Cuban jazz piano takes over Chicago

Roberto Fonseca, Omar Sosa, and Harold Lopéz-Nussa bring an abundance of tradition and innovation to Chicago in March & April

By Don Macica

It’s probably just a coincidence. Artists plan their tour schedules far in advance. If you are touring North America, Chicago can be counted on to host a performance. Somehow, though, Chicago gets to experience three of the current crop of fine Cuban jazz pianists in the space of a mere four weeks. Each is about a decade apart in age, leading to intriguing comparisons of influence and approach.

A high standard was set this past Sunday night when Roberto Fonseca, who sits in the middle of this age range, brought his trio to the Old Town School of Folk Music’s original location on Armitage Avenue. Fonseca’s career has run on parallel tracks for the past two decades. On the one hand, he’s a highly innovative composer/pianist who freely mixes in elements like classical music, hip hop, R&B, sampling, and jazz fusion into an Afro-Latin framework and is also known for his collaborations with artists like Malian singer/songwriter Fatoumata Diawara.

On the other, his deep reverence for Cuban tradition and the musicians who came before led to him becoming the pianist for Buena Vista Social Club and a producer/musical director for the late Ibrahim Ferrer and the evergreen Cuban diva Omara Portuondo. In fact, the last two times I saw Fonseca in Chicago he was leading Portuondo’s band and sensitively injecting modern touches into her classic repertoire.


His own trio hasn’t, to my knowledge, been here since a memorable 2014 performance at the now-shuttered Mayne Stage. It was with the highest expectations, then, that I anticipated the Old Town School show. You know those customer service surveys you are endlessly asked to take? If I had one for this show, it would easily rate “Exceeded Expectations.” As both a musician and arranger, Fonseca has done what many prodigies do when they get a bit older: pare back the virtuosic flights a bit and concentrate on the song.

Fonseca primarily drew from his most recent album Yesun (a contraction of two Yoruban orishas, Yemaya and Oshún, goddesses of the sea and rivers respectively). His piano playing was extraordinary, showing deep command yet never showing off. He gave plenty of room to his long-time bassist Yandy Martínez to shine as well, who alternated between electric bass guitar and acoustic double bass according to the song’s need. Fonseca mainly confined himself to expressive grand piano but mixed in electronic sounds from a sampler before finally busting loose with funky Stevie Wonder-style clavinet on “Cadenas.” “Kachuca” was (at least this was how I read it) a tribute to both Cachao and Chucho Valdes and included a jaw-dropping double bass solo by Martínez and finished with an audience sing-along of the coro “de Cuba yo soy”.

Cuban soul and ritmo lay at the foundation of every tune and was explicitly brought forward through interpretations of two classics, “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Besame Mucho.” While it can sometimes feel as though there is some unwritten law that states that if you are Cuban you must play a bolero, Fonseca’s arrangements and the band’s virtuosity found freshness in both tunes.

One Cuban pianist that generally does not follow this unwritten law is Omar Sosa. Born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

A hallmark of Sosa’a highly personal approach is collaboration. Each album and subsequent tour feature a new one, although if a project is particularly rewarding there might be a sequel somewhere down the line. Transparent Water, his album with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, brought him to the Old Town School for a transcendent show exactly a year ago. By then, though, he had already recorded a new duo project, Aguas, with Cuban singer and violinist Yilian Cañizares, a classically trained musician who completed her formal education at Switzerland’s Conservatoire de Fribourg. She was first drawn to jazz there, especially the French-Italian violinist Stéphane Grapelli. Like Sosa, she now makes her home in Europe.


Aguas is an album infused with Yoruban spirituality, indelible melodies, meditative interludes, passionate playing and Cañizares simply gorgeous voice. Both musicians are comfortable in the area of electronic sampling as well, lending subtle atmospheric and rhythmic touches. A certain longing inhabits every song, being as it is the reflections of two generations of Cubans living far from their island home. Like Fonseca’s Yesun, Aguas too is an offering to the orishas, specifically to Oshún, goddess of rivers and love.

Omar Sosa and Yilian Cañizares will bring their Aguas Trio tour to the Jazz Showcase March 13-15, preceded by a night of duets between Sosa and the wonderful Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles.

Unlike Sosa, Harold Lopéz-Nussa continues to make his home in Havana, although he maintains dual French-Cuban citizenship. It is not only his Cuban heritage that informs his music, but also the country’s present-day reality and his desire to share both with the world. His expansive 2016 album Un Viaje was released amidst the optimism that greeted President Obama’s visit to Cuba. The latest, Un Día Cualquiera, comes as the Trump administration’s tightening of restrictions and general xenophobia seek to isolate the island once again.


The Harold Lopéz-Nussa Trio comes to the Old Town School on Wednesday, April 8. Judging from the subtlety, swing, and power of Un Día Cualquiera, the performance could prove to be the equal of Fonseca’s show. Lopéz-Nussa is less inclined to stray far from the language of jazz to make his points, but it doesn’t make his music any less compelling. Whereas Un Viaje reached beyond Cuba in spirit, approach and guest artists, Un Día Cualquiera sticks to his working trio of Havana musicians as an almost defiant statement of Cubanismo, saying, in effect, this is us, this is how we live, this is who we are. There is a tribute to Bebo Valdés, two tunes written by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, another that incorporates Rafael Hernández’ Cumbanchero into its lightning-fast piano runs, and at least one tune inspired by Afro Cuban spiritual practice.

Witnessing the combined output of Roberto Fonseca, Omar Sosa, and Harold Lopéz-Nussa, it’s apparent that a Cuban piano tradition that stretches back over a century is in very good hands and continues to have a bright future. Chicago is lucky indeed to be able to experience all of them in such a compact time frame.

