There's never been any doubt pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba could play. The 44-year-old Cuban émigré has been a highly favored sideman to top-shelf jazz leaders since landing in the United States some 15 years ago. He's also had a steady recording contract with Blue Note and leads his own trios, which he dominates with an imposing virtuosity, an exacting sense of Cuban musical history, and a tense, brooding personality.
Now Rubalcaba has an exciting new quintet with a striking potential for challenging even his outsize talent. Culled from New York City's best young players, his combo could be one of those very special groups whose exceptional parts create an even greater whole. Together almost a year, they've just released their first record, Avatar (Blue Note) and are embarking on their first West Coast tour, playing at both Yoshi's locations over the course of a week. Avatar includes three compositions by saxophonist Yosvany Terry, whom Rubalcaba knew from their youth in Havana, Cuba, and who brings a modern, angular urbanity to the jazz traditions they are both well acquainted with. Trumpeter Mike Rodriquez played with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and has become one of the most sought-after young players in jazz. Bassist Matt Brewer had been with saxophonist Greg Osby's group and suggested the stunning drummer Marcus Gilmore. Brewer and Gilmore are still in their 20s and bring a vibrant, youthful energy to the group that complements Rubalcaba's old-world, old-soul vibe. Avatar nods to Rubalcaba's Latin-classical side, closing with his arrangement of Preludio Corto no. 2 for Piano by the Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla, but the disc also showcases Terry's funky "Hip Side," Brewer's meditative "Aspiring to Normalcy," and Horace Silver's enduring ballad "Peace."
It's a riveting recording and the combo's live performances promise to be equally compelling. Of late, few major jazz ensembles stay together long enough to create really unique sounds and sensibilities. This particular quintet could have that kind of staying power.
Mon/10March 12, 8 and 10 p.m., $20$24
Yoshi's San Francisco
1330 Fillmore, SF
Also March 1315, 8 and 10 p.m.; March 16, 7 and 9 p.m., $12$22
510 Embarcadero West, Oakl.
(510) 238-9200, www.yoshis.com