In his two decade recording career with the Blue Note label, pianist, composer, arranger and Festival regular Gonzalo Rubalcaba has produced a rich repertoire that bridges the percolating rhythms of his native Cuba with the American jazz tradition of his adopted homeland. Whether approaching bebop or pop, acoustic or electric, classical or Afro-Cuban, the artist's dense improvisations, virtuosic technique and lyrical playing style have made him a favourite among the jazz elite.
Gonzalo Julio Gonzalez Fonseca was born in Havana, Cuba, on May 27, 1963. As a child, he absorbed the rich artistic traditions of his birthplace through his musically-inclined family, particularly his father, pianist Guillermo, and his grandfather, trombonist and composer Jacobo. Young Gonzalo collected the recordings of great American jazzmen Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.
Growing up, he played both drums and piano, but opted for the latter at age nine, when he entered classical music studies at the Manuel Saumell Conservatory. In 1983, the 20-year-old pianist earned his degree in music composition from Havana's Institute of Fine Arts. By then, he was already performing in clubs and concert halls across the city.
Three years prior, Rubalcaba embarked on his first international tour to France and Africa with the venerable Orquesta Aragon. In 1985, he recorded an album with Dizzy Gillespie after the trumpeter "discovered" the piano prodigy during the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival. Rubalcaba then embarked on a trio of influential recordings on the German Messidor label with his quartet, Grupo Projecto: Mi Gran Pasion (1987), Live in Havana (1989) and Giraldilla (1990). During that time, the prolific artist also released his self-titled solo debut.
In 1988, he left his own island for another: Montréal, making his debut at the Festival while still a relative unknown. Rubalcaba returned the following year in the company of bassist Charlie Haden, who had first met the pianist three years prior on a trip to Cuba, a collaboration that produced the live recording The Montreal Tapes.
Another guest spot alongside Haden and drummer Paul Motian at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland resulted in the aptly titled Blue Note album Discovery (1990) - marking the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Rubalcaba and the label. His follow-up, The Blessing (1991), became an instant classic in jazz circles.
To keep up with his burgeoning career, the pianist and his family moved to the Dominican Republic in 1992 and then to the United States at the end of 1996. Three years prior, after intense lobbying by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie's window, Lorraine, among other musicians, Rubalcaba finally made his American debut as the closing concert of the Lincoln Center season, New York City's most prestigious jazz series.
In 1999, he released the intimate Inner Voyage, which features songs dedicated to each of his three children as well as a nod to Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall on the track Blues Lundvall. Three years later, it was the Festival that paid Rubalcaba homage, making him Artist in Residence along with fellow Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés.
The piano star continued to shine brightly on Supernova (2001), reworking a century-old composition by his grandfather into a playful children's ditty, and Paseo (2004), on which the pianist follows through with the album's title, heading into new musical directions by integrating electric keyboards and a funk-jazz sound.
In 2009, Rubalcaba made his 14th appearance at the Festival as part of the all-star Monterey Quartet, a newly formed group also featuring drummer Eric Harland, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter.
In 2013, he launched the power group Volcan alongside Giovanni Hidalgo, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Jose Armando Gola, offering a concert at the Festival in 2016.