Jazzforschung / Jazz Research 45 (2013)

Christa Bruckner-Haring

Gonzalo Rubalcaba und die kubanische Musik

 

Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s musical style is marked by a balanced combination of musical elements adapted from the Cuban tradition, classical music and jazz. Born into a musical family of danzón composers, Rubalcaba’s strong sense of tradition is particularly evident in his recordings of the songs El cadete constitucional, Mi gran passion and Supernova 1:

The characteristic rondo form of the danzón (ABACAD plus montuno) is found both in Rubalcaba's interpretation of El cadete constitucional and his own composition Mi gran passion. The conventional number of bars in each section and the distribution of composed and improvised bars in the repeated introducciones (A sections) are also important interpretative hallmarks. Formally, Rubalcaba’s Supernova 1 is reminiscent of a danzón: a characteristic, easily recognizable section is used as an introducción; the other formal sections differ, exhibiting unique, concise features.

The montuno in both El cadete constitucional and Mi gran pasión is based on a traditional, repetitive figure over a simple harmonic scheme. The bass plays a typical tumbao in both pieces. The piano part is also largely traditional, with rhythmic accompanying chords in two octaves and displaced accents.

Rubalcaba replaces the traditional danzón instrumentation known as charanga francesa (flute, violin, double bass, piano and percussion), typical since the early 20th century, with more jazz-oriented variations. El cadete constitucional and Mi gran pasión feature additional percussion instruments, such as timbales, güiro and conga. Mi gran pasión also includes a flute, the playing style of which strengthens the danzón impression, particularly in the lyrical B sections (parte de flauta).

Rubalcaba integrates well-known pieces in the C sections of both recordings: El cadete constitucional is augmented by John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever; Mi gran pasión includes strains of Jerome Kern's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

In both pieces, the cinquillo cubano – a rhythmic pattern typical to danzones – serves as the rhythmic basis. As a rule, Rubalcaba uses Cuban rhythmic formulas as the basis for multifarious rhythmic modifications, including heightening complexity – occasionally leading to rhythmic ambiguity.

The improvised A sections of both El cadete constitucional and Mi gran pasión make distinct use of the jazz idiom; Rubalcaba implements resources such as virtuosic, often chromatic lines and chord substitutions, patterned sequences, abrupt modulations, use of the b3 scale degree, jazz reharmonization, constant structure and fourth voicings. The same materials also appear, in a more condensed form, during the montuno in the piano solo on Mi gran pasión.

Supernova 1, a modal jazz composition, contains less traditional elements than the other pieces. The most significant characteristic of this piece is its complex rhythmic structures – bimetric effects, leading to rhythmic ambiguity in the A sections. In contrast, two repetitive rhythmic formulas in the D section ameliorate the effect and provide orientation. Harmonically, Supernova 1 is based on a central harmony with frequent sudden modulations.

 

The primary characteristics of a traditional Cuban bolero are created by the emotional musical interpretation of the passionate, lovesick lyrical content. Rubalcaba, however, tends to downplay the melancholic, sentimental character of this song style in the bolero interpretations analyzed here (Bésame mucho, Silencio and Perfidia). He circumvents the frequent portamenti and sighing motives of the melodies, generally in two voices in thirds and sixths.

Rubalcaba retains and occasionally augments the musical forms of the original compositions in all cases discussed here.

The accompanying function of the guitar in the bolero (and in its successor, the feeling) is marked by rubato-like arpeggios and occasional melodic interpolations. Rubalcaba references this playing style with subtle, harmonized accompaniment in his solo versions of Bésame Mucho and Silencio.

Rhythmic patterns play a less prominent role, both in the bolero tradition and in Rubalcaba’s music. When they do appear, it is in the melodic rhythm.

