The syncretic sounds of Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca | Bleader

The syncretic sounds of Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca

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Roberto Fonseca
  • Carlos Pericás
  • Roberto Fonseca
On Sunday night the Buena Vista Social Club returns to Chicago with a concert at Symphony Center. Many of the all-star Cuban orchestra's greatest voices have died since the group became an unexpected phenomenon starting in 1998—including singer and tres player Compay Segundo, singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Pio Leyva, and pianist Ruben Gonzalez—and it's been half a dozen years since the group has made any recordings, but there's still plenty of firepower remaining. The lineup this weekend includes singer Omara Portuondo, singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, and laud virtuoso Barbarito Torres. Since Gonzalez died in 2003 the piano seat has often been filled by the richly talented Roberto Fonseca, who is assuming those duties again on the current tour. But over the last decade he's been making music that veers far from BVSC's old-school approach for something modern, syncretic, high energy, and rooted in the island's rich Latin jazz history. Fonseca's own nimble sextet will open Sunday's concert.

His latest and most rigorous solo effort, Yo (Montuno/Concord), was released in the U.S. last month, and it bears very little resemblance to what he plays in BVSC, even if Cuban son remains a key strand in his musical DNA. Many young hotshot musicians with big ears attempt to incorporate global influences and ideas, but in most cases the efforts are transparent and labored—you can hear the addition signs of this + that = not so much. Fonseca is different, and Yo is packed with multifarious sources—Mande grooves on "Bibisa," which features clarion singing from Mali's remarkable Fatoumata Diawara, abstract spoken word from Mike Ladd on "Ni Nega Ave Maria," Arabic chant on "Chabani" (which features a terrific vocal performance by Faudel Amil), Moroccan rhythms on "Gnawa Stop," and more.

Yet the music never sounds like anything less than a product of Fonseca, not some calculated cultural mash-up. You can hear those varied influences, but they never impinge on the pianist's own hybrid vision. He sounds as if he's lived with these traditions for years and has thoroughly absorbed all of them into his aesthetic. At times there's more than a hint of Randy Weston in his playing, and while he possesses all of the flashy virtuosity of a Cuban pianist like Chucho Valdes, Fonseca opts for a more restrained approach, although that restraint hardly means introversion. As you can hear below on "80's," the track that opens the album with a bang, he truly uses the piano as a percussion instrument. His touring group is mostly from Cuba— drummer Ramses Rodriguez and the percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo, guitarist Jorge Chicoy and bassist Yandy Martinez—and its global feel should be seen with the presence of Malian kora player Yacouba Sissoko, but to break the personnel down by nationality is misguided with this guy.

Today's playlist:

Trin Tran, Dark Radar (GOD?)
Astrud Gilberto, Look to the Rainbow (Verve)
Masabumi Kikuchi Trio, Sunrise (ECM)
Miles Okazaki, Figurations (Sunnyside)
Rob, Make it Fast, Make it Slow (Soundway)

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