Rubalcaba rubs jazz's Rosetta stone

Ellington and Gillespie proven true at the Neurosciences show


Village News — November 17, 1999

A capacity crowd was blown away by the virtuoso jazz trio that played Tuesday Nov. 2 at the Neurosciences Institute under the auspices of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.

At first, the pianist beguiled by apparently aimlessly noodling his way into sophisticated improvisations. Who was this wunderkind? None other than Cuban prodigy Gonzalo Rubalcaba still looking boyish despite his 36 years.

Occasionally bass player Jeff Chambers disregarded the generally accepted limitations of his instrument by launching into intricate melodic passages on top of a piano and drum rhythm section.

Drummer Ignacio Berroa was so conspicuously on top of his job that, most of the time, his movements were barely visible while audibly he was the master of the complex cross-rhythms.

The Athenaeum's program director Daniel Atkinson introduced the set enigmatically by quoting Duke Ellington. "It isn't knowing which notes to play. It's knowing which notes not to play," he said.

The session served to remind us that the late great Dizzy Gillespie's explanation of Cuban music's importance was that, whereas slaves in the USA had been forbidden to keep their drums, the overseers of the Cuban plantations permitted the playing of African rhythms. And on the cusp of the African and European cultures a fusion was forged to remain at the very core of jazz music.

It was Gillespie who discovered Rubalcaba in Havana in 1985; and the suave elder statesmen, Chambers and Berroa, are also distinguished former Gillespie sidemen. As much at home in hard bop as the Afro-Cuban tradition they wove their spell at the Neurosciences Institute through a balanced program of original compositions and a couple of standards that included Cole Porter's "You do something to me."

Their mastery of polyrhythms was dazzling. Amateur musicians may be pleased to start and stop together. These guys can fool around with pauses in the middle of a number and, from the notes they leave out, they make it obvious they have played these games together one or two times before.

From their most recent Blue Note CD, Inner Voyage, they played Yolanda Anas. A robust melody that starts out like a child's nursery rhyme until, out of its simplicity, comes a necessary and compellingly complex development.

They played a fresh-sounding "Caravan" even though it was written half a century ago for Duke Ellington by Puerto Rican Juan Tizol. By then the audience was so utterly captivated that a unanimous standing ovation drew the group back on stage to play the Gillespie composition "Woody and You."

As the Athenaeum's Susan Dilts said, later in the week, "If they were still playing, I'd still be there listening to them."

The final date of the Athenaeum's fall season of jazz concerts is Saturday, Nov. 20, when the Ray Brown Trio will play to a sold out house at the Neurosciences Institute.

Brown, reputed to be America's most well-known jazz bass player will be joined by pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Kareem Riggins whose combined ages amount to less than Brown's 73 years. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has compared Keezer to Brown's previous pianist Benny Green and described him as a modernist drawing from the well of Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn. "His solos are sometimes compact bursts of ideas while his extended improvisations are full of parallel octave runs and elliptical excursions." Of another concert last year, the same writer said, "Keezer played with his back to Brown and Riggins, making visual cues impossible and requiring him to hear and feel the interchanges."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer described the trio as "stunning...dazzling...expectedly swinging, suprisingly modern...exemplary...adventurous...uncompromising." So it looks as if the audience at the Neurosciences Institute will be once again on its feet calling for more.

The Brown show has been sold out for weeks.