You Can Dance to It: Roots of Tradition With Improvisational Freedom


Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba at Carnegie, a review by Jon Pareles for The New York Times.

Cuban guajira, Panamanian tamborito or Brazilian frevo would wink into view, hinting at tradition and its comforts. But they were only hints, brief flashes of a cultural talisman. Then the music would scamper off on dazzling individual tangents: playful, willful tempo fluctuations, thickets and inundations of dissonance, wry quotations, pensive melodic interludes. The concert was part of Carnegie Hall’s Voices From Latin America series; it was a night of hyperactive improvisational freedom grounded in deep musical erudition.

The program was mathematical: four solos, two duets, one quartet. It also had a tinge of friendly competition and the best kind of showing off. Mr. Pérez started his solo reaching inside the piano to damp a string so that the note he was tapping suggested a drum. He sprinkled impressionistic clusters, high and translucent and then lower and more aggressive, cleared them away to ponder a melody, then let a dance-tinged pattern emerge and put it through dizzying chromatic transformations.

Mr. Rubalcaba summoned the salon elegance of old Cuban music and then splintered it in multiple ways: with whimsical stops and starts, with argumentative bursts of dissonance, with breakneck sprints that could split into counterpoint. One of his pieces, “El Cadete Constitucional” — written by his grandfather Jacobo Rubalcaba — incorporated Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” recast as a slow dance.

Mr. Valdés played the flirt and the speed demon, moving in and out of a Cuban guajira to quote Bach or strew two-fisted dissonances up and down the keyboard. Mr. Gismonti set up luminous, rippling patterns behind optimistic major-key melodies that peeked out gradually, adding a few notes at a time, then swerved in and out of percussiveness and spikier harmonies.

With so many flying fingers the duets could be tangled. Mr. Pérez and Mr. Gismonti’s duet revolved around a balladlike melody that drifted in and out of focus, with copious layers of complex harmony. Mr. Rubalcaba and Mr. Valdés made things easier on themselves, sharing a Cuban vamp and more clearly delineating solo and accompaniment, sometimes tossing sly musical one-liners back and forth.

When all four pianists got together for a vintage Cuban composition, Ernesto Lecuona’s “Danza Lucumi,” things grew extremely cluttered, though twinkling solos emerged in an informal round robin. Eventually Mr. Rubalcaba and Mr. Pérez abandoned the keyboard and switched to drumming on their pianos — clearing the texture and returning to the dance.

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