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Their Fingers Do the Walking

*** 1/2 GONZALO RUBALCABA "Antiguo" Blue Note

*** MARCUS ROBERTS "The Joy of Joplin" Sony Classical

** 1/2 SPHERE "Sphere" Verve

November 08, 1998|Don Heckman

The range of musical activities generated by the prominent pianists of the '90s continues to be extraordinary. Rubalcaba and Roberts are two of the decade's most important arrivals on the global jazz scene, and neither seems at all inclined to be compartmentalized into any sort of predictable niche. And Kenny Barron, performing here with a revived version of the '80s group Sphere, has been a model of versatility for his entire three-decade-plus career.

Rubalcaba's "Antiguo" is a superb recording. He has in the past ventured into creative use of electronic instruments and the technical diversity of the recording studio. But he outdoes himself here, plunging deeply into some core Cuban sounds and rhythms (notably via vocals from elder statesman singer Lazaro Ros and the stunning percussion of Julio Barreto and Giovanni Hidalgo). Not content to stop there, he layers the sounds, rhythms and chants with an array of sounds--crisp, driving brass, dark-toned synthesizer textures, Gregorian chant-like choruses, and his own rapid, roving keyboard lines.

There's not a dull moment on the album. The juxtaposition of so many seemingly unrelated elements and stylistic methods may bother purists, but it is to Rubalcaba's credit as an increasingly sophisticated composer that he is able to make it all come together in such consistently gripping fashion.

Although Roberts is fully capable of being similarly contemporary and edgy, he looks to the past with "The Joy of Joplin." And what he does with the Joplin rags--familiar items such as "The Entertainer," "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Magnetic Rag," as well as far lesser-known items--is a marvel, enhanced by the inclusion of eight new pieces of his own, composed in similar style.

Characteristically, as he did with his reworking of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Roberts approaches the material from a traditional perspective in his opening theme statements. That accomplished, he proceeds to romp through improvisations that tolerate no boundaries. Often playing a rolling left hand in stride style, he doesn't hesitate to toss in offbeat, pointillistic dissonances with his right hand, roving musical witticisms and a constant, buoyant swing.

Barron, on the other hand, doesn't get enough time to play on the Sphere album. The current edition of the group--with Gary Bartz on saxophone, Buster Williams, bass, and Ben Riley, drums--has a solid, straight-ahead feeling to it, which is just fine for Barron, who swings hard, with his usual combination of overarching intelligence and visceral intensity.

But the usually dependable Bartz doesn't quite seem in complete command of his instrument, his tone a bit fuzzy, and his articulation not always precise.

Still, with bassist Williams and drummer Riley, this is a formidable group, capable of generating sweet lyricism in offbeat ballads such as Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan" and high-voltage rhythms in up-tempos such as "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." (Sphere, with Barron, makes a rare Los Angeles appearance today at the Jazz Bakery.)

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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