Award-winning Cuban pianist and composer Harold López-Nussa will blow your head back with his highly charged, highly melodic U.S. debut, El Viaje. El Viaje on Mack Avenue Records (Sept. 9, 2016) is steeped in those intricate, aggressive, boss Afro-Cuban backbeats that tantalize another round on the hot, sweaty dance floor. But López-Nussa jams every ounce of melodic talent in the notes, stacking them with a thousand different neon signposts that indicate this is a different sort of artist, one not content to rest in traditions alone, or stereotypes.
Early tracks like the show-stopping “Feria (Fair)” feature López-Nussa veering back and forth from his native land in the staggered, hypnotic Afro-Cuban dance beats — oftentimes repeated in varying degrees on his piano — and in the collective chanting calls of his people, to a frenzied, forward-moving calling that seems to want to invite in other worlds.
On a cover of Chucho Valdés’ “Bacalao Con Pan (Cod on Bread),” López-Nussa bounces just as restlessly and infectiously between the beats in a kind of endless question mark, while darkening the door of the bassline insistently, flipping back and forth to that familiar salsa foundation. Then, he’s Thelonious Monk, shooting darkness in the light in a hurry, a study of contrasts midway through.
López-Nussa embodies the technical highs and the emotional lows with authoritative care, yet resists complete surrender to anyone Afro-Cuban slot — neither the mass appeal on the dance floor or the complicated riffs of a far-out, blissed-out museum piece.
“Mozambique En Mi B” shows his softer side, heavy on light melody with the windstorm of López-Nussa’s intricate-contrasting inclinations in constant approach.
Much of López-Nussa’s authority on the keys comes from his classical conservatory training (Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, Instituto Superior de Artes [ISA]). He is the first musician in Cuba to release a record internationally since the lifting of much of the trade embargo’s restrictions, following President Barack Obama’s recent visit. López-Nussa possesses dual citizenship in his homeland of Cuba and France.
“Jazz was scary. Improvisation was scary,” López-Nussa said in a recent press release from DL Media. “That idea of not knowing what you are going to play... At school I learned the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven and then it was all very clear. That permanent risk in which jazz musicians find themselves in all the time was terrifying — of course, now I find myself in that risk all the time.”
He braves the risks exceedingly well, yet he is not alone in this new jazz age. With him are younger brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa (drums, percussion) and Alune Wade (bass, vocals), a Senegalese musician. Plus, there are his guest artists: dad, drummer Ruy Francisco López-Nussa, trumpeter/flugelhornist Mayquel González, and percussionists Dreiser Durruthy and Adel González.
Like many, Harold López-Nussa also found a natural companion in the Afro-Cuban combination. He and Wade worked on the 2015 album, Havana-Paris-Dakar, after all. “Having a non-Cuban musician on this recording speaks to our contact with other cultures, especially with African culture, which is so far from ours geographically and yet so close. Every time we play, I believe we enter into a journey we are creating,” López-Nussa explained. “Ever since I was a kid, since I began to study piano, music, I have tried; I have searched for that journey of the mind, always traveling with music. I remember that I started playing ‘El Viaje’ while on tour as a way of feeling closer to home, and when I'm here, it's also a way for my mind to travel.”
On El Viaje, he has his way with both the world and home, musically. He’s as comfortable tapping into the many influences from outside his native Cuba, as he is settling in at home. The new album is essentially a reflection of López-Nussa’s world citizenship in a jazz/classical/pop launching point, and a love letter to his native Cuba. A classical musician, López-Nussa found the thrilling terror of jazz around the age of 18, and of sharing vital parts of himself publicly.
“I've always liked the idea of projecting myself to the world from here,” he continued. “The personal ties are very strong for me. A lot ties me to this country. I want this to be my place to create — even if I can have those great experiences traveling. The personal is essential for my creative process. Being able to go out into the neighborhood where I grew up, a place that I know so well, walk on the Malecón, sit by the sea. This is where I want to be.”
Harold López-Nussa is a different kind of Cuban artist, one proudly steeped in his culture yet hungry to absorb influences from everywhere else.
In 2005, he captured the hearts of both the audience and the judges in the Montreux Jazz Festival’s “Jazz Solo Piano Competition.” Besides playing with classical artists, he’s also been involved with the veterans of the Buena Vista Social Club, as a part of the Cuba volume of Rhythms del Mundo.
Oct. 7 The Berrie Center, Ramapo College Mahwah, N.J.
Oct. 8 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Club Washington, D.C.
Oct. 11 Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center New York City
Oct. 13 The Side Door Old Lyme, Conn.
Oct. 14 BRIC Jazz Festival Brooklyn, N.Y.
Oct. 15 Chris' Jazz Cafe Philadelphia
Oct. 18 Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant Minneapolis
Oct. 19 SPACE — Society for the Preservation of Art & Culture Evanston, Chicago
Oct. 21-22 The Dirty Dog Cafe Grosse Pointe, Detroit
Oct. 23 Baur's Listening Lounge Denver
Oct. 27 Blue Whale Los Angeles
Oct. 28 Chickie Wah Wah New Orleans
May 6 Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center Davie, Fla.
Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.