Omar Sosa – Gustavo Ovalles Duo
Jazz Showcase, Thursday, March 12. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

Omar Sosa Aguas Trio featuring Yilian Cañizares and Gustavo Ovalles
Jazz Showcase, Friday-Sunday March 13-15. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

Harold López-Nussa Trio
Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, April 8. Tickets at oldtownschool.org

The Spirit Flows: Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita’s Transparent Water

– by Don Macica –

There’s little chance that, on encountering him for the first time, you would mistakenly guess that Omar Sosa is anything other than Cuban. Dressed in white, he’s a practicing santero whose personal Orisha is Obatala, the deity of purity, wisdom and the light of consciousness.  He often begins his performances with a lighted candle which he then extinguishes, wafting the dissipating smoke over his piano as something of a blessing to the instrument. In the santería faith, music and ceremony are one.

Yet Sosa is very much a global citizen. Though born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area (where he established himself as a major force on the local Latin jazz scene) and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

Transparent Water, his collaboration with Senegalese musician Seckou Keita that he’ll bring to the Old Town School of Folk Music on March 15, isn’t even his newest album. That would be Es:sensual, recorded with Germany’s NDR Bigband and arranged by the legendary Brazilian producer Jaques Morelenbaum. Both albums are the product of Sosa’s globetrotting ways and ceaseless artistic curiosity, as is yet another already recorded album that will be released this September. (More on that below.)

Fortunately for Chicago, Sosa has found time in his schedule to put together a tour for Transparent Water with kora player Keita and a frequent collaborator, Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalle. As you might imagine from the title, Transparent Water is a meditative invocation of the flowing of the human spirit, and the Old Town School’s flawless acoustics and reverent audiences are a perfect match. (It was at OTS where I first heard Omar Sosa live almost 15 years ago, and that indelible performance remains my favorite.)

I reached out to Omar Sosa with a few questions about the album and the creative spirit that brought it into existence.

DM: The last time you visited Chicago, it was on the heels of your album ilé with your Quarteto AfroCubano. And while that album was billed as a “homecoming” because it celebrated your Cuban roots, it was anything but inward looking or strictly bound to Cuba. Now, with Transparent Water, you are directly engaging with Africa in the form of kora player Seckou Keita and extending that to Japan by utilizing the koto and China with the sheng and bawu.  What are you looking for in these sounds and collaborations?

OS: I first heard and played with Seckou Keita in London in March 2012, when I was invited by drummer Marque Gilmore to a special show he was producing called Exhibiton of Sound.  I was completely captivated by Seckou’s kora playing – it’s propulsive but gentle rhythmic qualities, its sophisticated but accessible melodic and harmonic elements.  I felt a really good chemistry with Seckou that night, so I was inspired to invite him to join me for a recording project.  About a year later, we gathered at a studio in Osnabrück, Germany and shared song ideas and co-created and prepared the music we recorded that same week.

Just prior to meeting Seckou in Germany, I had been invited to participate in a multi-artist residency in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, curated by Spanish bagpipe player Christina Pato.  One of the musicians there was Wu Tong from Beijing, who plays a traditional flute-like instrument from China called the sheng.  Again, I was captivated, and the extraordinary bending sounds of the sheng stayed in my head and I started hearing them mix with the recordings that Seckou and I made.

As fortune would have it, I was invited to a festival in Shanghai in September of 2013 with my Quarteto AfroCubano, and was able to arrange to travel to Beijing after the show and visit with Wu Tong in his home studio and record tracks that we used in the mixing of the basic tracks with Seckou, and Wu Tong and I recorded a few new pieces as well.

At some point during this process, I saw a show in Paris of the Vietnamese guitarist, Nguyen Le, who has long been a hero of mine.  In his ensemble was Mieko Miyazaki, the koto player from Japan, and yet again, I was captivated by her sound and expressiveness.  As I was planning to mix the Transparent Water tracks in Paris with my producer friend, Steve Argüelles, I was able to invite Mieko to come to Steve’s studio and contribute a few parts to the project.

So, to a large extent, I do not have a fully formed conception or vision of a musical project mapped out in advance.  I am open and susceptible to incorporating sounds into the creative process that I hear along the way.  It’s a matter of being flexible and curious about how various sounds can combine.

DM: Similarly, you’ve gone back to Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles multiple times. What is it about his playing that works with your approach to music?

OS: Gustavo’s exceptional musical sensitivity playing the folkloric percussion instruments from his homeland and the closeness of those instruments to their roots in Africa has always attracted me greatly.  He is a master with the maracas, and quitiplas, and culo’e puya.  And he’s such a swinging ensemble player, always listening carefully, and never trying to overplay, which can happen with drummers.  Gustavo will also be joining me on the touring portion of an upcoming project with Cuban violinist / vocalist, Yilian Cañizares, who lives in Switzerland.  Yilian and I have recorded a CD called Aguas which will be released in September this year.

DM: You’ve put out close to 30 albums is a little over 20 years. Why are you so prolific? Is there a common theme that runs through all of your projects?

OS: There is so much amazing music on the planet, and everywhere I go (upward of 100 shows on five continents a year) I’m inspired by the new sounds and new instruments I encounter, often in traditional and folkloric contexts.  So many of these sounds inspire me to want to create new music!  So there really isn’t a common theme involved, except the expression of my own musical roots in the ritual melodic and rhythmic elements of African music that came to Cuba on the slave ships.
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Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita, Transparent Water | Old Town School of Folk Music, Thursday, March 15. Tickets at oldtownschool.org.