Thursday, September 1, 2011

López-Nussa Rocks the Cardinal Bar

                                                                                                     SK photo © 2011

by Susan Kepecs

Last Sunday night I caught the Ernan López-Nussa trio at the Cardinal Bar. That afternoon the high-end Cuban jazz outfit played the Orton Park Festival, but this is nightclub music, and I chose to hear it where it belongs. Kudos to Cardinal proprietor Ricardo Gonzalez for providing a rare treat in a town where non-local jazz is usually relegated to the formal constraints of the proscenium arch – think the Isthmus Jazz Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and Sonny Rollins or Kenny Barron at the Overture. That never feels right to me – jazz, a spontaneous artform, demands a drink in your hand, friends at your table, the right ambience for head-bopping and the freedom to say “yeah!”
López-Nussa, a Havana native, is, like all great musicians raised in Revolutionary Cuba, conservatory trained. Early in his career he worked with Silvio Rodríguez, whose nueva trova, while far from my favorite style, provides some of the satisfying softness that comes through in López-Nussa’s own sound. With jazz giant Bobby Carcassés’ Afrocuba, López-Nussa honed his guaguancó. Today the versatile pianist, who’s got six or seven albums under his belt (most of them not available in the States) is a big name in Cuba. But while this is his second (or third?) U.S. tour, he’s not nearly as well known here as other piano titans from the embargoed island like Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Omar Sosa.  That’s a shame, since López-Nussa’s phenomenal jazz criollo explodes with sabor.  Based on the stately danzón and contradanza rhythms of nineteenth century Cuba – a fortuitous marriage of the Viennese waltzes that were the rage in Europe and Afro-Cuban influences – it’s a gentler sound than the mambo / rumba jazz played by Lopez-Nussa’s counterparts.  Not that criollo is Lopez-Nussa’s only style; Sunday night he ranged from from Bach to bossa nova, mixed montunos with modal progressions and plunged into some tasty jazz/rock fusions.
Onstage at the Cardinal, López-Nussa’s remarkable rapport with his Cuba-born sidemen, Jimmy Branley on drums and Jorge Alexander on bass, stood out. Branley’s a subtle but sparkling drummer with some of Roy Haynes’ snap-crackle in his sticks.  His credits include Valdés and Rubalcaba, plus NG la Banda, the band that invented timba and is still the only timba outfit I enjoy. Alexander started playing with López-Nussa at the turn of this century, in the latter’s jazz fusion band Habana Report (the name evokes the king of ‘70s fusion bands, Weather Report, fronted by Wayne Shorter and the late, great keyboardist Joe Zawinul – and the influences of both players are evident in Lopez Nussa’s style).
                                                                         SK photo © 2011
López-Nussa, Branley and Alexander, clearly in love with their music, sat facing each other, conversing, I swear, flirtatiously, via their instruments.  It was some of the best musical dialogue I’ve heard in years.  
           At one point López-Nussa, grinning, looked up from the keys saying “I’m going to do a sacrilege!” and launched in to Chopin’s Waltz No. 7 from Les Sylphides. From straight-up Romanticism López-Nussa swung seamlessly into danzón, letting the audience experience the blood tie between the two forms.  Say yeah!
López-Nussa served up several more spot-on danzones and a contradanza, all filled with soaring improvizations, plus some brilliant two-fisted piano playing on a playful piece of jazz / gospel / rock fusion. In a fine Cuban finish the trio took off on Rafael Fernández’ famous guaracha, “Capullito de Aleli.” I left wishing for more, and ready to spring for all the Lopez-Nussa CDs I can find. 

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