Gonzalo Rubalcaba continues to luxuriate in the freedom, provided by his own 5Passion imprint, to record whenever and however he wishes. Appearing in the same calendar year as his solo opus Fe, XXI Century enlists first-call drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Matt Brewer for some virtuosic yet still-nuanced rumination on a wide swath of music, including nods to some iconic pianists from the XX Century. The most pleasant surprise is a masterful rendition of the Paul Bley and Gary Peacock tune, “Moor,” which captures the ethereal and cerebral adventure of the original while adding its own spunky flavor courtesy of the trio and guest second drummer Ignacio Berroa. More predictably, Rubalcaba provides well-conceived renditions of Bill Evans’s amber-lit introspection and Lennie Tristano’s harmonic sophistication and mathematical counterpoint on “Time Remembered” and “Lennie’s Pennies,” respectively.
Those who favor the flash and dazzle of Rubalcaba’s earlier works may be initially disappointed, but there are still plenty of nooks and crannies where he’ll pause a split-second and then cluster-bomb a phrase or two, or engage the rhythm section with a technical bravura that many pianists simply can’t generate. The XXI Century version of “Nueva Cubana” demonstrates the pros and cons of this mature approach in comparison to his previous recordings of the song. Middle-aged Rubalcaba is also evident in the thorough manner in which he both supports and fuels the quiet fire of guest guitarist Lionel Loueke on Loueke’s “Alafia,” and enables Brewer’s textural shifts from acoustic to electric on the bassist’s “Anthem.” Finally, Rubalcaba’s own “Oshun” is a delightful mix of Cuban folk and playful bop, with guest vocalist and percussionist Pedro Martinez in a lead role.