Forgotten series: Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Imagine (1993)

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NICK DERISO: Cuban sensation Gonzalo Rubalcaba entered the U.S. not yet a legend, but discovered by one, Dizzy Gillespie.

Rubalcaba (very Corea, but with some Hancock mixed in) made a splashy debut on both the Blue Note and Messidor labels in the early 1990s — reinvigorating the Afro-Cuban jazz movement. But he didn’t actually make it to America until a few years later. The album celebrating it was, to my ear, as terrific as it was largely unnoticed — a classic sleeper pick: “Imagine: Gonzalo Rubalcaba in the USA.”

Born May 27, 1963 in Havana, Gonzalo Julio Gonzales Ponseca Rubalcaba — a protege of Frank Emilo, Chuco Valdez and Paquito D’Rivera — is the son of a local orchestra pianist and grandson of a trombonist and composer. Rubalcaba studied piano and (his first love) drums at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, earning a degree in music composition from Havana’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Rubalcaba then toured France and Africa with Cuba’s legendary Orquesta Aragon before forming his own band, called Grupo Proyecto, in 1985 — the same year Dizzy heard his stuff for the first time.

Next, Rubalcaba made an initial splash with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian at the Montreux Jazz Festival (and later had his first New York club stand over a week with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Idris Muhammad at the Blue Note), but up to this point had never recorded stateside.

Comprised of three separate sessions, Nick’s Picks on “Imagine” include Lennon’s title track (done solo) and the awfully moving “First Song” with Haden and Jack DeJohnette.

“First Song” was recorded at Rubalcaba’s initial U.S. concert performance, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, on May 14, 1993 — though this was actually his seventh album for Blue Note Records. The remainder of “Imagine” is a live recreation of the rest of that performance.

It stands as an initial glimpse into the last decade’s most important Afro-Cuban import — one who would later produce 2001’s Grammy-nominated “Supernova.”

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