Pianist Harold López-Nussa is his own bold and expressive rhythm section.
Un Día Cualquiera, Harold López-Nussa. (Mack Avenue)
By Michael Ullman
To some extent, Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa’s second album for Mack Avenue could be called a family affair: his brother Ruy is the drummer. (The trio is rounded out by bassist Gaston Joya.) Music has perhaps always been connected to legacy for the pianist, who is now in his mid-thirties. He comes from one of the most distinguished musical families in Cuba: his father is a drummer and his uncle a well-known pianist. On his new disc, he pays tribute to other Cubans that American jazz fans know well: to pianist Chucho Valdes and his father Bebo Valdes and, with versions of two of his tunes, to composer Ernest Lecuona, whose dance number “Y la Negra Bailaba” is a delight.
López-Nussa proffers a big sounding, two-handed style of playing; his sound is broad and his rhythms charming as well as churning. The performances here are rhythmically supple, tempos varied even within a single tune. On “Y la Negra Bailaba” López-Nussa initially plays the melody boldly, sequels into a momentary ritard and, once everything has quieted down, seems to welcome the noise of the rhythm section. Then, after a minute or so, he suddenly changes the rhythm and accelerates wildly as his brother plays an exaggerated, raggy rhythm behind him. The next chorus finds him playing gently again. The changes, which never forsake lyricism, will make most listeners smile. The zig-zag is a tribute to the soft pianism of the great Bebo Valdes, who died in 2013 at the age of 94. “Una Tarde Cualquiera en Paris” begins the volume low, but then erupts into hardy improvisations. There’s even some blues in there, as well as a zestful solo by bassist Joya and a vibrant, even aggressive, solo by brother Ruy.
The disc begins with “Cimarrón,” which is highlighted by the snappy rhythms of Ruy on his high-hat. The musicians on the tune are both emphatic and subtly attuned to each other. Note how the pianist takes short bursts, with the drummer and bassist magically managing to stay out of his way. Or the crisp manner in which drummer and piano introduce the bass solo and then provide amusing interjections as the solo unfolds at seemingly two different tempos.
In contrast, the solo piano feature “Ma Petit dans a Boulangerie” sounds more innocent, to point of coming off as childishly playful. The virtuosic interplay between the pianist’s hands is exhilarating here. López-Nussa is his own bold and expressive rhythm section. When he plays single lines, each note is played distinctly, given ample weight. López-Nussa never glides over the keys. His ballads such as “Preludio” are both sophisticated yet immediately appealing. Everything on Un Día Cualquiera is skillfully grand and sunny. On “Hialeah” we hear the drummer on bongos: the piece even contains some light-hearted yelling. It’s joyous and, in the best sense of the word, professional.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.)