FÉ … Faith, the premiere release from Gonzalo Rubalcaba on his newly founded independent 5Passion label, marks an important milestone in the career of one of contemporary music’s most compelling artists. Boasting an imposing discography of more than 25 critically acclaimed albums as a leader (including a dozen choice dates for Blue Note) featuring the virtuoso pianist in the company of some of modern music’s best players, it is Rubalcaba’s distinctive keyboard work that is the consistent hallmark of his prodigious talent. On FÉ … Faith his incomparable sound, pristinely recorded and mastered, comes to the fore in the creation of a truly impressive solo outing.
Guided by a long abiding faith in the Creator that has persistently informed his life, Rubalcaba has produced a masterful work that is simultaneously introspective and universal in its expression of his mind, heart and soul. His profound belief “that we are all one, one with each other and one with God regardless of what we call Him or Her” significantly informs his approach to music, which seeks to expunge the divisions between the jazz, classical and popular genres that are essentially the product of ultimately inconsequential labels. Drawing upon a wealth of musical experiences that includes conservatory training in his native Cuba and countless appearances on festival stages throughout the world, Rubalcaba here makes music of intense beauty that knows no earthly constraints in its desire to reach a diversity of people.
The fifteen tracks on FÉ … Faith clearly demonstrate Rubalcaba’s musical process, one in which the simple and the intricate are of equivalent importance to the deliverance of his message. The opening “Derivado 1” serves as a stirring ambient prelude to the music that follows, revealing the pianist’s vibrant sound within a terse improvisation stemming from a fragment of the composition that follows – his “Maferefun Iya Lodde Me.” On the Lucumi language titled song (praise be to the orisha Ochun) the pianist thoughtfully develops the lyrical rhythmiccadence of the sanctified three bata drum ensemble that is at the center of the sacred music of the Cuban Santeria religion. The spiritual character of thepiece is evident in the meditative mood that remains constant throughout its harmonic evolution.
Rubalcaba pays homage to John Coltrane with his bright “Improvisation 2 (based on Coltrane).” Utilizing the chord changes of tenor master’s “Giant Steps” as a starting point, he runs through a gamut of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic variations that demonstrate his virtuoso technique while revealing a perceptive insight into the expansive nature of the oft-celebrated song, allowing him to summon myriad emotions from its familiar notes.
“Derivado 2” is a second, longer sound piece derived from a reharmonized fragment of “Maferefun Iya Lodde Me.” Rubalcaba’s intensely controlled sense of touch and his masterful command of the piano’s pedals are on full display here as he utilizes silence, space and overtones to create an otherworldly atmosphere.
Rubalcaba pays tribute to mentor Dizzy Gillespie on “Con Alma 1,” the first of two readings of the trumpet master’s classic song that the pianist first played as a duo with its composer in concert in Cuba in 1985. Opening with ominously dark rhythmic chords in the piano’s lower register, he promptly moves to instrument’s middle to thoughtfully investigate the familiar melody, in accordance with its title’s English meaning, “with soul.”
“Preludio Corto # 2 (Tu amor era Falso)” by the 20th Century Cuban composer Alejandro Garcia Carturla, hearkens back to Rubalcaba’s early conservatory training. Carturla, considered to be (along with and his contemporary Amadeo Roldán) one of the progenitors of modern Cuban symphonic music, eschewed the division between art music and popular music and often utilized indigenous AfroCuban rhythms in his pieces, thus making him an important lasting influence on Rubalcaba, who performs his predecessor’s progressive composition with appropriately reverent modernity.
Rubalcaba calls Miles Davis and Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green” simply “an amazing piece of music.” On the first of two interpretations of the masterpiece, the pianist mines the melodicism of its modal structure to articulate a variety of moods, from pensive to lively, as he modulates his touch and tempo.
“Oro” by Rubalcaba is one of the date’s brightest highlights. Like “Maferefun Iya Lodde Me” it is inspired by the character of Santeria music and the rhythmic complexity of the bata drum ensemble. Here the pianist utilizes complex counterpoint as a principal aspect of the piece, in which the carefully designed phrases based upon the familiar melodic line that is initially played, are through composed (not improvised), in a manner that brings together both his classical training and native Cuban musical heritage.
The date’s centerpiece is a triptych of sorts; a sequence of three pieces dedicated to each to Rubalcaba’s two sons and one daughter . The opening “Joan” — the date’s longest piece — begins with a simple childlike melody that flows beautifully through a panoply of approaches, at times recalling both BillieHoliday and Bach, with compelling pianistics that interpolate the history of jazz piano. Composed for Rubalcaba’s one son, “Joao” is lyrical outing unexpected stop time pauses, at once jovial and suspenseful. The pianist’s consummate skill at resolving complementary-opposing right and left hand lines is heard to good effect on this familial dedication that at times recalls the Great American Songbook work of Gershwin and Porter. “Yolanda Anas” begins with a simple melodic line akin to a nursery rhyme that mimics a child’s dance, and then develops a more serious tone, seamlessly moving between the two moods in a multidimensional manner.
Reprises of the three earlier played jazz classics follow. On “Blue In Green 2” Rubalcaba delves even deeper into the immortal Davis/Evans, gradually moving from the spacious brooding atmosphere of his earlier interpretation to a livelier, more fluidarticulation of the melancholic theme. “Con Alma 3” opens with a shorter, but similarly dark (yet distinctively different) rhythmic introduction, before the statement of the melodic themethat the pianist has played countless times over the past twenty five years. His thorough familiarity with the Gillespie classic allows him the freedom to take the piece to any place he desires without ever losing sight of its beautiful essence, including in this case, an a surprisingly abrupt finish. Rubalcaba attacks “Improvisation 1 (based on Coltrane)” with a verbose Tatumesque virtuosity, spilling out notes all over the “Giant Steps” chordds with rapid rhythmic ferocity and then concluding the piece with a striding piano that reflects the influence of Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner.
The closing “Derivado 3” is perhaps the most melodious of the three variations of a theme from “Maferefun Iya Lodde Me.” Here Rubalcaba’s romanticism comes to the fore in a fitting finish to an album filled with beauty.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba states with understandable optimism and pride, “It is my vision that 5Passion will one day be known as a record label affording artists a friendly environment in which to record their visionary music, without compromising their integrity for commercial consideration and constraining them from realizing their potential in all aspects of their professional lives.” With the label’s inaugural release of his FÉ … Faith it has already accomplished just that and with it a prophesy of more great things to come.