Though Cuban expat pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba was raised under a regime that favored European Baroque composers, he took it upon himself to learn the works of his Cuban forebears. He came up playing in nightclubs and cobbled together a style that reflected his classical training but incorporated Afro-Latin rhythms, Harlem stride piano, and complex harmonies.
His new album, Avatar, emphasizes both rootedness and individual expression, with most tracks featuring an outside piano solo that could almost be an aria; you can often hear Rubalcaba singing the notes as he plays them. Opener "Looking in Retrospective" begins with a slippery pas de deux between Rubalcaba's right and left hand, which tapers off to allow drummer Marcus Gilmore to get the groove going. In the waltz "Aspiring to Normalcy," Rubalcaba plays a dissonant, doleful melody that conjures visions of pouty French actress Audrey Tautou crying in a stairwell. The album shifts gears at every turn, with the Horace Silver tribute "Peace" and aggressive funk tune "Hip Side," capped off by the sinewy, chamber music ballad "Preludio Corto No. 2." Genre-bending has become a dicey issue in jazz, but to his credit, Rubalcaba always sounds studied and clean. (Blue Note)
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