Best shortstop ever.
Wednesday, February 20
He looks like an introverted, professorial Derek Jeter these days, very stoic behind those tortoise-shell glasses, his back to most of the crowd, smiling rarely so you’ll truly relish those brief moments of levity. It felt potentially momentous, dropping in on a relatively famous Cuban jazz pianist with Castro’s mug still leering from the tabloids, but the early set tonight, early in Rubalcaba’s week-long Vanguard run, struck no particular celebratory note, triumph being merely one of various moods expressed, often within the same tune: ominous dread, playful bombast, furtive restlessness, subdued calm. Gonzalo himself would seem to prefer the calm. His new Avatar (Blue Note) is getting a ton of press (big Times spread with “meticulous” in the headline), largely for, after 20 years of mostly trio and solo work, his decision to collude with four NYC upstarts (most notably Yosvany Terry on sax) meant to egg him on, or, tonight at least, egg each other on while he watches stoically, meticulously.
On record it’s bassist Matt Brewer’s “Aspiring to Normalcy” that’ll haunt you, 13 minutes dominated by a slow, vertiginous sonata with mournful sax and trumpet moaning low, a long and luxurious descent into profound unease. Rubalcaba can pour on the daffy and dexterous runs, the oblique chord-pounding swagger, when he wants to, and tonight his indulgences too were rare enough that we knew to savor them. But it’s the restraint that resonates: During the brush-ballads he was often just a whisper, and even during brasher, louder sections he mostly let the horns fight it out. He’s definitely more Hitchcock than Romero, but it all still built to a modestly electrifying conclusion, his finally honed Afro-Latin bounce mutating into a hip-hop swagger, the drums pushing in hard and raucous, heads in the equally stoic crowd starting to bob and swagger a bit themselves. It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba plays the Village Vanguard through Sunday, February 24