Gonzalo Rubalcaba – XXI Century (2012)

A gutsy blend of contemplative Evans/Tristano-informed piano excursions and these grease-popping Cuban jams, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s XXI Century takes us on a journey across time and cultures. Along the way, Rubalcaba breaks down barrier after barrier — the ones standing between our concepts of what fits, and what doesn’t and the ones that keep our worlds separate.

XXI Century, due on May 29, 2012 from Rubalcaba’s 5Passion imprint, follows 2011’s Fe’ — but has little in common with that solo meditation on home, faith and family. Working instead with a few trusted compatriots, Rubalcaba firmly fixes his gaze outward. Too, where that album walked a finely drawn line between classical and jazz, here the pianist leaps headlong into the raucous cadences of his ancestral homeland.

Four of this expansive double-CD set’s 10 songs are Rubalcaba originals, beginning with the album-opening “Nueva Cubana” — a daring blending of hypnotic polyrhythms and nifty interplay between Rubalcaba and a talented band featuring bassist Matt Brewer (this percolating counterpoint throughout), drummer Marcus Gilmore and percussionist Pedro “Pedtrito” Martinez. “Oshun,” moves with an episodic determination, even as Rubalcaba switches to synthesizer, adding another atmospheric layer.

Guest guitarist Lionel Loueke sits in for the coiled funk workout “Fifty,” and his lyrical original “Alafia.” The brilliantly constructed “Son XXI,” from bimodal composer Enrique Ubieta, spills outward from a rumba pattern into these series of eddying percussive patterns — even as Rubalcaba tip toes by on the piano.

There’s more to this that rhythm vehicles, though, as Rubalcaba stretches out into the rippling zen-like unknowns of “Moor,” the Paul Bley composition. Brewer’s “Anthem,” a ruminative rubato, gives everyone a chance to play around the silences. Elsewhere, Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies” (which swings like crazy) and Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered” (lithe, gorgeous) are both given sensitive, complete readings of more than 10 minutes a piece — a rare opportunity made real over the course of this two-disc release.

Given a chance to stretch out (after all, he’s the label boss, right?), Rubalcaba reaffirms his place as one of the most important Afro-Cuban jazz figures to have emerged in the 1990s. He still possesses both the expected ebullience and the stirring power so long associated with Latin players — but also (and this is what makes him so special) the crystalline patience, and a thoughtful finesse, so few have managed.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.