ON THE MAW PATROL: Santa Barbara’s classical music season has rolled up its sidewalks until fall, which can only mean: bring on the Music Academy of the West’s ever-satisfying summer program. Roughly speaking, our region’s classical music scene—a considerable cultural resource, especially in light of our city’s size—wraps up in May, with the grand splash of the Ojai Music Festival in early June serving as a kind of unofficial capper event for the yearly classical calendar. (Los Angeles likes to claim the Ojai Fest as its own playground, but Santa Barbarans feel a close kinship to the sister-city-like heart of this ex-urban event. Of course, it’s really Ojai’s claim to international fame).

But come late June, the Music Academy’s eight-week season lights a fire under the musical concert options in town. Enter the annual parade of enticements for classical fans, including Saturday orchestra concerts, Tuesday night chamber concerts, the Friday picnic concerts (when “fellows,” aka students, get to stretch out and often serve up surprises), master classes, and a fully-produced opera – it’s The Barber of Seville’s turn this year. Special performances by notables like pianists Ursula Oppens and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, cellist Zuill Bailey and the resident Takacs Quartet spice up the prospects for some serious music of a serious nature in our “off-season.”

In terms of MAW’s dense public performance schedule, it all begins this Saturday at the Granada, when conductor Larry Rachleff kick-starts this year’s Festival Orchestra, which changes each year according to the student body on hand, but is inevitably varying degrees of dazzling (musicacademy.org).

FRINGE PRODUCTS: Jazz piano culture has long had, as one of its peripheral currents, the solo recording. Call it the fine art of going it alone, and some fare better and go deeper than others. Two recent, and remarkable, new albums—both strong contenders for 2011 best-of lists—explore the unique power and subtlety of the form, when intelligence and some larger conceptual vision come into play.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Courtesy Photo

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Faith (5Passion). When Cuban émigré pianist Rubalcaba hit the jazz scene some twenty-plus years ago, he duly bedazzled us with his chops a’blazing and ferocious musical intelligence. Some years later, the more tender side of his musicality, the part in touch with balladry and introspection, gained importance and emphasis, and at that point, the pianist’s true depth and soulful profundity emerged. Rubalcaba’s solo piano performance at Campbell Hall a few years back was one of the most potently memorable jazz shows in that space (which is shockingly devoid of jazz content next season, but we digress).

Soon after the Campbell Hall command performance, Rubalcaba released his stunning—and understated—album Solo (Blue Note), still one of the greatest recordings in his discography. He seconds that emotion with another new solo piano album, Faith, which may ultimately be the stronger work, as a conceptualized whole. In the center of this beautiful fifteen-track project, vis a vis its religious theme, is a group of three original pieces based on the Cuban-Catholic tale of the “Three Juans” and the patroness of Cuba, “La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.”

Rubalcaba also checks in with jazz history and selected landmarks of the “standard” lexicon, but on his very own personal musical terms. He deconstructs Bill Evans’ great tune “Blue in Green,” sometimes slowing its gorgeous harmonic ruminations down to meditative stasis, spins out dervish linear energies around the implied changes of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (sans the actual changes) and turns Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” into a reflective reverie. By interspersing two separate versions of each of these classics with his own originals, Rubalcaba creates an astonishingly moving suite, a highly personal statement that also respectfully bows at the altar of jazz history. If we didn’t know it already, Rubalcaba’s two solo piano albums affirm that clearly, he’s one of the greats.

Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel (ECM)

For this scribe/jazz addict’s money, Craig Taborn is the most exciting “new” keyboardist on the scene, working up his own kind of magic on Fender Rhodes (which he plays in a style all his own) and also acoustic piano. He has actually been a semi-secret sensation in the music for several years by now, burning it up on the sidelines of bands led by Chris Potter, David Binney, Tim Berne, Susie Ibarra and others.

With his luminously fine debut for ECM, Taborn delves deep into his special relationship with the solo piano format, mixing up elements of jazz, contemporary classical syntax, avant garde sauce and that elusive ethereal poise which has become a stock-in-trade for ECM ever since Keith Jarrett made the label his home, decades ago.

In the scintillating, varied and intercommunicative mix of thirteen tracks, Taborn moves easily from airy introspective etudes (“Diamond Turning Dream,” “True Life Near”) to kinetic gymnastics (“Spirit Hard Knock,” “Gift Horse/Over the Water”). At times, Taborn’s crisply-rendered and angular approach, as on “Neither-Nor,” puts us in mind of player piano composer genius Conlon Nancarrow (whose genius and influence is finally slipping into the jazz realm of late, in projects as disparate at Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion and a cool take by Jason Moran on his recent album Ten. Poetic titles, such as “A Difficult Thing Said Simply” and the closer, “This is How You Disappear,” refer directly to the music itself as well as the haiku-esque idea conveyed by the words. That final, prayerful piece lives up to its imagery of “disappearing,” until a gust of suspended chords sneaks into the end passage, suggesting ideas and emotions as-yet unfinished.

With Avenging Angel, Taborn’s musical adventurism continues, on yet another track. He’s one jazz hero-in-semi-hiding, well worth keeping tabs on.

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