Though this Gonzalo Rubalcaba fellow is an ace jazz pianist originally from Cuba, don't tag him a "Cuban" or "Afro-Cuban" jazz musician. While he's been influenced by his homeland's traditions, Rubalcaba's approach has been likewise impacted by classical music and the whole post-WWII jazz continuum, from bop, to free, to fusion. While one can hear shades of other great pianists in his playing — the deceptive simplicity of Thelonious Monk, the angular cool of Lennie Tristano — Rubalcaba has clearly and thoroughly absorbed their essences, but not their styles. He sounds like virtually no other. Avatar evokes Blue Note on-the-cusp-of-avant-garde classics like Andrew Hill's Point of Departure and Tony Williams' Life Time. The compositions are knotty and occasionally a bit thorny, but appealingly so, like a good movie mystery/drama (or a Monk tune) that elicits your close attention. Avatar always has a strong, rhythmic sense moving things along nicely — further, there's no long, meandering solos or tedious "explorations." Another expat from Cuba (and the Bay Area), multi-saxophonist Yosvany Terry, lets loose some spirited but finely honed solos, and Matt Brewer's rippling bass is rock-solid. Hyperbole alert: This is one of the best jazz discs of '08.