Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Joe Lovano are an odd couple. And the performance of the pair--the former a superb, expatriate Cuban pianist, the latter an award-winning saxophonist--at Royce Hall on Saturday night revealed both the ups and downs of a musical relationship between two distinctly individual artists.
Rubalcaba--small, somewhat subdued--focused his attention completely on the piano keyboard in an intimate, almost private connection. Lovano--large and sturdy-looking, his arms and hands enclosing his saxophones in a powerful embrace--was expansive, stalking the stage, constantly moving with the rhythm, vigorously squeezing the music out of his instruments.
And there were differences in creative approach, as well.
Rubalcaba's style was integrative. That is, it encompassed and transformed a startlingly diverse array of elements--jazz, classical, Cuban, blues and others--without fitting into any specific groove. His solos often started with quiet, Chopin-like musings, moving from shifting, layered Latin rhythms into straight-ahead bop-drenched lines. Yet there was no artificial mixing, no sense of one-from-Column-A-and-one-from-Column-B in his playing. His playing, in fact, clearly identified him as a kind of jazz model for the new millennium, an artist whose music retains the essential beauties of the music's first hundred years while simultaneously reaching out to the worldview of the 21st century.
Lovano comes from a more traditional place. Founded on the blues and bop, his playing was filled with the brawny vigor of jazz essentials, a brilliant extension and expansion of the kind of music that evolved through dance halls, roadhouses and jazz clubs into the sophisticated worlds of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins. Even in his occasionally edgy, free-jazz-styled moments, the foundation qualities of Lovano's playing--a rich-toned swing, a constant feel for the beat, and an inveterate capacity to make melodies--were ever present.
The sticking point with odd couples, of course, is that they only succeed when the differences are complementary, when the peaks of one counterbalance the valleys of the other. And, in the Rubalcaba-Lovano partnership, the blending was only intermittent. More often, the performance, superb as it was, often showcasing pieces from the duo's Blue Note recording, "Flying Colors," emerged as a presentation by two highly gifted individualists sharing the same stage.