Cuban pianist and composer, Harold López-Nussa, has recently inked a deal with Blue Note Records, and he has now unveiled the release date of his highly anticipated “Timba a la Americana,” set to hit the shelves on August 25th, 2023. This album finds its inspiration in López-Nussa’s decision to depart from his native Cuba and embark on a new chapter in his life in France. Renowned American musician Michael League, known for his work with Snarky Puppy, took on the role of producer for the album, which presents ten dynamic and original compositions brought to life by a tightly-knit ensemble. The band features harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, Luques Curtis on bass, Bárbaro “Machito” Crespo on congas, and Harold’s brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drums. The album commences with the spirited track ‘Funky,’ a composition that is now available for streaming and download.

López-Nussa’s ascent to international recognition has been steadily progressing over the past twenty years since his victory at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Piano Competition in 2005. His captivating performances have enthralled audiences worldwide, and he has released nine albums as a leader. Additionally, López-Nussa participated in the 2011 collaborative project “Ninety Miles,” which brought together luminaries such as Stefon Harris, David Sanchez, and Christian Scott. Hailing from a musical family in Havana, López-Nussa’s compositions reflect the profound depth and diversity of Cuban musical traditions, expertly blending elements of folklore, popular music, classical influences, and a profound embrace of jazz improvisation.

Recalling his conversations with Blue Note President Don Was, López-Nussa expresses the weighty significance of signing with the renowned label, underscoring his deep sense of responsibility due to the label’s historic legacy. Nevertheless, he emphasizes the understanding and confidence shown by Don Was, which bolstered López-Nussa’s own confidence. Don Was encouraged the pianist to authentically express his artistic vision and share what he felt, allowing him the creative freedom he desired.

Driven by a desire to break away from the conventional structures that have defined Latin jazz since the 1950s, López-Nussa felt compelled to reimagine the clave patterns, which serve as the rhythmic foundation of Cuban music. Collaborating with Michael League, the Snarky Puppy bassist and founder, the two artists sought novel settings for these patterns. They drew inspiration from the danzón dance style originating in Matanzas in the late 1800s, as well as the son tumbao riffs that have framed the songs of revered figures like Beny Moré. Additionally, they explored ancient batá drum rhythms used in spiritual rituals, ingeniously blending them with the intricate polyrhythmic structures of contemporary improvisational ensembles. By forging connections between the spirited mambos of Dizzy Gillespie and Machito and modern concepts of song structure, they breathed new life into the genre.

Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa
Harold Lopez-Nussa with his Trio from Cuba performs at Bohemia Jazz Fest, Liberec, Czech Republic, 2016. Radek Petrasek/CTK Photo via Alamy.

The outcome of their creative collaboration is López-Nussa’s most expansive and ambitious work to date—a thought-provoking and luxuriantly colorful song cycle that serves as a comprehensive modernization of Latin jazz. While Cuba serves as the album’s grounding point, López-Nussa and his band traverse borders of regions, genres, and eras, embodying a spirit of cosmopolitan modernity.

“Timba” also marks the first time López-Nussa has delved into recording using electric instruments and synthesizers. This exploration was encouraged by Michael League, who pushed López-Nussa to embrace new sonic territories. Utilizing a captivating Rhodes keyboard and other electronic equipment, they embarked on a fascinating journey of mixing electronic sounds with López-Nussa’s traditional sensibilities. This artistic restlessness, driven by a respect for tradition, was instrumental in pushing López-Nussa beyond his comfort zone.

López-Nussa credits League for instilling a fearless and boundless creative energy in the studio. League’s openness to expanding artistic possibilities, coupled with his propensity for generating ideas, sparked a dynamic exchange throughout the recording process. López-Nussa marvels at how League maintained the initial energy they shared from their first encounter.

Jane Cornwell is an Australian-born, London-based writer on arts, travel and music for publications and platforms in the UK and Australia, including Songlines and Jazzwise. She’s the former jazz critic of the London Evening Standard.

Header image: Harold Lopez-Nussa. Photo: Frank Siemer/Blue Note Records.