Gonzalo Rubalcaba may be Cuba’s best export besides cigars. Though the 44-year-old pianist/composer, now based in the United States, has played with various groups in Japan before, notably at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in the 1990s, for his forthcoming tour he will hold a solo concert in addition to performances with his quintet. The latter will feature Latin-jazz tunes, Rubalcaba originals, and, if we’re lucky, classics such as Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”
Rubalcaba’s latest album, last year’s appropriately titled “Solo” (titled “Besame Mucho” in Japan) was his first one-man effort since the 1980s. The album is comprised of original compositions — some based on Afro-Cuban melodies, some improvisations, including a series of tracks inspired by the chord changes in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” — alongside radically reworked standards such as “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Besame Mucho.” And like any self-respecting arranger, Rubalcaba makes standards his own.
The concert-hall setting allows Rubalcaba to express himself in an acoustically sound environment without the ringing of wine glasses. His piano playing has a sense of freedom and volatility in the tempo, without ever degenerating into undisciplined and rushed intensity, brought about by a keen awareness of chords, harmonies and musical form. Whether a song is upbeat or introspective, Rubalcaba can make it sound beautiful.
Alone with a piano in front of 1,800 captivated listeners, Rubalcaba has only his mind to play off of. It will be a treat to hear what the Cuban master is thinking.
The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet plays at Blue Note Nagoya, Nov. 20, 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., ¥8,500; Blue Note Tokyo, Nov. 21-22, 7 and 9:30 p.m., Nov. 23 6:30 and 9 p.m., ¥8,400. Gonzalo Rubalcaba plays a solo piano concert at Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo on Nov. 24, 6 p.m., ¥4,000-¥5,000 (combined ticket with a Blue Note Tokyo performance is ¥12,060). For more information, call (03) 5608-1212 or visit www.triphony.com.