The first time I saw Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba play, it took me the better part of an hour to get my jaw off the floor. This was in 1990, in a little Blue Note showcase for new artists at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Rubalcaba, still virtually unknown in the U.S., buried his labelmates under avalanches of 32nd notes, while his complicated Tatum-esque arrangements carved captivating structures and pathways from the chaos. A couple years later he made an unheralded appearance on the Grammy telecast and threatened to upstage the evening’s pop headliners with that same fearless energy and hell-bent virtuosity. Like so many of his Cuban contemporaries, Rubalcaba seemed intent on packing everything he knew about music into every tune; his early recordings–with Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette and then with his own trios and his Cuban quartet–offered too much of a good thing. Though his 1998 album Antiguo (Blue Note) sought to update the heady stew of jazz, rock, and classical influences that had marked his first conjuntos in Havana in the early 80s, it wasn’t until this year’s Inner Journey (Blue Note) that Rubalcaba proved that he’s learned when to hold his fire. Though he clearly loves to push his coruscating technique to breakneck tempos, he displays remarkable subtlety and attention to balance on this album: the romantic spirits of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett now rub elbows with the boisterous shadows of Tatum and Chucho Valdes, and Rubalcaba’s thoughtful, resonant solos sound every note in the emotional scale. Despite his facility with the multilayered rhythms of his homeland, they constitute just one class of weaponry in his arsenal: he’s not merely a Cuban jazzman but a brilliant musician who happens to come from Cuba. In Chicago, Rubalcaba will be the proverbial tough act to follow; his trio opens for vocalist Abbey Lincoln and her quartet. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. Neil Tesser
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew McNaughton.