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Harold López-Nussa’s long and beautiful journey

Harold Lopez-Nussa
c/o Blue Note Records
Harold Lopez-Nussa

Harold López-Nussa is a Cuban-born pianist and composer who is one of the most exciting and innovative voices in jazz today. He is known for his virtuosic technique, his deep understanding of Cuban musical traditions, and his ability to blend different genres together in a unique and compelling way.

Born into a musical family in Havana, Cuba, he began playing the piano at a young age, studied at the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, and quickly established himself as one of the leading young pianists in Cuba. In 2005, he won the Montreux Jazz Piano Competition, which helped to launch his international career. Harold has released nine albums as a leader and has collaborated with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Chucho Valdés, David Sánchez, Horacio "El Negro" Hernández, Christian Scott, and Stefon Harris. We recently met to talk about his new Blue Note debut recording, Timba a la Americana produced by Snarky Puppy bandleader, Michael League.

Harold is appearing with his group on November 6 at the Blue Note NYC.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: You were born into a musical family in Havana. Your music reflects the full range and the richness of the Cuban musical tradition with its distinctive combination of folkloric, popular and classical elements, as well as your embrace of improvisation. Tell us a little bit about your musical journey and who were some of your musical influences growing up in Havana.

I was born and grew up in a musical household. My mom was a piano teacher. My father and brother played drums. My uncle is a jazz piano player in Cuba. My grandmother was a piano player, not professional, but a very good piano player too. We grew up listening to music, going to concerts with my parents, surrounded by all kinds of different music, jazz, classical. popular Cuban music. I believe that made me what I am today, all this melange or mix of different music and in a very particularly musical family. I feel lucky to be born and raised in this condition with music every day and every time.

I'm influenced, first, by my family. And if I need to say one musician, I always say Chucho because Chucho Valdes came to play when I was a kid in school in my first year studying piano. He came at the end of the year to do a little concert for us and when I saw Chucho playing, that blew my mind. I was like, I want to play exactly like this. And I'm still trying to play like this, which is impossible. He really inspired me a lot. I think that that was the ticket into jazz, thanks to him.

What a person to spark that ticket, just like you will spark with someone else, listening at a very young age. You recently made the decision to leave Cuba and relocate to France. That is quite a cultural shift. I read where you wanted your recording to sound like Cuba, but you questioned whether that was possible because you didn't want to lose that Cuban groove. How do you balance tradition and innovation in your music?

I believe that the whole album has a lot about all this transition between Cuba and setting up with my family here in France. The changes have not been that easy for me. There is a lot of melancholy. I miss parents and friends and family, and the country and the music. At the same time, it is very exciting to try a new thing. It is very challenging every day because you need to adapt to a new culture, new language, new weather. Having a lot of new experiences that I believe make myself stronger. And my kids for sure have already adjusted.

I believe that the music does surround all this. One of the titles on the album is “Mal du Pays,” which means “homesick” and then the other one is “Suffering to Lose,” and then there is one that is hope, and all this sentimentality is over there. Of course, it's very Cuban because even if we are trying not to be Cuban, the sound of Cuba is there all the time because it's what we are, no matter where we are. It is born.

You've been building a global following for the past two decades. You won the prestigious Montreux Jazz Piano Competition in 2005. Now you join a very prestigious roster of musicians on the Blue Note label. How was that journey? How did you come about the Blue Note label? That's big.

It's like a dream come true. When I first met Don Was, the president of Blue Note, and he showed some interest in doing something with me, I was shocked at that time. But it took some years. The first time that we talked was some years ago. Then finally we signed the contract. It’s been a beautiful journey. He came to Barcelona and we met with Michael League, who is the producer of the album. We spent like days, the three of us eating, drinking and speaking about music. I showed them my little ideas that I had at that time. From there until now, I've been a long journey, but very interesting and very exciting with a lot of challenges in the middle. But finally we got the album out and I'm very happy with the result. It’s definitely a big step for me.

Tell me a little bit about how you hooked up with Michael League, the bandleader of Snarky Puppy, and what sparked that partnership between you and Michael.

Michael is a friend. We met each other in Havana, Cuba. He went to one of our concerts. Apparently, he liked it. He stayed afterwards and we were talking about music. After that he invited me to a festival that he organizes every year in Miami, Florida [the GroundUp Festival] and then we just became friends, sending messages and talking about life and music. We found out that we were living not that far from each other. He's living in Barcelona. I’m in Toulouse. It's like four hours away by car. We just got together more often. When I got the opportunity at Blue Note, I thought of him to help me. He's very smart guy. He speaks perfect Spanish, even Catalan. He knows a lot about Cuban music. He loved Cuban music a lot and he respects a lot of the tradition, but he also has this kind of open, we can say, world music in his mind.

That interests me a lot—his point of view about Cuban music from the outside. He’s a very good producer. He works a lot. The journey in the studio was quite a crazy thing. We were working whole days and changing a lot of things. He’s crazy about music. He can spend all his life in the studio. With me, I remember every night it would be at 11 and I’d say, “Hey, Michael, man, I'm done. I need to go home now.”

Well, that's the job of a producer to keep pushing you to get the sound that you have. I understand he brought some sonic toys into the studio for you to play around with. It took you a little bit out of your comfort zone. Talk a little bit about that.

Definitely. He brought his car full of toys and electronic things, even percussion things. He pushed me to play the Rhodes. We didn't have a Rhodes in the studio, but when he came, he rented a Rhodes by himself. He brought the Rhodes to the studio and then he started to put all those crazy effects on it. It was quite a journey for me. It was like a new toy to play with. Now, I'm becoming a fan of those crazy things, experimenting every day in every concert. I'm trying new things.

It's great when someone can take you out of your comfort zone, because I know as artists, we like to do our thing and not to mess with our thing, but when you can get somebody who can really take you out of that zone and bring a sound to you that you didn't know you had, and then you run with it.

Harold Lopez-Nussa and his band
c/o Blue Note Records
Harold Lopez-Nussa and his band

You've got some great musicians joining you on this recording. You have Gregoire Maret, a great harmonica player. You've got my friend Luques Curtis on the bass. You also have some of your friends, Barbaro “Machito” Crespo. And your brother, Ruy Adrián López Nussa, on the drums. How was that with you working with your family and working with Gregoire and Luques and Barbaro?

Originally we were a quartet, and then we added a percussionist for the album, which is Machito, who I think he represents in the album the real tradition of the Cuban folklore. He came from the very finest dynasty of Rumba in Cuba. His father was a very well-known and respected rumbero in Cuba. You don’t learn this music in school, like I or my brother learned music. You learn from your family.

So he put these roots to them, which is amazing. This band with Gregoire and Luques and Ruy, I think we started playing like one year and a half ago. We started with a tour in the U.S. and we put together this band, and the tour went very well. We spent a lot of time playing, experimenting, talking, and we became friends. We are very comfortable now playing together and spending time together. When you’re on tour, those musicians are your family, are your friends, are your everything. So it's very good to be surrounded by people that you love. I'm very proud and honored to be surrounded by those very fancy musicians, but, at the same time, very nice human beings. So it's wonderful.

I understand that you like to dance. The record is very danceable. I mean, right out the gate, I'm like, “Oh yeah!”

I need to say that I'm a terrible dancer, but I love to dance.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.