The typical image of Latin jazz comes mainly from salsa. Certainly, large bands playing fast-tempo dance music peppered by a hot horn section, thumping bass, razor-sharp piano and a small contingent of percussionists comprise the most common — and perhaps most exhilarating — form of Latin jazz.

However, there is another, softer face of Latin jazz that is less often seen. The most impressive pianist working in this style of reflective, intricate Latin music is Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

Rubalcaba was “discovered” by Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1980s studying classical piano by day and playing with the top Afro-Cuban bands in Havana by night. After working with visiting jazz musicians in Cuba, he moved on to international festivals and, age 27, recorded with Blue Note, winning recognition for his technique and the intelligence of his improvisations from both critics and fans alike.

His rise was quick in the jazz world, where careers often take years to establish. It was also surprising in that he built his style largely on the overlooked side of Latin music. Few other Latin pianists so carefully, and so powerfully, reinvigorated classical forms such as the bolero or danzon with jazz sensibilities.

Recently, his playing has reached new heights. He currently tours with only bass and drums, a format alien to most Latin music. However, the trio gives him the versatility to blend strands of Latin music, classical piano and jazz into a distinctive whole.

At his sets last week at Tokyo Blue Note, the deep lyricism and impressionistic tones Rubalcaba conjured up showed some of his most inspired work yet. Accompanied by veteran drummer Ignacio Berroa and young bassist Armando Gola, Rubalcaba mesmerized the full house with his vision of what Latin jazz can be. He took time between sets, leaving aside his chocolate cake and glass of red wine, to talk about his music.

Tonight was lyrical and lovely. Is this a change from a percussive Latin style to a more elegant and delicate feeling?

I think it’s that everything is there together — the lyrical, the percussion, everything. I have been working all those years trying to arrive at the most authentic way to express myself. Taking into consideration my Cuban traditions, all my knowledge about jazz, my experience with classical, and trying to put it all together. But maybe it’s true, because musicians don’t always know what they did or what they are doing because we are looking all the time ahead. Everyday, I’m looking for something different, looking for a different organization of the material.

When you move back and forth between Latin and jazz, often in the same song, are you thinking differently or feeling differently?

Not too much, we are too close. It’s only 30 minutes from Havana to Florida! It’s not such big deal, but the thing is that we are trying to move back and forth without any interruption. Everything smooth is what we are looking for. For example, Ignacio [Berroa, the drummer] has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, working with McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, so he has good training in jazz. This is what we are trying to do, to put everything on the same plate. We have a lot in common. We have the history and the harmony, even the rhythm. So, you have to change the accent a little, to go a little in the Cuban way, or a little in the jazz way. With the harmony, the ballads, boleros, cha-cha-cha, swing, bebop, all of them use the same harmony.

So, if you go to danzon, or other Latin forms, it is very similar?

It is the same material. Sometimes even the form, the structure, is the same. So it is just important to be alert to that.

You said you’re always looking forward. What are you looking forward to now? You must want to record this trio?

We are looking forward to doing something that we can’t make today, what is new that we can’t do now. We are never totally happy or confident with what we just did. We are always looking for a new way we can change this or that. We can pay more attention to the dynamic here, we can pay more attention to the ensemble here, we can pay more attention to the quality of sound of each person and the balance between the three instruments. We can always change the program and the order of songs.

Tonight sounded effortless, but that means you must really be working.

I think we have the luck to be part of the classical school. They push you very strongly to be very disciplined and strict. We practice every day, rehearse and research. We are looking every day to see how we can make music which is popular Cuban music that is part of the popular tradition of American music, but is still a concert. Even if we are in a club, we don’t assume the attitude that we can just relax. It’s still a concert.

So, that’s the target?

Right, and we are still trying to learn about different kinds of music, not only jazz and Cuban music, but all kinds of music from different parts of the world — Indian music, African music, Afro-Cuban music, music from South America and classical music, not only Baroque, romantic, impressionism, but the most contemporary music — anything that can provide richness. Every day I try to develop my sensitivity and knowledge about music in general, not about one style only.

Is it important for you to have that global feeling for music?

We are taking all of these traditions in mind — Cuban, jazz, classical — but it doesn’t matter. The thing is the beauty of the music. The label doesn’t matter, but only how deep the music is that we’re providing to the people.

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