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