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Harold López-Nussa and the Lure of the Street

The Cuban pianist makes a personal statement with his latest album Te Lo Dije

Harold López-Nussa
Harold López-Nussa and his flying fingers (photo: Gabriel Bianchini)

The lead video for Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa’s latest album, Te Lo Dije, is an out-of-character dazzler. As López-Nussa works through a tune in the studio, the notes on his sheet music morph into dancers in top hats and leotards. Before long, his fingers are flying along the keyboards and Randy Malcom of the reggaeton group Gente de Zona is belting out the vocals. By the end of the song, “JazzTón,” the dancers have grown horns and tails and are taking turns on a stripper’s pole as López-Nussa and Malcom sign an official document that seems to convey their souls to the devil.

The tension between culturally sacred and profane music has been a tug of war for most of López-Nussa’s life. Born into a musical family, he was taught by his mother on his grandmother’s piano and enrolled in Cuba’s finest music schools beginning at age eight. By his mid-teens, he was more comfortable playing Mozart and Tchaikovsky than the songo, rumba, rock, and montuno blasting from the windows of his neighbors in Havana, or played by his father and uncles when they’d moonlight at gigs Harold attended.

“I was scared to try and play that kind of music. I was very academic,” he confessed.

By his late teens López-Nussa began to break free from the psychological strictures of the conservatory, toured with Buena Vista Social Club vocalist Omara Portuondo and other popular musicians, and eventually evolved into a kinetic force and rising star of jazz piano. But in 2019, at age 36, he began to pursue an idea that had been on his mind for a couple of years: a fervent embrace of all the popular musics and personal touchstones that had molded him.

The result was Te Lo Dije, his ninth album as a leader (and third for Mack Avenue). The title translates as “I told you so,” and the cover photo features López-Nussa’s head blurred forward in mid-shout. The video for “JazzTón” was the cherry on top. It is the most personal, joyful, and stylistically varied work of his career thus far.

At first López-Nussa concentrated on jazz-dance hybrids, generating “that feeling in your body where even if you are not dancing, you have to move in your seat.” Malcom and a horn section helped him through the challenge of reggaeton, but the music on the rest of the dance material is with his core quartet. Each of his three sidemen share his classical training, his inherent love of the gusto of various popular styles, and the ability to blend it with more sophisticated jazz improvisation. Harold explains the musicality of his brother and longtime drummer Ruy Adrián López-Nussa by noting that “he was a pianist at one time and still thinks like one.” He similarly likes the way Mayquel González avoids the pushing, high-note frenzy typical of most Cuban trumpeters in favor of melodic swing and improvisational subtlety. And youngest member Julio César González, a classical guitarist turned electric bassist, is praised for his “funky groove and the dynamics he helps create. This band can go from pianissimo to fortissimo and back very easily, with incredible energy.”

You hear it in the way brother Ruy sets the tone on the title song, which brims with the percussive strut of mozambique, a style popularized in the 1960s by percussionist Pello el Afrokán; in the trumpet/piano jousts of “Habana Sin Sábanas,” a mélange of street musics from Harold’s beloved native city; in the undercurrent of the electric bass on the Spanish-tinged rhythms of “Jocosa Guajira,” featuring vocalist Kelvis Ochoa. López-Nussa’s love of the eminent songo group Los Van Van gets its due on a chant-and-handclap cover of the band’s “El Buey Cansao,” featuring Cuban star Cimafunk on vocals, plus the self-explanatory hybrid of the closer, “Van Van Meets New Orleans”—a songo-gumbo delicacy.

As the dance songs unfolded, López-Nussa realized his motivation was personal history, and filled out the program with other numbers that carried emotional resonance. In honor of his French grandmother, who owned the piano he currently plays in his home, he asked accordionist Vincent Peirani to join him on the famous Michel Legrand French-movie ballad, “The Windmills of Your Mind.” The album’s other ballad, “Un Día de Noviembre,” is by the noted composer and family friend Leo Brouwer, chosen by López-Nussa as “a place for calm” amid a bevy of dance numbers and reworked from an original solo guitar arrangement.

López-Nussa also rearranged two of his own earliest compositions for the quartet. One, “Sobre El Atelier,” is a remembrance of his grandfather’s art studio located above his boyhood home, the mood of quiet intensity captured by luscious trumpet. The other, “Timbeando,” the first song López-Nussa ever wrote, explores the multihued pop music of timba, with López-Nussa’s electric piano reminiscent of both Chick Corea and Stevie Wonder.

The remaining song is “Lila’s Mambo,” a playfully gallivanting ode to López-Nussa’s youngest daughter, spangled by the pianist’s now-trademark ostinatos and doubling of the bassline with his left hand. “I brought all my daughters to sing with us on one or two songs, because I know this record is something special for me historically,” López-Nussa said. “It shows the moment I am living in, the age of my daughters at this time.”

What started as an attempt to grapple with his own professional attraction and aversion to the “street music” of Cuba became what he calls “a higher result. It was a search through my own personality, my life, my heritage from France to Cuba to the States, and the influences of classical, jazz, pop, and rock. It is a statement about myself and I tried to be very honest, to show my way to do this music I love. That is why it is so joyful.”