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The Conversation : Harold López-Nussa Heads to Payomet

All Photos by Paulo Vitale

by G.W. Mercure

Jazz is a conversation, per the parlance, and it’s a conversation that jazz and Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa was born for.

He is affable, likable before he’s even begun speaking, and warm, but he doesn’t have much passion for swapping words. Especially about something so abstract and complex as music. When asked if jazz is making yet another comeback, he doesn’t swing: “Yeah. I’m not sure about it,” he says. “There are more places…”

It’s not until he begins talking about performing live that he takes his solo.

“Live music is such a wonderful thing,” he says. “I love records. But what I most love about music is playing live concerts. It is where my life is.”

All Photos by Paulo Vitale

López-Nussa is a rising star in the jazz world. He has performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, The Kennedy Center, the SFJAZZ Center, the Newport Jazz Festival, and just about every other jazz festival with one or both of those words in its title. And he has cooked at every one of them. But he has never been far from Havana.

“My family was my first inspiration,” he says. “My father and my uncle. They were playing around with bands, doing jazz.”

López-Nussa’s father, Ruy López-Nussa Lekszycki is a successful percussionist, and his uncle, Ernán López-Nussa, is an accomplished jazz pianist. His mother was a pianist and music instructor. Harold followed her, and his brother, Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, followed their father. Ruy is a frequent collaborator.

Beyond the family, there was the land. “The tradition of Cuban music has a lot of inputs,” he says. And beyond the family and the land, there was the stereo.

“My father, he usually played a lot of Miles and a lot of Coltrane,” he says. “Then much later I discovered all the things that were happening in the U.S. and Europe.” Which, on listening to López-Nussa’s recordings, probably included a lot of Monk and Morgan and Powell.

But for everything that López-Nussa mulled into the mix, it was, is, and likely always will be about Afro-Cuban jazz. “It is like jazz mixing with the Cuban Revolution,” he says. “I was around our music from the very beginning.”

Afro-Cuban jazz is the “black classical” of Cuba, to paraphrase Nina Simone. It’s the music and tradition and culture profiled in the 1999 Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club and the movie’s related soundtracks and soundtrack spin-offs. It’s a stew of Cuban, Caribbean, African, and North American musical—and cultural—structures. And despite appearances, Afro-Cuban jazz didn’t materialize and vaporize in the time it takes for Rolling Stone to make it the token Spanish-language entry on all their ubiquitous lists (Coltrane, Miles, and Mingus had already taken up the token jazz spots);Afro-Cuban jazz is older than the Flintstones. And it moves your ass.

“It is something like the freedom of jazz, with the dancing flavor of Cuban music,” says López-Nussa. But he knows that the only real definition of Cuban jazz comes from the form itself, its execution, its performance, and engagement with it. Of course, it is possible to provide a definition of jazz simple enough to relax a layman, but it would leave an awful lot out. In his answers, López-Nussa occasionally hits a note that resonates enough to fill in those blanks a little: “Freedom” is one; “bridge” is another; “working” is a good one; so is “happiness.” But he gets closest when he says “listening.”

López-Nussa and Timba a la Americana are touring in support of the band’s eponymous album, which will be released August 25. The band features López-Nussa, Pat Metheny Group veteran Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Luques Curtis on bass, and Ruy Adrian López-Nussa on percussion. Like the old saying, “the church is the people,” López-Nussa finds the essence of jazz in these musicians.

“This particular band we created for a tour we did in the U.S.,” he says. The tour was so successful that when López-Nussa needed a band to complete an album for his new deal with legendary Blue Note Records, he reassembled them. “We love each other and we love to spend time together, which is very important for me,” he says. “We’re working a lot,” he continues.

“It is where my life is,” he says of the stage, of live performance. “It’s my happy place in the world on a stage playing this before people with my guys. It’s a huge opportunity to have the possibility to play music live for people and to share music and transform the audience’s energy… We always want to share with people our joy at playing music.”

For many, the draw of live music is that it provides something that recorded music doesn’t, although it is not easy to put into words what exactly that intangible thing is. The sense of event and occasion? That argument can be made. The visual, the spectacle, the bodies, that element of the performance language? No doubt. But for many jazz lovers, from swing to bebop to fusion to Afro-Cuban, it is this: eavesdropping while musicians, in real-time and not only right in front of you but in many ways as a result of you, listen to one another. Or, to put it much more simply, the conversation. And Harold López-Nussa, despite his reticence otherwise, is a master conversationalist.

Harold López-Nussa & Timba a la Americana featuring Grégoire Maret w/ Luques Curtis & Ruy Adrian López-Nussa perform Saturday, August 5, 7 p.m., at Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., N. Truro. For tickets ($30 – $55) and information call 508.349.2929 or visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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