As Cuban-American relations continue to thaw, "baseball diplomacy" like this spring's exhibition series between the Cuban national team and the Baltimore Orioles will keep on grabbing headlines--but the real detente has occurred in the arts. Over the last few years American music lovers have had opportunities not only to attend stateside concerts by masters of Cuban jazz they'd only heard stories about before, but also to discover some of the island's younger players, like pianist Ernan Lopez-Nussa. On his 1998 album, Delirium (BMG Japan), Lopez-Nussa builds on the legacy of Chucho Valdes, making equal use of traditional Cuban forms (cha-chas and rumbas, with plenty of montuno figures darting through his solos) and American postbop (he covers Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa"). Though Cuban music isn't known for its restraint, he has a relatively light touch; where Valdes rumbles, he only trundles, replacing Valdes's coruscant explosions with thematic development that's as close to introspective as the genre gets. Lopez-Nussa's extensive, well-traveled technique combines boogie-woogie riffs, the blocky chords of locked-hands piano, Bill Evans's filigreed asides, Herbie Hancock's bluesy trills, and a host of other devices--but his real strength is his ability to weave a distinctively Cuban fabric from all these threads. In his U.S. debut, he'll perform with his quartet: Jorge Perez on bass, Ramses Manuel Rodriguez on drums, and Inor Sotolongo on congas and percussion. Wednesday, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. The quartet will also preside over a Latin-jazz jam session the following Thursday at 10 PM at the Note, 1565 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-0011. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.