Saturday’s Harold López-Nussa Trio concert at the Kahilu Theatre was historic on many levels. Not only was it the last night on their 32-city world tour, and the first time a Cuban Jazz ensemble has ever played the Big Island, but it was also one of those rare Kahilu shows where the audience is so appreciative, they let every last note fade into complete silence before bursting into applause.
Harold López-Nussa is one of the brightest lights on Havana’s thriving jazz scene, and he comes from one of the most distinguished musical families in Cuba. While touring with Buena Vista Social Club’s vocalist Omara Portuondo, López-Nussa launched his solo career as the leader of an unmatched trio with his younger brother, drummer Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, and bassist Gastón Joya.
The 34-year-old Cuban pianist played selections from his brilliant 2018 release, Un Día Cualquiera, which translates to “A Typical Day,” but there was nothing typical about his robust 90-minute set. The album is partly a tribute to classic Cuban composers and icons like Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote “Malaguena,” and is often called “the Gershwin of Cuba.” “Lobo’s Cha,” played toward the end of the set, is a nod to Harrold’s uncle Ernan López-Nussa, a renowned Cuban pianist. Grammy winner Chucho Valdés was also honored with his composition “Bacalao con pan,” a track Harrold covered on his 2016 album, El Viaje.
López-Nussa doesn’t sing, but did talk to the audience between songs, joking, “My English is not that good, and my Spanish is just a little better, so I’ll try out my Spanglish.” He added that although this was the Trio’s first visit to Hawai’i, it hopefully won’t be their last.
Drummer Ruy Adrián López-Nussa kept things moving with a ferociously focused drive. His solos generated a lot of heat, but he played softly too – tapping the snare lightly with just his fingertips while blowing into a Melodion Melodica. On “Cimarrón,” Ruy stepped away from his drum kit, and was featured center stage on the cajón drum box. Later on, he unleashed a ten-minute drum solo packed with shifting rhythms, often at a breakneck pace.
Gastón Joya, the Guanabacoa-native bass player, is already considered one of Cuba’s musical stars. He’s been a sideman for Chucho Valdés, and his first album received an award at Cuba’s Cubadisco music festival. Joya played an acoustic upright bass tightly sandwiched between the López-Nussa brothers. His was not just a supportive role, his solos demonstrated an elegant touch that glided between meditative patterns to clusters of jazz grooves that had the crowd on their feet cheering.
Just before the Trio’s hana hou, the Kahilu’s Executive Director Deb Goodwin and Artistic Director Chuck Gessert, came out to place leis each band member. Returning to their instruments, the evening ended with the touching “Contigo en la Distancia,” [With you in the distance] a bolero written by Cuban singer-songwriter César Portillo de la Luz. After the show, delighted fans had the opportunity to have CDs signed and take photos with the group.
Elegua | Y la negra bailaba | Una tarde cualquiera en Paris (to Bebo Valdes) | Preludio (to Jose Juan) | Cimarrón | Paseo | Lobo’s Cha | Bacalao con pan
Contigo en la Distancia
Please visit Harold López-Nussa’s official site for the latest music news: https://www.haroldlopeznussa.com
Read my interview with Harold López-Nussa: https://bigislandmusic.net/harold-lopez-nussa-from-havana-to-hawaii/
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos by Steve Roby and Eduardo-Rawdriguez.
* Shortly after this article was published, I received an email from Darby Thompson, a piano tuner on the Big Island who keeps the Kahilu’s Steinway sounding golden. Apparently, the Harold Lopez- Nussa Trio was not the first Cuban ensemble to play the Big Island.
“[In 2011], the Kahilu hosted the Afro-Cuban Allstars – one of my favorite evenings at the theatre – back when things were looser and we were all dancing in the aisles! They defined ‘joyful noise’.”