It was supposed to be an evening of sheer virtuosity, and that’s what it was.
By Steve Elman
As far as I can determine, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock never toured together, but they did perform in a two-piano format several times from 1982 into the mid-1980s. Those meetings of two mighty technicians from different jazz generations must have been something to hear – as a concert recording available on YouTube demonstrates.
Since then, although there have been many piano-duo performances and recordings, nothing on that level of piano virtuosity has been achieved . . . until now. Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are currently touring together, and, much as Oscar and Herbie did, they provide listeners with a cross-generational keyboard conversation that defies belief. Except that this duo may be even more mind-boggling than the earlier one.
Being present for their concert in Jordan Hall on February 17, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, allows me to assure anyone who wasn’t there that hearing them in this tour (dubbed “Trance”) is an experience to remember. So, do not wait for a recording, because hearing these two pianists in three dimensions could never be duplicated electronically. If they come to your town (see “More” below), run to the box office.
Just as it was with the Peterson-Hancock partnership, the technical standards in this one are set by the elder pianist, and the younger player rises to the challenge admirably. By that measure alone, I think that this one comes to the finish line a nose ahead of the earlier combination. It may be that Peterson, whose ability remains legendary, could match Valdés note for note, but I can’t prove it. I heard Chucho play things at Jordan Hall that seemed to define the limits of what a human being can do with those hammers and strings. His arpeggios were so fast and clean, his two-hand independence so masterful, his imagination so unrestrained, his very sound on the instrument so powerful, that I, and many others in the audience, were gasping in astonishment. I’ve never previously been at a concert where standing ovations began after the second tune, but it happened at Jordan.
When a master like Valdés (who’ll turn 77 in October) is in the house, it would be hubris for any other pianist to try for a throw-down on the technical level. Rubalcaba (who’ll be 55 in May) is too canny a musician for that. What he brings to the stage, in addition to technique that would scare most living pianists, is the harmonic ingenuity of the post-modal generation. He was born in the same year as Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, and Marcus Roberts. Like them, he grew up knowing Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett as the standard-bearers of the last third of the twentieth century. He absorbed and incorporated the musical language they helped to create into his own way of playing. Whereas Valdés, like Peterson, always strives for harmonic resolution at the end of a line of thought, no matter how baroque and dense the previous decorations, Rubalcaba allows dissonances to hang in the air. He colors chords that should resolve things consonantly with a note or two that adds emotional ambiguity. When I heard his trio in a concert at the Cambridge Multi-Cultural Arts Center more than a decade ago, he was even more harmonically original than he was at Jordan Hall, so it’s clear that in this context he’s actually holding himself back.
What defines the core and the originality of the “Trance” concerts can be expressed in a single word: Cuba. Both men were born in Havana, both are the sons of Cuban musical legends, and both are steeped in the musical traditions of their homeland, where even the most junior keyboard player is expected to know the rhythms and motifs of charanga, montuno, mambo and salsa as a matter of course. The music they played at Jordan was not self-consciously “Afro-Latin.” Instead, it was Afro-Latin at its very soul. Even the slowest passages had a gentle dance pulse. A tiny feint towards a familiar rhythm by one pianist produced an immediate rhythmic shift in the other. And unlike pianists who work exclusively in the jazz tradition, they provided two extended passages of pure rhythm, where they repeated the kind of unison figures that might underpin a percussion solo from the timbalero or conguero in a Latin band, building intensity and volume until the two pianos were drums themselves.
No repertoire was announced from the stage, but that courtesy wasn’t really necessary, since the entire evening was built on improvisational interplay rather than song interpretation. It seemed to me that the first tune was a Rubalcaba original, with chordal shifts on the bar like “Giant Steps.” The second tune, a jazz standard, had a tiny theme statement from Rubalcaba, so fast that I barely had time to recognize it, much less name it. There were three tunes with distinctly Cuban flavor, one of which may have been by Valdés, since he led it off, quoting Chopin and “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” There were two solo features – Valdés providing a version of “Over the Rainbow” that was thick as cheesecake, and Rubalcaba with what sounded like another of his tunes, this one a lovely lyrical counterpoint to the older pianist’s feature. And there was an encore of the Juan Tizol – Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” bringing it back home to its Latin roots.
Was there too much of a good thing? Possibly. After an hour of complex interplay, even in the solo features, I began to hope for a still moment when both players would pull back to give us some spare thoughts, with a few seconds of air between the notes. In other concerts, I understand that they have played “Blue Monk,” and that tune may provide more of an opportunity to hear space as well as sound.
But that’s just a quibble. It was supposed to be an evening of sheer virtuosity, and that’s what it was. When the music ended, as they acknowledged the audience’s enthusiasm with warm smiles, the camaraderie and affection they showed toward each other sent nearly everyone into the night with a glow.
Upcoming dates in the “Trance” tour:
February 23: Symphony Center, Chicago
March 7: Konzerthaus, Vienna
March 10: Kölner Philharmonie, Köln [Cologne], Germany
March 13: Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Germany
March 15: Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow
March 19: National Auditorium, Madrid
March 20: Teatro Lope de Vega, Sevilla, Spain
March 24: Teatro Creberg, Bergamo, Italy
June 15: JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.