Roberto Fonseca: Yesun (Mack Avenue)

A review of the Cuban pianist's ninth album

Roberto Fonseca, Yesun
The cover of Yesun by Roberto Fonseca

Is it necessary for jazz to be “challenging” or “complex” in order to be considered “good”?  Pianist Roberto Fonseca blazes few new trails here, despite his blending of styles and influences that some might consider disparate, if not oppositional. “We have a little mambo and rumba, some reggaeton and hip-hop,” he says in the online press release, adding that “[t]his song is calling people to a party so nice it will fill your soul completely.”

It’s that “nice” that some might find problematic. “La Llamada,” textured by darkly propulsive yet buoyant interplay between Fonseca, bassist Yandy Martínez Rodríguez, and drummer Raul Herrera, is infused with a brooding romanticism that’s accentuated by the breathy vocals of the group Gema 4: ethereal enough to retain a sense of mystery, yet dangerously close to crossing the line between poignant and prettified. “Cadenas” is funkier –—there are echoes of Stevie Wonder in Fonseca’s keyboard work—and guest vocalist/rapper Danay Suárez’s vocal timbre is girded with more emotional nuance than most North American rappers seem able or willing to summon, but the electronically tweaked sung vocals may either widen the sonic spectrum or dilute the immediacy of the message, depending on one’s perspective. Saxophonist Joe Lovano negotiates the bop-like melody line of “Vivo” with unerring crispness, and his bristling tone effectively leavens the grandiosity of the arrangement, although one wishes he’d been given the opportunity to stretch out more.

At times, as on “Mambo pa la Niña,” with its heady meld of organ-trio soul and funk/salsa rhythms spiced with New Orleans-tinged keyboard curlicues from Fonseca, we’re delivered from “niceness” into a full-on, ecstatic dance party. Elsewhere, though, despite the well-honed chops and imaginative depth of all concerned, the blend of aesthetics and influences results mostly in a mix that’s pleasant and occasionally bracing, but with few outright challenges or fresh angles of vision.

Preview, buy or download Yesun on Amazon!

Watch the video for Roberto Fonseca’s “Aggua.”

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.