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Cuban Piano Virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba Shines on Ambitious 2-CD Set, XXI Century

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Gonzalo Rubalcaba In a career that has spanned 25 years and nearly 30 releases, including a string of acclaimed recordings for the prestigious Blue Note label, Cuban piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba has awed critics and fans alike with his prodigious technique and depth of soul as a composer. On XXI Century, his second recording on his 5Passion imprint, Rubalcaba lets his Afro-Cuban roots bubble to the top while also paying tribute to two piano heroes in Bill Evans and Lennie Tristanto.

Accompanied by such stellar sidemen as bassist Matt Brewer, drummer Marcus Gilmore and percussionist Pedro “Pedtrito" Martinez, Gonzalo alternates between percolating tumbao-fuled jams, the occasional funk workout and crystalline introspection on this potent two-CD set. Guest guitarist Lionel Loueke appears on the funk throwdown “Fifty" and also on his own hypnotic composition “Alafia." Rubalcaba's fellow Havana native, drummer and longtime collaborator Ignacio Berrora makes a special guest appearance alongside second drummer Gilmore on a spirited rendition of the Paul Bley tune “Moor."

While Gonzalo and crew exhibit near-telepathic interplay on more subdued fare like Evans' gorgeous “Time Remembered," Brewer's rubato “Anthem" and Bley's zen-like swinger “Moor," the energy level spikes on Rubalcaba originals like “Nueva Cubana," “Oshun" and “Son XXI," all of which expertly blend Cuban folkloric elements with daring jazz improvisation. Martinez also lends his stirring vocals to the folkloric “Oshun," which conjures up an authentic Santeria ritual with Rubalcaba's subtle synth seasonings on top. And he stretches out in a jazzy vein on an irrepressibly swinging interpretation of Tristano's “Lennie's Pennies," revealing yet another aspect of his multi-cultural virtuosity. (Marcus Gilmore's drum solo on this lone boppish offering shows why he may have inherited more than just a bit of his impressive skills from his grandfather, drumming legend Roy Haynes).

This latest outing by Gonzalo, who is regarded as one of the most important figures to emerge from Afro-Cuban jazz in the '90s, is the next step in his ongoing evolution as an artist. And while he has never compromised his artistic integrity on any of his previous outings over the years, he is even more liberated to truly pursue his muse on his own 5Passion imprint. Few labels would have given him the green light to record a 2-CD set. But under the auspices of 5Passion, the seasoned veteran is free to follow his creative inclinations with impunity on XXI Century. Rubalcaba has come a long way from his early days as a pyrotechnic marvel (as heard on his early outings like his 1990 Blue Note debut, Discovery: Live at Montreux and the following year's The Blessing. This latest outing, recorded when he was 49, may be the pianist's deepest and most fully-realized recording to date.
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