|Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Picture from Rubalcaba’s website
Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba
(Barbican, 11 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Jacob Werth)
As two titans of Cuban jazz drifted onstage at the Barbican their comically askew side-embrace, owing to the six foot six stature of Chucho Valdés, met gleaming smiles and anxious applause from an audience licking its lips in anticipation; this was a rare and fleeting moment in the illustrious careers of two ferocious virtuosi whose generational divide meant nothing musically.
Kicking off the afternoon was a beautifully classical lilt – a quiet, patient exploration of A major which soon abandoned conventional movements and grew into a dark, twisted reverie, aching with bittersweet augmented major seven harmony, chiefly perpetuated by Rubalcaba. As the pair exchanged free solo passages, retaining a consistently plaintive aesthetic, flashes of Jarrett’s searching melodicism sang prominently, completing a well-struck balance between playfulness and reverence for the mournful sentiment conveyed. Speaking to the artistic alignment of the duo, highly complex harmonic ideas were passed between them as if common musical vocabulary, whilst a remarkable stylistic continuity underlined these opening interactions. A seamless transition from what then became fast waltz into a 5/4 time signature reflected a subtle harmonic departure towards a repeating form, out of which mellifluous improvisations poured.
Their shared virtuosity differed in substance – Valdés strongly evoked more traditional, language-based ideas, occasionally stirring the audience to mid-tune ovation with his direct, arresting rhythmic punctuation. In contrast, Rubalcaba’s probing, modern approach lured him into a daring chromaticism, which saw pithy, melodic patterns taken linearly through passages in an impressive, harmonically transcendent fashion. Both masters possessed an astonishingly Zen-like composure when comping beneath each others’ invariably high-energy solos; such impenetrable time keeping (when competing with blazingly fast flourishes for sonic airspace) can be extremely difficult, especially when the nature of the accompaniment was as rhythmically ornate as it often was. There was little stasis in this kind of Latin comping – bass lines bounced beyond the octave, combining with syncopated right-hand clusters to create a restless, animated soundbed over which ephemeral melodies scorched.
None of the afternoon’s fresh, delightfully arranged compositions received any introduction. Shortly before the set’s midpoint, the maestros swapped pianos, after their second tune – capped off by a progressively cacophonic II-V-I sequence in D minor – was closed in unison by some explosive, rhythmic stabs. Valdés then let out an exhausted yet accomplished sigh following the intensity of the aforementioned frolic, much to the amusement of the audience, who were further stirred as Rubalcaba adjusted his piano stool necessarily. What followed was a breathtakingly heartfelt introduction, which called upon the disturbed harmonic palette of Rubalcaba, dancing between key centres and finding no place of rest before the unapologetically functional voice of Valdés took over. Directly referring to Bill Evans’ introduction to My Romance, Valdés then established that this number was not to be a reinterpretation of the classic standard, but rather another songlike waltz, which slowly built as the pair surprised each other with stupefying harmonic quirks amidst the simplicity of a tonic-dominant seesaw in G major. As they occasionally caught each other out, one couldn’t help but wonder if a competitive spirit, purportedly denied by Valdés backstage, was truly absent. Irrespective of this, both players seemed to enjoy finishing each others’ sentences, visibly elated to be humouring one another with Flight of the Bumblebee references and polyrhythmic impositions you’d expect them to trip over anytime soon. Instead, the set’s final tune attested to a seemingly unwavering synergy evidenced by the way they alternated possession of the improvisatory baton by communally winding down their solos.
An encore saw Valdés construct an edgy, jittering introduction, initially accompanied by Rubalcaba’s percussive tapping on the piano’s frame, before his thunderous rumblings heightened the ominous atmosphere in an oblique prelude to Caravan. Dashed with R&B flavours, this feel-good Ellington classic swiftly erupted into the kind of accelerated burner that characterised the afternoon’s visually exhilarating display of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic lucidity at the piano. As a duo, they couldn’t have been asked for much more.