Preview: Two Cuban piano masters together at Symphony Center

– By Don Macica –

It can be argued that Cuba has produced more innovative pianist/composers per capita than any other country on earth. A distinctly syncopated Cuban style emerged out of the blending of European classical music seasoned with African rhythms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous composer of this era is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. By the 1940s jazz was flavoring the stew along with a more overt reference to rhythms of African origin, leading to the development of mambo. When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, pianists Peruchín and Bebo Valdés often were often leading the band. It’s a tradition that continues to this day in the person of young pianists like Alfredo Rodríguez and Harold López-Nussa.

In between those early days of mambo and the emergence of this new generation, however, there are two pianists who tower over the rest.

Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba.  The group, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.

Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba | Photo credit: Softglas

Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young fusion bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (later Jack DeJonette). He made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year.

Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo, Juntos para Siempre, is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.

On February 23, that room will be the stage at Symphony Center when Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, two brilliant pianists and composers with a historic relationship within the Cuban piano tradition, present Trance, a collaboration that explores the profound spiritual connection at the very heart of Cuban music. Expect an open-ended, respectful conversation between two friends whose mutual admiration for each other leads to careful  listening and thoughtful response, adding as needed until ultimately they almost speak as one.

And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will be plenty of sonic fireworks from these master musicians. After all, their hearts beat to the rhythm of Cuba.

Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance
Friday, February 23 at Symphony Center, Chicago Tickets at cso.org.

Harold López-Nussa: The next great Cuban jazz pianist?

Harold López-Nussa
photo: Eduardo Rodriguez

By Don Macica –

When producer and DJ Gilles Peterson went to Havana in 2009 to explore a new generation of young Cuban musicians for his first Havana Cultura project, he encountered plenty of vocalists with talent to burn. It was from that album that I first learned about Daymé Arocena, Melvis Santa, Telmary Diaz and Danay Suárez. Helping him find these talented artists was the Cuban-born pianist Roberto Fonseca, who had toured the world with the Buena Vista Social Club and released a handful of critically acclaimed albums. Tucked away among the many singers and rappers who populated the albums 27 tracks was one outlier: Jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa, who closed the album like a Cuban Herbie Hancock with the lively La Jungla.

Now, through some wonderful cosmic alignment, Chicago will host both López-Nussa and Fonseca in the next week. The latter is part of an all-star band supporting Omara Portuondo, but it’s Lopez-Nussa that is touring behind a brand new album, the terrific El Viaje (Mack Avenue Records), and leading his own trio at Evanston SPACE on October 19.

The conservatory-trained pianist has actually been on the scene for over a decade, and this is certainly not his first trip off the island. He can be heard supporting David Sánchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott on their Cuban excursion Ninety Miles, recorded in Havana in 2010. He, too, has toured the world with Omara Portuondo and other musicians associated with the Buena Vista Social Club. El Viaje, notably, is the first international release of a Cuba-based artist since the lifting of restrictions associated with the longstanding trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, and López-Nussa’s subsequent U.S. tour follows in its wake.

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But enough of context. On to the music!

López-Nussa is a superb pianist regardless of whether he is hewing to traditional Cuban folkloric sources or straying farther afield to straight ahead jazz, pan-African influences (his bass player and sometimes singer Alune Wade hails from Senegal) or even into tango and other South American sounds. Tracks alternate between the serene and introspective (the title track and the breathtakingly lovely Oriente) to lively and percussive (Bacalao con Pan, Feria), but overall the feeling is relaxed, not frantic. It feels as though López-Nussa has already figured out that he doesn’t need to show off his virtuosity, but just play. To these ears, the record sounds something like Weather Report in their prime, with its comfortable coexistence of global influences residing in the same song, propelled along by Wade’s electric bass.

The same tune opens and closes the album, Me Voy pa’ Cuba. It appears first as a bright and cheerful danzón that morphs into some furious piano runs, then returns as the framework for a boisterous rumba jam. In between are stops on a journey that begins and ends in Havana, but finds plenty of inspiration along the way.
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Harold López-Nussa Trio, Wednesday, October 19, 7:30pm, Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave, Evanston. Tickets at evanstonspace.com