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Cuban Wizards Conjure A Pulsating Piano Stampede

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Monday November 13, 2017

From The Guardian

Chucho Valdés/Gonzalo Rubalcaba review – Cuban wizards conjure a pulsating piano stampede
By: John Fordham

Between Friday morning’s opening shows and the arrival of Cuban piano maestros Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba at the Barbican on Saturday afternoon, some 40 events of the EFG London jazz festival’s 2017 programme had already hurtled by, with 300 or more still due in the coming days in venues all over the city. Valdés and Rubalcaba are in the league of stars with roots in both African and western tradition – able to thrill listeners anywhere, regardless of background or expectation – that this now huge and eclectic festival has been consistently pulling for 25 years. But the LJF has also nourished newcomers, music education, cultural fluidity and the understanding that jazz is buzzing somewhere every night, not just for 10 days in London. The standing ovation for Valdés and Rubalcaba felt like gratitude for that, as well as for the two Cubans’ immensely vivacious show.

Over two decades separate Valdés, the towering 76-year-old father figure of modern Cuban jazz, and the slight and nimble Rubalcaba. But the younger man is a virtuoso of comparable flair and drive – and there lay an absorbing contrast between Valdés’ rugged, drumlike sound and Rubalcaba’s blend of a softer touch and diamond-bright precision. They opened their single-set duet on two facing Steinways in dreamy rumination; Rubalcaba stoked the embers into a flame with silvery runs over a gathering groove, before they sprinted simultaneously into a polyphonic swinger that built to the first of the show’s slam-stop climaxes. Valdés then introduced a dancing Cuban son pulse, Rubalcaba teased it with banging chords and a churning left-hand vamp, and the two played a long double-taking game on various potential endings. They steered a quiet meditation towards a jazz waltz into which Rubalcaba neatly spliced Chopin’s Op 64 No 1, turned a playfully strutting chordal theme into a slinkier tango with Flight of the Bumblebee muttering through it, returning eventually to their signature collective-swing stampede.

If the show had a flaw, it was only that this pair’s astonishing virtuosity and the nowhere-to-hide exposure of a two-piano improv eventually brought overfamiliarity to those story arcs. But an encore on the Duke Ellington classic Caravan, introduced by Rubalcaba drumming on his piano, loosely sketched by Valdés at first and then turned breezily into salsa, was a masterful and a consummately musical gem.

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