Opera North Blog

Roberto Fonseca: A Primer


Grammy-nominated Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca brings his innovative new album ABUC to the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 10 March. Steve Crocker of Chapel Allerton-based Seven Jazz offers a primer on his storied career so far, and a taste of what to expect from the show. 

A fabulously gifted pianist, composer and band leader… a gift for melody that outshines more celebrated peers… one of a new breed who can transcend musical boundaries through sheer quality.

— The Guardian

Roberto Fonseca was brought up surrounded by music, and started studying piano at the age of 8. His father was drum player Roberto Fonseca, Sr, his mother, Mercedes Cortes Alfaro, a professional singer, and his two older half-brothers from his mother's previous marriage to the pianist and musician Jesús "Chucho" Valdés are Emilio Valdés (drums) and Jesús "Chuchito" Valdés Jr.

After an early interest in drums, Fonseca switched to piano at the age of 8, and by 14 was experimenting with fusing American jazz and traditional Cuban rhythms; he appeared at Havana's Jazz Plaza Festival in 1991 when he was 15.

At school we used to regard American jazz as a point of reference; I felt that my music would be a fusion of both genres… I liked lots of jazz musicians, such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, but also old American funk and soul classics.

Fonseca studied at Cuba's Instituto Superior de Arte, where he obtained a master's degree in composition, even though he often says that he was a really bad student. After earning his degree, he left Cuba to find his sound.

His recording career to date has been spectacular. His first album, En El Comienzo, recorded with Javier Zalba and the group Temperamento, was awarded Cuba's Best Jazz Album in 1999. This success encouraged him to work on two solo records: Tiene Que Ver and Elengo, combining Latin jazz, drum and bass, hip-hop, urban music and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

In 2001 he joined the Buena Vista Social Club's international tour, playing over 400 concerts, as well as promoting Ibrahim Ferrer's records next to musicians such as Cachaíto López, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal and Manuel Galbán, among others. He has gone on to work with various members of the Buena Vista Social Club including stars such as Omara Portuondo and Rubén González, and he has recently collaborated with Mali’s music sensation Fatoumata Diawara.

Following this intense period of work, Fonseca came to realise that he was ready to create his own project, and he went to Japan to record No Limit: Afro Cuban Jazz. He then dug deep to compose the songs that form Zamazu, the result of the integration of all his influences: Afro-Cuban music, jazz, classical music and traditional Cuban music.

With his 2009 album Akokan, Fonseca wanted to bring the magic, strength and improvisation from a live show to the studio. With a quartet formation and accompanied by his band, the one that he had been playing with for the past 12 years, Fonseca as the record's producer encouraged creativity and chemistry amongst the musicians. The 2013 album Yo (Concord), showcased influences from American jazz and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, to African music and samba.

ABUC, his most recent album (2016), is more a look backward at the evolution of Cuban jazz. Although nearly all 14 of the tracks on the album were written or co-written by him the project as a whole is like a retrospective of various Cuban musical styles and sources spanning several decades.

Cuban music has always been a mix of styles drawing and its relationship with jazz has always been a two-way street - Bolero and Mambo have influenced jazz just as the 1940s and 1950s jazz big bands have with their jazz harmonies have been adopted by Cuban musicians. The Buena Vista Social Club was perhaps the start of this revisiting of the past in Cuban music, and now ABUC has taken this a step further.

The idea was to show a different Cuba, perhaps from a different direction. That’s why the album title is Cuba spelled backward. I wanted to review the Cuban music history – not only the styles that have influenced me most, but in a broader sense, so people could have a better idea of how the orchestras used to sound in those times.

Fonseca is one of those talents you cannot put in a specific corner. His groove has a lot of his Latin roots (especially in the percussive manner in which he plays the keyboards), but he surprises you at every turn.

His concert at the Howard Assembly Room (Friday 10 March) will be one to savour. Band personnel are:

  • Roberto Fonseca - Piano, Keys, Voice
  • Ramses "Dynamite" Rodriguez - Drums
  • Adel González - Percussion
  • Yandy Martinez - Electric and acoustic bass
  • Javier Zalva - Baritone sax, flute,
  • Matthew Simon - Trumpet
  • Jimmy Jenks - Tenor sax
  • Abrahan Aristilde - Vocal

Steve Crocker, Seven Jazz Leeds

Roberto Fonseca photographed by Arien Chang

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