If you can only attend one show at this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, I’d highly recommend hitting Harold López-Nussa’s September 14th date at The Jazz Kitchen. López-Nussa is a regular at many of the top international jazz festivals, so catching the Cuban keyboard wizard in the intimate confines of The Jazz Kitchen will offer a rare, and likely unforgettable experience.
López-Nussa’s music is rooted deeply in Cuban tradition, but his voice on the piano overflows with fresh ideas. I recently caught up with the pianist to discuss the past, and future sound of Cuban music.
Kyle Long: I understand you were born into a prolific musical family in Cuba. Your uncle Ernán López-Nussa is an accomplished pianist who played with Silvio Rodríguez and many other important artists in Cuba. Tell me about the role of music in your family’s life.
Harold López-Nussa: I really feel lucky to be born in this family. I was surrounded by music all my life. My mother was a piano teacher. My father is a drummer. As you said, my uncle is kind of a famous piano player in Havana. Even my grandmother was a very good piano player. She was not a professional, but she used to play Chopin a lot in her house. Music is really important in my family.
Kyle Long: You began formal piano studies at age eight. You were initially studying European classical music. At what point did you take an interest in jazz?
Harold López-Nussa: I was always interested in jazz. My father and uncle played jazz. But it took me awhile to decide to try myself. I was learning classical music, so for me the change was scary in the beginning. It’s scary to play something you don’t know. It took me until I was eighteen, that was the point when I decided to try to play jazz.
Kyle Long: There are so many important jazz pianists in Cuban music. What were you listening to that inspired you to try playing jazz?
Harold López-Nussa: Obviously my father and uncle were a huge influence. But also Chucho Valdés. I remember once he came to my school when I was a kid and he was playing for us. I was crazy about his playing. I said to myself, “I want to play this music someday.”
Chucho Valdés’ father Bebo Valdés was also an important pianist for me. Frank Emilio Flynn is another one of my favorite Cuban pianists.
My father and uncle introduced me to the music of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Evans. My father used to listen to a lot of Bill Evans and Miles Davis. So all those big names inspired me.
Kyle Long: I want to hear your thoughts on the evolution of Cuban music. There are a lot of interesting things happening in Cuban music right now with artists mixing traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms with electronic music sounds. In 2009 your music was featured on the British DJ Gilles Peterson’s compilation album Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound.
Do you see yourself as part of this movement to push Cuban music forward?
Harold López-Nussa: Definitely, that’s what we are trying to do. There are so many artists in Cuba right now doing interesting things with jazz, pop, and hip-hop. It’s not just the traditional things people know about Cuba like the son, and bolero. There’s a lot of other things going on in Cuba. I like this a lot when artists mix the traditional music with the future. It’s something very interesting.
In Cuba the most popular music right now is not exactly the best, but there are a lot of great artists doing incredible things. They’re trying to export their art to the rest of the world, but it is hard.
Kyle Long: The United States and Cuba have a beautiful relationship musically, and our individual cultures have enriched one another greatly over the years. Unfortunately our politicians can’t ever get on the same page.
How have the political changes in America under the current presidential administration impacted your ability to share your music with listeners in the United States?
Harold López-Nussa: Definitely, with the Obama administration’s approach to Cuba we had a lot more exposure in the United States. That’s why I was able to make a deal with the label Mack Avenue Records in the United States. I was also able for the first time to do a big tour in the States.
Right now it’s a different situation. It’s getting more and more difficult for us to be here. But we’re still trying. We’re here and we have a 27 city tour, so we feel very lucky.
I feel a huge connection with audiences in the United States. You can feel it. They really appreciate the Cuban music, and they want to know more about it. So for us this is very special to share that.
Kyle Long: Tell me about the group you’ll be bringing to Indianapolis for Jazz Fest.
Harold López-Nussa: This is the same group who played on my last CD Un Día Cualquiera. It’s very special for me because those guys have been playing with me for awhile. My brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa is on drums, and then Gastón Joya is on bass. We’ve been playing together for more than ten years, but this is the first time we are touring together as a trio. I’m very lucky to have those guys playing with me, because they know my music very well. They almost know my compositions better than I do myself.
Kyle Long: Thanks so much for taking time to speak with me. I’m a big of fan your music and it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Harold López-Nussa: Oh no, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.