Roberto Fonseca – Abuc
(Impulse. CD Review by John L. Walters)
Roberto Fonseca is a talented and original Cuban jazz pianist, but as a recording artist he is much more. Through the eight CDs he has made under his own name he has demonstrated an interest in making albums that are fun, melodic and accessible. Yet at the same time, these releases are musically credible and demonstrate his fine chops. He is also ‘accessible’ to jazz fans. To my mind, this puts him in a special (and rare) category of performer-record producer. There are plenty of good jazz artists out there who don’t make really coherent, produced records – often deliberately, because they want to make a ‘calling card’ recording that reflects their gigs. But for those of us who grew to love jazz through deliberately well produced classic albums – Tijuana Moods, New Orleans Suite, Have A Little Faith – the emergence of newer artists prepared to step up to this bar is a cause for celebration.
Though he first came to prominence via a world tour by Buena Vista Social Club artists, Fonseca is from a different generation. Born in 1975, he stepped into the shoes of Rubén González after the diminutive octogenarian pianist died late in 2003. On the night I first witnessed Fonseca, with Ibrahim Ferrer and co. at the Barbican Concert Hall, he brought the house down with a bravura piano solo, structured like a composition, and leading to a devastatingly virtuosic finale.
Fonseca’s debut Zamazu (2007) proved that he could embrace anything from traditional Cuban, through fusion, to authentic jazz, and that he had the hard-won technique – and the tunes – to do it with ease. His collaborations with DJs such as Gilles Peterson kora players such as Sekou Kouyaté, Baba Sissoko and Cherif Soumano have showed sides to his personality that are both empathetic and adventurous. For the new album Fonseca has collaborated with several co-producers, notably Daniel Florestano and Count (aka Mikael Eldridge), who did the superb mix.
Abuc (Cuba spelled backwards), his eighth album, is a bold, brash offering for the age of iTunes – as varied as a compilation album, but united by Fonseca’s strong personality. There’s a substantial jazz element, opening and closing with versions of Ray Bryant’s 1950s classic Cubano Chant, but Fonseca sticks his neck out beyond jazz to explore what he can do with Cuban rhythms and textures, composing some potential classics of his own en route. The extravagantly collaged Afro Mambo (on YouTube)), featuring vocalists Daymé Arocena and Carlos Calunga, is non-stop stop-go fun, while Tumbao De La Unidad (on YouTube), a collaboration with veteran guitarist / vocalist Eliades Ochoa, sounds like the hallucinated remix of a lost track from the Buena Vista Club sessions. Contradanza Del Espíritu (YouTube) revisits Fonseca’s contrapuntal, classical instincts (present since his debut album), with subtle, emotional drumming from Ramsés “Dynamite” Rodríguez. Tierra Santa is a rollicking horn-led instrumental, reprised three tracks later in a brief ‘street band’ version, Tierra Santa Santiago De Cuba. Sagrado Corazón is a stately anthem that demonstrates Fonseca’s skill in playing a simple, heartfelt theme.
The magnificent old-school organ groove of Family (featuring Rafael Lay Bravo and Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez from Orquesta Aragón) digs deep into your brain, with an engaging hook and gleeful horns. Habanera (YouTube) features a wordless vocal from an uncredited soprano, and floats over a subtle rhythm track with a resonant riff played by bassist Randy Martínez Rodríguez. The track is more than halfway through before Fonseca eases into a sublime solo that put me in mind of Ahmad Jamal, and Danilo Perez (in his calmer moments). Fonseca could make a whole, smooth-running album of this kind of intelligent lounge, but his producer’s brain sequences Abuc so that each track changes the pace. From Habanera we swing into the sneaky groove of Soul Guardians, featuring Obsesién rapper Alexey Rodríguez Mola (‘gracias por la música’), followed by the energetic Asere Monina Bonco, with prominent flute and percussion.
As the album nears its conclusion, Fonseca pulls a new from his sleeve, and it’s a heart – the gorgeous Después, co-written by Mercedes Cortes and made even more heart-tuggingly sentimental by the trumpet of Buena Vista veteran Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal. The mysterious Velas Y Flores follows, establishing yet another mood before Fonseca concludes his magnificent album with the wry calm of a solo piano Cubano Chant. Which means you are set to listen to Abuc all over again.
LINKS: JLW review of Havana Cultura in the Guardian,
JLW review of La Linea festival including Fonseca for London Jazz News
JLW ‘First sight’ column about Fonseca in 2007
Roberto Fonseca will be performing at the Barbican in London on March 13 2017. (BOOKING)