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Harold Rosenberg, art critic and great champion of the abstract expressionists, argued that it was as impossible to contain a style of art in the place of its origin as it was to limit the taste for Coca-Cola. Globalism, he claimed, had the effect of making every new style of art known around the world almost instantly; pop, if it began in New York, was soon enough in Paris and Berlin. This elimination of local style occurred everywhere, Rosenberg asserted, except in totalitarian regimes, where the state effectively maintained a native art by walling out the world-swirl of influences.
As everyone who has visited the totalitarian regime of Cuba attests, the country and its citizens are in a wretched state. There is little food, less money. There is certainly no 24-hour bazaar of world culture, the great international collage that is our own experience in the States. So it should not be surprising that Suite 4 y 20, the new recording from the fabulous Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, has a remarkably strong “local color” to it; whatever its ultimate flaws or merits, there’s a gusto and verve that betray a debt as much to the music of his homeland as to the jazz tradition.
Not surprisingly, then, many of this country’s young jazz players, dogmatic in their absurd belief that the only good musician is one who can ape all the old-timers, have been dismissive of Rubalcaba’s playing. Marcus Roberts, for instance, responded to his music in a blindfold test in last month’s Down Beat by saying, “He just don’t know nothing about Monk.” Fine, but you might just as well say the Gipsy Kings don’t know nothing about Monk; it’s not even close to the point. Having been walled off in Castro’s Cuba has at least had the benefit of keeping Rubalcaba uninfected by the narrow, historical thinking of the new-bop Marsalis-clones; largely confined to drawing on the musical tradition of his homeland, he has created a truly idiosyncratic fusion of jazz, folk, and Afro-Cuban elements that doubtless could not have been conjured anywhere else.
“Preludio Proyecto Latino,” the lead track on this first recording with his own Havana group, is a two-and-a-half-minute burner, opening with an up-tempo groove and then shifting to a nice quick swing. Trumpeter Reynaldo Melian takes a lovely Milesesque solo, but Rubalcaba steals the show with some inspired comping, hanging for Melian an ethereal background of cloudlike chords. Then in his own solo, he explodes up and down the keyboard, almost like a young prodigy test-driving a brand new instrument. Rubalcaba cranks it into overdrive a bit too often, as prodigies tend to do (sometimes sounding here like early Chick Corea), but he breaks up his blistering runs at terrifically improbable junctures, teetering vertiginously along the outer edge of the groove.
Indeed, the rhythmic sense of the entire group is dazzlingly complex and unpredictable. Julio Barreto is a ceaselessly inventive drummer, always punctuating and reformulating—funk becomes swing becomes Latin becomes backbeat. “Tres Palabras” they treat as a funk number, but the suggestion of other modes and rhythms is always present, a bit like those cubist paintings in which the background sometimes looks like the foreground and sometimes not like anything at all. Electric bassist Felipe Cabrera is a superb, in-the-pocket player; his timing is impeccable, allowing the others to tiptoe in and around and even out of the groove, in the process hinting at a myriad of other ways of “hearing” the tunes. And the group’s abbreviated rendition of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” compresses more mood and sensitivity into 90 seconds than many of America’s young players manage to muster over the stretch of an entire album.
Charlie Haden, who brought Rubalcaba to Blue Note’s attention, shows up here for a couple of tunes and also contributes the slightly dopey “Our Spanish Love Song.” The tone of his acoustic bass is a welcome element at first listen, but this is a group whose energy needs electric propulsion. Except for “Perfidia,” the Haden tracks are ultimately a bit flat, and trying toimagine a fusion band like Return to Forever with an acoustic bass will give a sense of how this ensemble suffers without Cabrera.
Of course, the fusion bands of the ’70s weren’t really much of a fusion at all—mostly just rock with lightning-fast jazz solos on top. Rubalcaba, as Rosenberg suggests of the walled-off artists, has had to carve his own path forward, and his blending of the diverse elements at his disposal give this music a breadth that the fusionoids of two decades ago often strove for but rarely reached. The band plays a kind of jazz, yes—but filtered through the Cuban experience, it becomes rather like a new wave of indigenous music.
Rubalcaba is clearly maturing as a composer as well, and his originals are the strongest tracks of the session. “Siempre Maria” is ostensibly a ballad, but his powerfully articulated lines transform it into a force field of shapes. The real treat here, though, is his “Comienzo,” a seven-minute excursion that sounds like the soundtrack to some ultra-hip polyglot expo of the future. Starting out with simple chords as if it might be just another ballad, the piece quickly metamorphoses into a percolating brew of rhythms and textures, part modal jazz, part swing, part potluck supper. Mid-tune, it spins off in yet another direction, with Melian’s trumpet blistering against Rubalcaba’s increasingly volatile surges on the piano. The group digs itself a deep postmodern groove, and Rubalcaba’s own solo flows seamlessly from comedy to virtuosity to swing to Cecil Taylorlike expressionism, almost every measure bringing out an utterly different feel. It is the soaring highlight of a beautiful recording.
The band was recently issued a travel visa to perform in New York, where, by all reports, it quite unsurprisingly wowed its audience. Rubalcaba is perhaps more vulnerable than most musicians to the vagaries of worldwide acclaim, given the insular conditions that served to generate his music. At a time when Rosenberg’s “globalism” is homogenizing everything under the sun, Suite 4 y 20 is proof that there are still to be found some tiny pockets of the new.