“The musical meeting of Grammy Award-winning pianists Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba is like that of two masters of language and longtime friends. They finish each other’s sentences, have impassioned debates and share stories freely,“ writes Claire Dickson in The ARTery, referring to their piano playing, not verbal discourse. The pianists performed like an interdigitalized force of nature as Valdés and Rubalcaba created startlingly new music and shared rhythms and images together in a dual piano performance on Friday, February 23rd at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago as part of the Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series. The artists two-piano project entitled Trance focused on the energy forces created by their musical relationship; they share a vision of music as a healing, spiritual force composed in a universal language.
The concert was a “cross-generational” Afro-Cuban rhythm-infused dialogue led by Valdés, an acknowledged older master of the genre and Rubalcaba, who answered with his own mature technical virtuosity. They played on side-by-side Steinways, Rubalcaba’s at audience right sans cover, Valdés, with cover braced upright, so both men could be visualized and Rubalcaba could have access to the inner workings of the piano, which he plucked with aplomb. The dynamic between the men was beautiful to behold, Valdés at ease and obviously amused, Rubalcaba deferent and working hard. Between them, they found a zone of interplay, often “tossing sly musical one-liners back and forth” (The New York Times), seeming to begin or end each other’s musical statements.
There were no program notes for the selections and they weren’t announced during the performance, as this was an improvisational keyboarding experience, albeit a tightly woven back-and-forth effort. Several of the songs were the performers’ own originals, including Valdés’ Mambo Influenciado (with Arturo Sandoval, from “Straight Ahead” 1988) and Rubalcaba’s Joan (from “Inner Voyage”, 1999) and most of the extended tunes had a definite Cuban flavor. There were touches of Chopin, a morsel of Mona Lisa, the distinct influence of Gershwin, and portions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. An incredibly dense and wide-ranging solo performance by Valdés of Over the Rainbow was followed by a bass-rich Rubalcaba solo version of the iconic El Manisero (by Moisés Simons, 1930) performed with staccato lyrical freshness. Finally, a much appreciated very exotic sounding encore of Caravan, (Ellington/Tizol, 1936) brought down the house.
Both of these sons of Havana- both are also sons of legendary musicians- are so steeped in the harmonic influences of Cuba that even a lilting delicate passage comes across with a subtly Latin saturated dance verve. These 2 actually played the pianos like percussion instruments, seeming to “drum” the keys with the flats of their hands! Make no mistake about it, however, this was by no means “solely” a jazz concert- these 2 are fully in command of the classical repertoire, technically superior and so well attuned one to the other that it seemed they were sitting at the same keyboard- indeed, once Rubalcaba took over Valdés’ instrument!
Often, Valdés would roam back and forth from end to end of the registers, while Rubalcaba produced a more “modern” atonal and acoustic sound. Somehow, despite the massive number of notes produced, they stayed out of each other’s auditory range. When one shifted rhythm, as happened very often, the other followed suit, with the intensity of the music reaching higher and higher until they produced a single emotionally transparent and colorful dynamic. This was a superbly consonant dual effort, controlled theatrics of the highest order.
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All photos courtesy of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra