SFJAZZ highlights Cuban masters of the keyboard

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Gonzalo Rubalcaba – courtesy SFJAZZ

If you love the music of Cuban jazz pianists, then SFJAZZ is the place to be this week, with a series of concerts by some of the island’s  finest – Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Fabian Almazán, Alfredo Rodríguez, Harold Nussa-López and Aldo López-Gavilán – and each performance features a special guest appearance by Cuban percussion master Pedrito Martinez.

This week of concerts devoted to the evolution of Cuban piano, opens with a solo recital by Gonzalo Rubalcaba – for SFJAZZ members only – and it’s already sold out, so popular is this classically-trained master of the keyboard who has succeeded in combining European classical and jazz traditions with the musical heritage of Cuba. With 15 GRAMMY nominations, two GRAMMY Awards and two Latin GRAMMY’s behind him, Rubalcaba has been described by The New York Times as “One of the greatest musicians in jazz … a pianist of almost supernatural abilities”. His latest release – on his own label 5Passion – is a tribute to the late bassist Charlie Haden who saw the potential in the young pianist and by whose efforts Rubalcaba rose to fame in America during the early 90s.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba plays to an audience of SFJAZZ members in the Miner Auditorium on Thursday, August 11.

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Fabian Almazán – © fabianalmazan.com

Havana-born Fabian Almazán – who takes the spotlight on Friday evening – is another jazz artist who was initially introduced to the piano as a classical pupil, but whose talent as a jazz musician enabled him to successfully bridge the divide between the two. The recipient of the Cintas Foundation 2010/11 Brandon Fradd Award in Music Composition, and selected as one of six composers to participate in the 2011 Sundance Composers’ Lab, Almazán is the composer of several film scores. He was voted the #1 Rising Piano Star in the 2014 Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll, and was awarded a commission from Chamber Music America New Jazz Works in the same year.

Since 2007 Almazán has performed as pianist for the various working bands of trumpeter Terence Blanchard – SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director – including the E-Collective which was nominated for a GRAMMY this year. He’s recorded two solo albums – Personalities (on his own label Biophilia Records) and Rhizome (on ArtistShare/Blue Note Records) – both of which been widely acclaimed. The Wall Street Journal describes him as “A bracing blend of lyrical Modernism, modern-jazz improvisation and postmodern sonic disruption”.

Fabian Almazán appears in the Miner Auditorium, on Friday, August 12, with bassist Linda Oh, drummer Henry Cole, a string quartet, and vocalist and guitarist Camila Meza. Pedrito Martinez makes a special guest appearance on percussion. The show opens with a performance by Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver, who’ll play music from Ortiz’s new release Hidden Voices.

For tickets and further information, visit the SFJAZZ website.

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Alfredo Rodríguez – courtesy SFJAZZ

GRAMMY-nominated pianist and composer Alfredo Rodríguez was born into show business – the son of a popular singer and television personality. He too, initially took classical piano lessons, but while studying at the Instituto Superior de Arte, he was appearing on his father’s television programs with some of Cuba’s greatest musicians, and also playing in the streetbands of Havana. Whilst appearing at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival, Rodríguez caught the attention of Quincy Jones, who took on the role of Rodríguez’s producer and manager, overseeing the production of his albums.

According to the notes on his website, each of Rodríguez’s recordings tells a story.  His debut album, Sounds of Space, he says, “served as an introduction, as a way of saying: here are the people, the places, and the sounds that have surrounded me and made me who I am”. In Saturday’s performance at SFJAZZ, Alfredo Rodríguez presents pieces from his latest album Tocororo, named after the national bird of Cuba, of which it is said that if it is caged, “it dies of sadness, reflecting not only the desire for liberty, but the necessity of it”. His aim with this recording, he says, was “to open myself up to the world, while honoring my roots at the same time”. He’ll be accompanied by guest vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy – one of the international performers who appear on the album – with Pedrito Martínez on percussion.

Also appearing on the playbill on Saturday, August 13, is the Melón Quartet, led by two-time Latin GRAMMY nominee, pianist Ivan Lewis, with Jimmy Branly on drums, José Antonio Miguel Artigas on bass, and Roman Filiu on alto saxophone.

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Ivan ‘Melón’ Lewis © Philippe-Bertheau – courtesy SFJAZZ

More detail and information on tickets can be found on the SFJAZZ website.

This week of performances highlighting Cuba’s jazz pianists ends with a fascinating double bill, featuring the Harold López-Nussa Trio and Aldo López-Gavilán, whose special guest will be master percussionist Pedrito Martínez. Both López-Nussa and López-Gavilán are renowned for their virtuosity as both classical and jazz pianists.

Harold López-Nussa began his piano studies at Cuba’s Manuel Saumell Conservatory at the age of 8, continuing at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, where he specialized in Classic Piano, and graduated at the Higher Institute of Arts (ISA).  He has appeared with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra, with Cuba’s Holguín and Matanzas symphony orchestras, and with Havana Lyceum Mozartiano.  He won international recognition when he was awarded top honors at the 2005 Montreux Jazz Piano Competition, and has performed with a number of renowned jazz musicians, including Chucho Valdés.  López-Nussa toured internationally as a member of Omara Portuondó’s band, is a member of Maraca & The Monterey Latin Jazz All-Stars, and since 2007, has concentrated on jazz.  He now leads his own trio with his younger brother, Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, on drums, and Julio César González on bass. The Havana Times rates him “among the greatest pianists of Cuba”.

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Harold López-Nussa – courtesy SFJAZZ

Aldo López-Gavilán is renowned for excelling as a recitalist, a concerto soloist, a chamber-music collaborator, and a performer of his own jazz compositions. According to The Times in London, he is “not only a formidable virtuoso, but also exceeds in works that require extraordinary color and fascinating sounds”. Chucho Valdés refers to him as: “Simply a genius, a star”. He made his professional debut at the age of 12, with the Matanzas Symphony Orchestra, and at 17 years of age was performing with the National Symphony of Cuba. He has released six award-winning albums of original compositions with some of Cuba’s finest instrumentalists – and he recently wowed the audience at the Napa Valley Festival with his performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The Harold López-Nussa Trio, soloist Aldo López-Gavilán, and special guest Pedrito Martinez, appear in the Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ on Sunday August 14. For more information and tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website .
Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Fabian Almazán 

Aruán Ortiz

Alfredo Rodríguez

Ivan Melon Lewis

Ivan Melon Lewis Quartet

Harold López-Nussa

Aldo López-Gavilán

Pedrito Martinez

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