Cuba seems to produce pianists the way Brazil produces soccer players.
The quality and quantity of jazz pianists from Cuba, all seemingly raised in the most exacting classical school yet all seemingly just as fluent in the popular and jazz traditions, is just astonishing.
Consider Cuban jazz pianist and composer Harold López-Nussa, 34. He was born, and grew up, surrounded by music. His father, Ruy Francisco López-Nussa is a well-known drummer, his uncle Ernán, is an influential pianist, composer and arranger, founder of the groups Afrocuba and Cuarto Espacio and his late mother, Mayra Torres, was a piano teacher and a critical influence on his playing and outlook. “90% of what I am today I owe to my mother,” he once said. “When I was a child she was always on my side. She taught me the piano and also […] to know that it’s not the end of the world to make a mistake. That’s something you have to learn as well.”
López-Nussa and his trio, featuring his younger brother Adrián Ruy López-Nussa on drums and Julio César González on bass, play at the Rose & Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center on the Nova Southeastern University campus, presented by South Florida Jazz, Saturday at 8 p.m.
López-Nussa wasn’t always a jazz musician. Yes, there was always jazz in the house,but from the time he entered the Manuel Saumell Conservatory at the age of 8 and until he was 18, the focus was strictly on classical music.
“What did it for me was when Chucho [Valdés] came to play at the Conservatory,” he told me in a conversation from his home in Havana, last year. “I was very young, I was eight or nine, but since then, I knew I wanted to play jazz. For awhile, I didn´t have the courage for it, but 10 years later, I tried it.”
In all those years, jazz was a scary proposition. “Improvisation was scary. That idea of not knowing what you are going to play next,” he said. “At school I learned the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. It was all very clear. That permanent risk in which jazz musicians find themselves all the time was terrifying — of course, now I find myself in that risk all the time. Some nights it works out great — but then in others maybe it doesn’t. But of course, that precisely is also what makes [playing jazz] so wonderful.”
He said he eventually took his chances with jazz encouraged by his family.
“They would tell me, and I remember it well, and that the only way to learn to play jazz is by playing it, by trying and making mistakes,” he said. “They were very supportive.”
As a jazz musician, López-Nussa has summed up his experiences in the classical (look for his recording of Heitor Villa-Lobos´s “Concerto For Piano No. 4” with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra) and popular music worlds (he spent three years touring with singer Omara Portuondo) into a rich, direct and forceful style at the piano — and also an audience-oriented approach as a performer.
“My music is unpretentious,” he said while discussing his most recent recording El Viaje. “I’m not trying to show off anything technical. It’s not music for musicians. I want everybody to enjoy it. In fact, what I want is for people who don’t usually listen to jazz to enjoy it and have as much fun with it as I have playing it.”
South Florida Jazz presents Harold López-Nussa and his trio at the Rose & Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center on the Nova Southeastern University campus, Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased from Ticketmaster either online via southfloridajazz.org or by calling 954-462-0222