May 18, 2024

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CD review: Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Borrowed Roses – 2023: Video, CD cover

Grammy-winning pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba offers his distinctive take on 12 standards and popular songs on his latest album Borrowed Roses.

The new Gonzalo Rubalcaba album is a tribute to the art of legendary composers. Borrowed Roses, which will be released on September 15, is the pianist’s first album consisting entirely of standards and popular songs, as he focuses mostly on his own compositions in his albums or concerts; It is the third of his solo performances. Borrowing from jazz giants such as George Gershwin, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Paul Desmond, and pop icons such as Sting and The Beatles, he has created a rose garden that will enchant the listener.

The new recording is Rubalcaba’s third solo piano album, and his first devoted entirely to the Great American Songbook.

The idea for the album was first conceived in 2019, but it was put on hold due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Rubalcaba recorded and released material on his own record label 5Passion, including Skyline with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette, which won the Grammy Award for best instrumental jazz album in 2022, and Live in Marciac with Aymée Nuviola, which won a Latin Grammy that same year. But the idea of the solo piano record was never far from his mind.

“I never forgot about it, and I emailed Gregory [Elias, proprietor of Top Stop Music,] a note,” Rubalcaba says. “He responded quickly, and we started to talk about finding a studio with a good piano. At this time, Bösendorfer had sent a technician to rebuild my piano, which is about 25 years old. It was like having a new piano. So I thought about doing the record at home, where the piano is. That meant we’d have to rent a lot of stuff to make the space sound accurate, to do the recording, and also the equipment we needed to do it. Gregory said, ‘Why not? Let’s see how we can arrange everything.’ I appreciated that he was very open to any of my craziest ideas.”

The repertoire on Borrowed Roses includes classic songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Billy Strayhorn along with jazz standards by Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Chick Corea. The recording took place over two days of highly focused seven-hour sessions.

“Playing solo is a different journey than playing with trio or quartet or any ensemble,” says Rubalcaba. “It’s a huge challenge, but it also presents many possibilities. What you can do with a piano is almost infinite. You have to find a way to use all these possibilities that are before you according to what you need aesthetically, artistically in every moment. It demands that you be well-trained, know the instrument, know the music, know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t look for an evolution.”

The brainchild of the album is Gregory Elias, the founder of Top Stop Music, which brought Rubalcaba together with Latin star Aymée Nuviola in 2019 and also released the first two albums of this partnership. He asked Rubalcaba to apply the Cuban touch, which he brings to every environment he plays, to compositions that the jazz world knows very well.

When Rubalcaba reminded Elias at the beginning of this year about the project, which was postponed due to the pandemic and busy schedule, preparations began immediately, the Bösendorfer decorating the hall was overhauled by experts, the fatigue of 25 years was relieved, studio equipment was rented, the repertoire was decided together and the album was prepared seven times at a time at Rubalcaba’s house. Recorded in two hour-long sessions.

While most musicians, including himself, prefer to first learn the musical structure of the songs they will interpret and often neglect to understand the lyrics in depth, Rubalcaba primarily focuses on the lyrics of the songs.

Understanding the relationship between lyrics and music naturally affects how you approach the song, “it really affects the way you approach the music in terms of arrangement, how you improvise the story you want to tell, what you include harmonically or how you change the structure.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not at all surprising to those who know his music well, Rubalcaba has approached these classics, which have been interpreted countless times, with unusual arrangements. Billy Strayhorn, who opened the gem, stripped Chelsea Bridge of its rhythmic emphasis and highlighted the unusually beautiful melodic richness of the composition. He applied a similar rhythmic purification process to the priceless Lush Life, transformed its harmonic structure with his own additions, and produced a unique version of this rose he borrowed with the solo he played after the part where he blessed the melody.

Summertime is one of the best examples of Rubalcaba’s approach of basing the performance on the lyrics. It tells the dream of our hero, who lives in poverty, on a summer day when life is at its most productive, with the authenticity of dreams, using the subtleties of the blues language. George Gershwin’s famous composition, Someone To Watch Over Me, portrays the search for someone who will protect and watch over him, like a lost lamb, and the state of anxiety mixed with waiting.

Contrary to popular belief, Take Five, which is not a composition by Dave Brubeck but by Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist of the quartet, enlivens the album. Rubalcaba’s tempo changes and solo are breathtaking. Two-hand coordination is tremendous.

With Very Early, Rubalcaba makes us remember how important Bill Evans is, not only as a leader and pianist but also as a composer. Likewise, the performance of Chick Corea’s composition Windows is an indication of how successfully he internalized the compositions. As the roads in Gulistan fork, Rubalcaba’s exciting style becomes even more daring.

Duke Ellington’s composition In a Sentimental Mood is the performance of the album that impressed me the most. He does not come close to the heartbreaking attitude of John Coltrane’s solo in the original, but like Ellington, he interprets the rarest rose in the rose garden in a way befitting its nobility.

In addition to compositions from the jazz canon, two pop/rock classics are also included in the album. In his renditions of Shape of My Heart (Sting) and Here There And Everywhere (Lennon & McCartney), Rubalcaba does not feel the pressure created by the familiarity of the melody, diversifies it and crowns it with creative solos.

Borrowed Roses is an album that contains the interpretations of a virtuoso pianist, not with the intention of shaking the listener, but rather as if he were traveling within himself. Gonzalo Rubalcaba seems to have wanted to interpret the repertoire, which consists entirely of ballads except one, in a nocturnal style. He actually sings through his piano and produces wine from the petals of the roses he collects from the rose garden.

Let me suggest a way of listening specific to this album. Read the lyrics of the songs and listen to Rubalcaba without resorting to the comments of others – because every singer is also the translator of the poem.

I am sure that you will be rewarded for this effort, Borrowed Roses offers you the richness of the scent of a rose garden consisting of the rarest roses.

01. Chelsea Bridge
02. Summertime
03. Someone To Watch Over Me
04. Take Five
05. Here There And Everywhere
06. Windows
07. Lush Life
08. Night And Day
09. In A Sentimental Mood
10. Very Early
11. Do It Again
12. Shape Of My Heart

Gonzalo Rubalcaba – piano

NEW RELEASE:  Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s album ‘Borrowed Roses’ is due out September 15, 2023 via Top Stop Music

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