by: Gonzalo Rubalcaba

As the career of Gonzalo Rubalcaba has progressed, through the trials and tribulations of attempting to move freely from his native Cuba to the U.S. and back, there has never been any doubt as to his monstrous talent. Easily a Top Five pianist in terms of his fleet-fingered ability to stretch the parameters of jazz and Latin musics, he has chosen in recent years to play solo or in trios. Avatar changes that with a long-awaited small-ensemble date, featuring a fellow heavyweight, the saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry, and the brilliant young drummer Marcus Gilmore. As if Rubalcaba needs any fuse to be lit -- he has that self-contained -- Terry and Gilmore really set sparks flying in this power-packed set of progressive original music. There are instances where New York City neo-bop is heard, with heavy funk rhythms a close second, and echoes of the witty early modern mainstream jazz that established a young Wynton Marsalis. The pianist also ricochets another angular influence, that of Lennie Tristano. The first two pieces, both penned by Terry, reinforce this notion. "Looking in Retrospective" cross-references horn charts of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers juxtaposed against the Brecker Brothers. Heavy modalities merge bright, then heavy, then churning, integrating measured solos. The tour de force "This Is It," likely a killer in concert, is an extended 5/4 funky discourse that is smart, yet deep. Rubalcaba himself is amazing, but inspires his bandmates to join him in fresh phrasings and out-of-body excursions. Though Wynton's sound is somewhat extant in the style of this music, it is also in the trumpet playing of newcomer Mike Rodriguez. But, the band is closer to mid-period Woody Shaw during "Hip Side," as brittle melody lines challenge younger modern and contemporary elements. Terry is lyrical, biting, poetic, and justified in a personalized sound that is in a steep growth curve. Rubalcaba's lone composition, dedicated to John McLaughlin, also has a bounce closely linked to associate Chick Corea, as "Infantil" has the pianist at his most playful, with Terry on soprano sax. There's a serene trio-only (no horns) version of Horace Silver's "Peace," the stairstep chamber-like "Preludio Corto No. 2," and the seaside siren song "Aspiring to Normalcy," an eerie waltz wafting in light waves of color, with a Yoruban rhythm faintly in the distance but very present. It is likely this is the CD Rubalcaba has been yearning to uncork after many years. A fully realized project, inventively played by all, it yields an extraordinarily rewarding listening experience, and is very close to his best work yet. ~ Michael G. Nastos

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