In his trio recording of Bésame mucho, Rubalcaba’s slow tempo and elaborate, varied interpretation of the melody – featuring rhythmic and chromatic melodic variations and subtle second voicings in the accompaniment – contribute to an unusually calm, withdrawn atmosphere. On his solo version of the song this atmosphere is still more prevalent, strengthened by his rubato, ballad-style playing. The dense jazz harmonies are coupled with techniques from the European piano tradition, including suggestions of counterpoint and Baroque melodic embellishments as well as arpeggios in the style of the First Viennese School.

Rubalcaba’s version of Silencio also diverges, in a similar manner, from the original: here, he creates a transparent, floating mood marked by a strikingly slow tempo, ballad-style playing with a stately melodic sense, and jazz harmony including frequent use of suspended chords and added ninths. Silencio is also a showcase for Rubalcaba’s classical background: he unobtrusively works individual clichés from the Western piano tradition into the performance, including Baroque voice leading, classical or folk-style chord phrases and Romantic harmonic progressions.

Rubalcaba’s recordings of Perfidia, in contrast to the passionate nature of the original, exhibit a more dancerly character. Both versions include a montuno in addition to the original form. His improvised choruses make use of microrhythmic displacements, unexpected accents, differentiated dynamics and articulations, melodic circumventions, cliché-like secondary movement and virtuosic, chromatic lines as melodic material. His reharmonizations are based on a small but effective arsenal of effects, primarily the use of the #5, chromatic alteration of chords, sudden modulations, constant structure, oscillating harmony and modal interchange.

The montuno in both versions, true to the son/danzón tradition, is based on a repetitive two-bar figure. During this section, various and partially contrasting jazz techniques are implemented – particularly chromaticism, patterned sequencing and strongly ambiguous, bimetric passages.

 

The influence of the son, Cuba's most common musical style, is strongly evident in Rubalcaba’s recordings of El manisero and Woody ‘n‘ You:

Rubalcaba’s El manisero is based on the clave del son, adding rhythmic interest with occasional contractions of the clave. Here, the traditional array of percussion instruments – primarily maracas, güiro, timbales and conga – is used. The piano accompanies in octaves, using patterns derived from the characteristic playing style of the tres.

The accenting of the weak fourth beat of the bar and attendant anticipation of chord changes is a particular characteristic of the son. It appears, in varying forms, in Rubalcaba’s version of El manisero, as well as in the montuno sections of both El manisero and Woody ‘n‘ You.

Rubalcaba retains the original formal sections of El manisero, with some alterations, augmenting them with a puente and a final montuno.

The montuno is the central section of the son song form; it takes the form of a call-and-response pattern of short phrases, usually supported by a simple two- or four-bar harmonic scheme, in varying configurations. This kind of repetitive pattern, with a tumbao, appears in both El manisero and Woody ‘n‘ You, coupled with various jazz-derived materials.

The montuno from El manisero", based on a I–V harmonic movement, includes exceptional, contrasting passages during the improvisation, using rhythmic superimposition and accent displacement to create marked ambiguity.

Both examined versions of Woody ‘n‘ You begin with a son-style introduction based on a repetitive pattern. The piano solo over the montuno features increased use of jazz techniques, including abrupt modulations, chromatic coloristic effects, virtuosic melody lines, repeated notes in seconds, fourth voicings and clusters.

                       

Gonzalo Rubalcaba is a modern musician and composer, the creator of an easily recognizable musical language. This language is informed by his strong sense of tradition, a fact that is particularly evident in his performances of traditional Cuban material. While his earlier albums are noteworthy largely for their virtuosity and harmonic density, his interpretative focus has shifted over time toward increased lyricism, a diversified sound palette and multifaceted playing styles. He has also turned increasingly toward Latin American music and shows a heightened interest in his Cuban roots; this tendency, however, is enriched by musical resources including rhythmically complex arrangements, a ballad-like style, diverse tone colors and an abundance of techniques borrowed from jazz. This combination of materials, against the backdrop of his extensive classical training, constitutes Gonzalo Rubalcaba's unique musical style.