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For his latest album, Cuban jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa pays tribute to popular music of the island.
“Te Lo Dije!” [I told you so!] Harold López-Nussa seems to brag from the CD cover of his new record. Te Lo Dije is the ninth LP from the Cuban pianist who tours regularly in France.
The previous (and terrific) Un Dia Cualquiera was recorded in the United States. From the first moment here, it’s obvious that we’ve returned to Havana. “Bocadito de Helado!” is the call of the ice cream man, the intoxicating recording that plays everywhere throughout the capital. These are the kinds of street noises that Alfonso Peña, one of the best sound engineers in his country, weaves into “Habana Sin Sábanas.” For this overture, which can be translated as “Havana Without Makeup,” Harold López-Nussa introduces his new quartet instead of the trio that we are used to.
A new formula for an eclectic album. Beside Harold’s brother, the impressive drummer Ruy Adrián, we have the trumpeter Mayquel González and the electric bass of Julio César González. Julio César brings the combo away from traditional music, while Mayquel steers it toward jazz. These musicians know each other well from playing together in the López-Nussa Family, which also stars Harold’s father Ruy, and Ernán, his renowned uncle, drummer and pianist.
My daughters were the judges!
Via video conference, the medium of the moment, I interview the musician back in a just-shut-down Havana. I start by giving him my reactions. “You can hear your daughters’ voices in Te Lo Dije. There’s something childlike about this album, isn’t there?” “We had a lot of fun,” the pianist confirms. “We wanted to have fun, create refreshing music, let our innocence express itself. It was my daughters who were the judges!” he adds with a laugh. Paola and Lila, self-appointed in-house jury of the new star of Cuba’s Got Talent.
If there’s one song that will make children dance, it’s “El Baile Del Buey Cansao,” a perfect illustration (as is “Chirrín Chirrán” or “Llegue Llegue”) of the unbelievable creativity of Los Van Van of Juan Formell, in its early years. Harold opens up the boundaries, giving his musicians new space for freedom. Brought in to add his voice to this standard of popular music, the funk singer Cimafunk once again does wonders by bringing a new modern sensibility.
The end of the 70s. High collared shirts, moustaches and sideburns, the quartet remakes “Buey Cansao” from the black and white “Para Bailar,” a Sunday talent show very popular in Cuba then. Cimafunk takes to it like a fish to water. Directed by Nelson Ponse, Raupa and Mola, a brilliant trio of graphic designers and videographers, the video is absolutely irresistible. Incidentally, Rebeca Martínez, the dancer who appears at the end of the video, also danced in the original version for “Para Bailar.”
Los Van Van, Michel Legrand and an insolent reggaeton are the markers of a record that takes sweeping looks at popular culture.
Faithfully, Harold López-Nussa invokes the memories of those who inspired him, including his grandfather.
Open the door to the family’s home, and you are inside “El Altelier.” The rehearsal studio was the longtime art studio of Leonel López-Nussa, graphic designer, painter, critic, and journalist whose works adorn the walls, a space for inspiration where Harold kept his student’s piano in a small room where he composed a tribute to his grandfather, who disappeared when Harold was barely 20 years old.
Harold’s admiration for Michel Legrand comes from his French grandmother, who was Leonel’s wife. For “The Windmills of Your Mind,” he welcomes Vincent Peirani, with whom he collaborated in Marseille in 2019 for the project “Around the World.” A small part for the accordionist, whose elegance is reminiscent of the harmonica player Grégoire Maret, and with whom Harold played at the 2018 North Sea Jazz Festival.
The pianist pays tribute to the innovators of GESI, a famous musical experimentation group in the 1970s, which saw Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés pass through its ranks. Harold takes up one of Leo Brouwer‘s most beautiful ballads: “Un Día de Noviembre.” He offers a remarkable rereading of it, and substituting the trumpet and the piano for the maestro’s guitar, infuses it with majesty and solemnity.
Earlier, in a mambo named for his youngest daughter, Harold found inspiration from Emiliano Salvador‘s touch. The pianist, who died early in 1992, has inspired an entire generation of musicians.
"Lila’s Mambo,” the mozambique “Te Lo Dije,” what delightful timepieces! The record distills styles… “Timbeando,” a Rhodes-inspired timba, “Jocosa Guajira,” an electric guajira led by an equally electric Kelvis Ochoa, or even “Van Van Meets New Orleans Minds,” a songo that turns into a makuta before jumping into the Mississippi.
And then there is “JazzTón,” a reggaeton. Dismay. “But which fly bit you?” I ask. Harold bursts out laughing. “It’s true reggaeton is not well loved. With Randy Malcom [from the world famous duo Gente De Zona], we wanted to play with the groove. He is an excellent musician. He was a percussionist in La Charanga Habanera. A hell of a challenge!” Rather successful, we will admit.
“We just did very simple things,” the pianist concludes modestly. I look at him with a frown, since I find so many of the works to be well chiseled. “Very simple things, really?”
When jazz meets popular Cuban music, typically for Harold Lopéz-Nussa, with his versatility and ingenuity, nothing comes out simple.