Master Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba Recontextualizes the Great American Songbook on Borrowed Roses, New Solo Album Out September 15, 2023 via Top Stop Music
Top Stop Music is thrilled to announce the September 15, 2023 release of Borrowed Roses, the new release from GRAMMY Award-winning master pianist and song interpreter Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The latest in his expansive discography, Borrowed Roses is an evocative solo venture, with Rubalcaba offering his distinctive take on twelve standards and popular songs.
Borrowed Roses is Rubalcaba’s third solo piano album, and his first-ever devoted entirely to the canons of the Great American and Great Jazz Songbooks. Not that he’s unfamiliar with either idiom: Rubalcaba’s very first album, recorded in Havana in 1986 with his pioneering Grupo Proyecto, included an intense arrangement of “Green Dolphin Street” while his Blue Note/Somethin’ Else discography of the 1990s includes a vertiginous cross-cultural homage to bebop with Ron Carter and Julio Barreto (Diz), and virtuosic interpretations of signpost songs like “All The Things You Are,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “Yesterdays,” “Caravan,” “Giant Steps” and, most famously, an “Autumn Leaves” with John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette at the 1991 Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.
Now, with the evocatively titled Borrowed Roses, Rubalcaba has created a masterpiece in response to a well-conceived proposition. It came from Gregory Elias, the proprietor of Top Stop Music, who recruited Rubalcaba to play on Aymée Nuviola’s Best Tropical Grammy-winning 2019 release Journey Through Cuban Music and, in 2020, released their kinetic, Grammy-nominated Viento Y Tiempo: Live at Blue Note Tokyo collaboration, which preceded their sublime voice-piano duo, Live in Marciac, issued by Rubalcaba on his imprint label 5Passion, which won the 2022 Latin Grammy.
“I have followed Gonzalo for many years,” says Elias, a drummer and lyricist as a young man, before he entered the worlds of law and finance. “There are other piano players from Cuba who are immensely talented, but he is one of a kind. Perhaps because he’s lived for so long in America, he’s absorbed and assimilated a lot of genres from abroad and combined them with his Cuban education. I wanted him to do something with songs that are evergreens, that matter to the American public, whether it’s jazz or not.
The idea, first conceived in 2019, was put on hold due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Rubalcaba recorded and released a steady stream of material on his 5Passion label, including Skyline with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette, which went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2022, and Trio D’ete, a tour-de-force with Matt Brewer and Eric Harland. But the idea of the solo piano record was never far from his mind. “I never forgot about it, and I emailed Gregory a note,” Rubalcaba says. “He responded quickly, and we started to talk about finding a studio with a good piano. At this time, Bösendorfer had sent a technician to rebuild my piano, which is about 25 years old. It was like having a new piano. So I thought about doing the record at home, where the piano is. That meant we’d have to rent a lot of stuff to make the space sound accurate, to do the recording, and also the equipment we needed to do it. Gregory said, ‘Why not? Let’s see how we can arrange everything.’ I appreciated that he was very open to any of my craziest ideas.”
Rubalcaba and Elias set about selecting repertoire, 15 songs apiece, eventually culling the 12 that Rubalcaba interrogates on this trenchant, poetic recital. Those that made the cut include: “Here, There and Everywhere,” Sting’s “Shape of My Heart,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Do It Again,” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Rubalcaba’s included Chick Corea’s “Windows,” Bill Evans’ “Very Early,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” and “Lush Life,” Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
Then Rubalcaba set about internalizing each song and developing a point of view by which to address it. “I want to have as much time as possible to prepare myself whenever I have a new project, but it never happens the way I want in terms of time and space,” he says. “We are traveling all the time, making a living and offering music to people every month in different parts of the world. But as soon as I know that I have to do something in two or three months, I never stop thinking about it. I embrace the project, in many ways — directly with the music, or through the piano, or listening to different versions of the song, or trying to read books that say something about the history or stories behind that piece. Sometimes it’s enough. But I never remember thinking, ‘I had plenty of time to prepare that.’ That never happened. I don’t think it ever will.”
The recording transpired over two days of highly focused seven-hour sessions. Rubalcaba had previously recorded only “Here, There and Everywhere” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” yet he probes and interprets with daring clarity, as though he’d performed each song countless times over the course of his career. “Many musicians — and I’m one of them — know the title and more or less what the piece talks about, but we don’t go deeply into the message of the lyrics, and do our own musical translation,” he says. “For this album, I read the lyrics of each piece that contains lyrics to internalize the message. It really affects the way you see the music, the way you treat it in terms of arrangement, or how you improvise the story you want to tell, or what you include harmonically, or how you alter the structure.” With the exception of “Very Early,” which Rubalcaba played once only, each track is the product of two or three takes. “I tried to do each take very differently in order to have contrast,” he says.
“Playing solo is a different journey than playing with trio or quartet or any ensemble. It’s huge challenge, but it also presents many possibilities. What you can do with a piano is almost infinite. You have to find a way to use all these possibilities that are before you according to what you need aesthetically, artistically in every moment. It demands that you be well-trained, know the instrument, know the music, know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t look for an evolution.”