Gifted Cuban pianist López-Nussa to bring Soraya jazz fest to smoking finale


ed. note: The trio of concerts over a single weekend—Gerald Clayton Sextet (Feb 17), Gretchen Parlato (Feb 18), and the Harold López-Nussa Trio (Feb 19)—are the grand finale of the Soraya’s jazz festival, Jazz at Naz.

This interview, conducted by artsmeme jazz writer, Kirk Silsbee, was commissioned by The Soraya and first appeared on the theater’s blogsite.

Havana right now is positively teeming with exciting new music. Mass communication has opened Cuban musicians to the world. Musical inputs from Africa, the U.S., South America and Europe course through Havana’s bands these days. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the trio of keyboardist Harold López-Nussa. “It’s not just salsa, son, and mambo,” he says, on a Zoom call from his home in the Verdado neighborhood of Havana. “There’s so much going on here, in dance clubs and jam sessions, and it’s all very exciting.”

Soraya patrons will recall the López-Nussa Trio’s opening set in 2018 for Juan de Marco’s Afro-Cuban All Stars. Although he has appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival, and a couple of forays at the late, lamented Blue Whale in downtown Los Angeles, the upcoming Soraya concert is López-Nussa’s most important Southland gig to date. His latest of three releases for the local Mack Avenue label, “Te Lo Dije” (Spanish for “Told you so”) should further strengthen López-Nussa’s ties here.

As with so many under-forty musicians, Harold López-Nussa’s music is a crossroads of styles. In his case, that means Cuban son, jazz, funk, Afro pop, and much more. Los Van Van, the hugely successful and influential Cuban band, innovated the songo rhythm, an important ingredient for López-Nussa’s music. He says, “Los Van Van, with their singer, Pedro Calvo, was the biggest thing in Cuba. They had big hit records that are still popular. I grew up hearing them, and bassist-leader Juan Formell put a stamp of quality on everything they did.”

One of López-Nussa’s most important piano inspirations is the late Chick Corea, who passed away last year. You hear it in his pianistic agility, but López-Nussa also took on board Corea’s omnivorous appetite for all kinds of music. “I come from a musical family,” López-Nussa says, “so I heard recordings that were hard to get in Cuba. Along with Herbie Hancock, Chick touched me deeply. I took a master class with him at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I’m still working on the material he showed me there. He was a jazz pianist, sure, but Chick always surprised us with where he went in his music.”

López-Nussa will be joined at The Soraya by bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Ruy López-Nussa, his younger brother. These three instrumental voices, through interacting and improvising, draw awe-inspiring levels of cross-fire. The technical virtuosity is on full display; but the playfulness and exultant dance rhythms are ever-present.  

Soraya Executive Director Thor Steingraber put the jazz festival together. Steingraber, who just shepherded The Soraya through its tenth anniversary season, is unequivocal in his support of the music. “L.A. has been an unstable jazz market since Covid 19 hit,” he says, with clear concern. “One glimmer of hope is the number of artists who’ve decided to make their homes here. I think we’re at an inflection point, and if the jazz venues don’t catch-up to the talent we have here, then shame on us.” An avid Dodger fan, Steingraber put it like this: “At The Soraya, we want L.A jazz to have a home team.”

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

Harold Lopez-Nussa | Jazz at Naz, The Soraya | Sat Feb 19

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