motifs and compositional structures of his homeland. Even in referencing music of Cuba, however, Rubalcaba drew as much from its classical idioms as its jazz lexicon, in effect eradicating barriers between the two.
You could hear it in the way Rubalcaba embraced swing-tinged rhythm at one moment and its stricter classical counterpart the next, freely improvised statements without backbeat in some passages and meticulously articulated dance pieces elsewhere. Much of this music built upon the cross-genre achievements of the Cuban classical master Ernesto Lecuona, albeit in decidedly contemporary terms.
Rubalcaba synthesized many of these elements in an idiosyncratic re-invention of Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," presented here as a Chopinesque rhapsody replete with exquisite melodic filigree and a remarkably advanced chordal palette. Only a pianist with Rubalcaba's footing in both classical and jazz orthodoxies could have pulled it off.
Even in his encore, Rubalcaba teased listener expectations, offering what began as a seemingly abstract improvisation and only in its last bars hinted at its source material: the indelible "Besame Mucho."
And yet, at least one listener wished that at some point in Rubalcaba's set he would have burst free of so much hyper-cerebral pianism – as profound as it is – and simply cut loose with the kind of galvanic, Art Tatumesque virtuosity of which he alone is capable. Maybe next time.
Certainly the program offered a fitting counterbalance to Rubalcaba's piano contemplations with Ninety Miles, a muscular ensemble of musicians from Cuba, the United States and beyond. Inspired by the 2011 recording of the same name featuring vibist Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott, this version presented trumpeter Nicholas Payton in Scott's role and benefited significantly from that staffing.
For though all three musicians contributed significantly to the whole, Payton's clarion trumpet, as well as his genre-defying solos, stood at the center of the music making. While Afro-Caribbean rhythms pulsed behind him, Payton bent notes beyond recognition, ignoring the strictures of what musicians call the well-tempered scale. No descriptive label or category could be affixed to Payton's solos, which were as brashly original as they were technically imposing.
Ultimately, though, Ninety Miles really did represent a collective effort, and Payton blended into the band's fabric at many junctures. The combination of Payton's volatile lines, Puerto Rican saxophonist Sanchez's heroic exhortations and vibist Harris' soulful, steeped-in-blue statements made for one of the more unusual and compelling front lines in jazz.
Sanchez built a herculean tenor solo in his "City Sunrise," reminding listeners that brains and brawn are not mutually exclusive in jazz. And Harris's double-mallet techniques produced exquisitely refined waves of color in his "Brown Belle Blues."
These compositions, and others, didn't fetishize Cuban music but simply embraced it as part of an ever-widening range of languages available to musicians today. That's why Ninety Miles sounds as fresh as anything on the radio but also reflects the music of a nation that still holds an outsized role in the meaning of jazz: Cuba.
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