Harold López-Nussa Trio – Wellington Opera House 11 June 2017

Photos by Lisa B Doyle/ Wellington Jazz Festival

What a treat, to finish this year’s festival with the Harold López-Nussa Trio. Beaming ear-to-ear, all three, which included Horacio Hernandez (electric bass) and ‘Harry’s’ brother Ruy Adrian (drums) exuded radiant energy, and a real sense of fun.

With a drum kit and a wonderful grand piano placed at the front of the stage it quickly became clear that this was not a single billing. The brothers played off each other all night. It was like they’d been doing this forever, probably with duelling spoons at the dinner table when they were young. Harry’s fingers literally flew across the keys with the subtlest of gossamer touches yet his music was complex and meaty. The rhythms were all based around well-known Cuban themes, mined from a rich boyhood sitting at the knee of his father Ruy Francisco and uncle — Ernán – both gifted pianists from Havana. Harry even played one of his uncle’s pieces tonight, based on a Chopin sonata. But he wasn’t just playing the standards, he was reinventing them. Still in his 20’s Harry plays as if he was born with a piano in the womb. He wiped his face with a towel several times, yet his body language showed a man calm and collected, in contrast to the frantic energy of his fingers.

Harry moves with ease between classical, popular and jazz styles but never shies too far from his Cuban heritage, or his family roots. A quick look at his experiences reveal a recording of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Fourth Piano Concerto” with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra (2003) but also winning the First Prize and Audience Prize of the Jazz Solo Piano Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, in 2005. But he’s done his time outside the jazz world with projects as diverse as Ninety Miles (a recording with David Sánchez, Christian Scott and Stefon Harris) and Esencial (an album of compositions by revered Cuban classical guitarist, composer and conductor Leo Brouwer). If you haven’t heard these then seek them out – the hunt is well worth it. He also did work on the Rhythms del Mundo album, which paired him with veterans from Buena Vista Social Club; and has toured with Omara Portuondo. No wonder the stage seems so natural to him!

Now listening to Harry alone would have been a treat but measure this up against his brother Ruy, who replied to every note with his own interpretation. He performed several solos that totally upstaged his brother, mixing Latin beats with batucada, bongos and wood blocks. Harry had a turn too, making use of a foot pedal version that he played during one of his many solos.

Their repertoire was chosen for its colour and variety including the Afro fusion pieces including several pieces from his new album El Viaje, sadly without the trumpet and Senagalese vocalist and bassist Alune Wade. What is cool is how diverse the music is, moving from sow to full on grooves that are mesmerising and even funky in places. We also go his very cool Fantasmas en Caravana (check out the circus themed video) where his fingers fly at incredible speed.

To break it up there’s a quiet solo dedicated to his mother (Lobo’s Cha), which is so simple and sublime then it’s followed by the brothers playing a traditional 19th Century Cuban song taught to them in their youth. But this is no Chopsticks. Their party piece brought the house down as one brother (mainly Ruy) plays rhythm hands while his brother leads off on tangent after tangent. Then, mid song, and without skipping a beat the get up and swap seats and roles, and then again. It reminded me of Victor Borge, without the silly antics. Another tune, Bacalao con pan, provided yet another opportunity for the brothers to face off in friendly rivalry with Harry pulling out all the stops to blast us with an electric performance on his key board. Again, his fingers moving at lightning speed but somehow you could hear every note and nuance. Then in the other corner Ruy is blasting out endless drum pattern using sticks, brushes and his hands – sometimes all at once it would seem. All the time both are smiling with absolute joy. The audience had picked up on the mood and were soaking it all up. At the end they all stood and stomped loudly in appreciation.
Such was the energy and improvisation on the stage, punters may feel a little let down by the recordings. El Viaje, in particular, is a brilliant record but it just does capture the magic on the stage. There’s only one way to get some of that.

There was, sadly one encore, a very ‘straight’ version of Que Sas Que Sas (Perhaps, Perhaps) to finish the night, and a lone Cajón was left unused. Perhaps the mood, which was overwhelmingly one of fiesta, did not call for it. What a brilliant way to finish the Festival.