On a recent night in Barcelona, Gonzalo Rubalcaba sits at the piano, sipping a glass of wine. Rubalcaba, the Cuban musician who played beside Dizzy Gillespie as a young man in Havana and is known for his Grammy-winning collaborations with the late Charlie Haden — in addition to his brilliant time-and-place-traveling solo catalogue — is no ordinary piano man.
Neither is the wine in Rubalcaba’s glass. It’s a 1989 Bordeaux that sells for almost $400 a bottle. It’s being shared by an audience of 125 sybarites at the Barcelona International Jazz Festival’s “Monvinic Experience.”
After a taste, Rubalcaba puts down his glass and runs his fingers silently back and forth over the piano keys while a comedic actor well-known from Spanish TV does a sketch inspired by the wine, and one of Spain’s leading wine experts tells the story of the selection. Then, Rubalcaba begins to play, uncorking an emotional mix of vintage melodies and furious rhythms.
During the event at Monvinic, a place that Food & Wine magazine put at the top of a list of “The Best Wine Bars in the World,” Rubalcaba’s task is to perform a piece inspired by each taste of eight wines. The encore is for a sweet wine from 1946, after which the guests, who paid about $185 to attend, are served a sandwich the chef named for Rubalcaba.
“One thing that makes Barcelona so special is our culture of food and wine,” says Joan Anton Cararach, the artistic director of the Jazz Festival, a two-month long series of concerts at venues around the city that opened at the end of September with Diana Krall, and wraps up on Dec. 22 with a gospel concert. “I want to feel that everything is related. “Food, wine and music is beauty.”
Cararach, a tall, kinetic figure who wears a stubbly beard, likes to describe his work booking the festival as “a search for beauty.”
“I program the music I like,” adds Cararach, who seems to somehow be present at all of the 100-plus festival activities. “I am really free. I can do what I want. And I can do that because I have the financial support of a private enterprise.”
He is referring to The Project, a major Barcelona promoter that puts on some 400 concerts a year. In addition to pop and rock concerts, The Project produces the Jazz Festival and others, including the Guitar BCN festival (whose 2016 line up includes Noel Gallagher).
The 2015 edition of the Barcelona Jazz Festival is its 47th. Cararach started directing the festival in 2003, when its scope was much smaller. But he’s adamant about keeping the format as a series of events, not a jazz marathon.
“One venue, one artist,” he stresses. That may make it more difficult for travelers to Barcelona to take in all the shows during a short visit to the city, but Cararach makes it clear he is not interested in creating a destination festival.
“Barcelona doesn’t need more tourists,” he declares. (His opinion is shared by Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, who has supported measures to stem the flow of visitors to Barcelona. A record 7.5 million came to the city in 2014.)
No more than 12 percent of the festival’s 1.3 million Euro budget comes from government subsidies, which Cararach proudly notes is lower than most other festivals in a country whose many music festivals are often credited with stimulating urban economies. Support from the Jazz Festival’s title sponsor, Voll-Damm beer, and other brands account for 38 percent of the budget. Ticket sales cover 50 percent of production costs of the festival, which Cararach says turns a profit. This year, 34,000 people bought tickets for festival concerts. Free events attracted 95,000 more.
The Barcelona Jazz Festival concerts often have a clubby feel, like a reunion of old friends. And it is. Cararach likes to refer to participating artists as “friends of the festival,” and repeat performances are frequent. Cuban jazz innovator Chucho Valdés, who Cararach now calls the godfather of the festival, has become a fixture since appearing with his father, the iconic Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, whom the festival showcased during his spectacular comeback years before his death in 2013.
This year, Valdés performed with two of his own children at one concert, then joined Barcelona band Txarango onstage for a show that attracted a crowd of 5000. Valdés, like other festival artists, gave a master class to local conservatory students, and made a surprise appearance at one of the four Sunday Family Jazz concerts given by an impressive local school big band at a downtown hotel.
“Chucho is like Messi for those kids,” Cararach says.
This year’s festival also included concerts by Chick Corea, Neneh Cherry, Iron & Wine, Marc Ribot and Paquito de Rivera.
And there was the free “Food & Jazz,” the festival’s only day-into-night event, held in a public park, where people who could not afford Monvinic had a chance to experience the beauty of food, wine (and beer) and music in Barcelona.