Harold López-Nussa captures life in Havana with new album Te Lo Dije

Harold López-Nussa is one of the most dynamic piano players to have joined the international jazz scene over the last 10 years.

The Havana-based pianist and composer brings a unique voice and perspective while carrying inside him the lineage and traditions of Cuban music and culture.

Lopéz-Nussa comes from an esteemed family of Cuban musicians. His father Ruy is an esteemed drummer and educator, his uncle Ernán is an acclaimed pianist, and his late mother Mayra Torres was a highly regarded piano teacher. Harold’s younger brother Ruy Adrián has followed in their father’s footsteps as a drummer and percussionist.

López-Nussa recently celebrated the release of his third album Te Lo Dije with the Mack Avenue record label.

Featuring his brother on drums, Julio César González on bass and Mayquel González on trumpet, Te Lo Dije features a number of special guests, including Afro-Cuban funk superstar Cimafunk, French accordionist Vincent Peirani, famed Cuban reggaeton vocalist Randy Malcom, and vocalist Kelvis Ochoa. A joyful marriage of jazz and Cuban popular music, the recording offers a picturesque look at López-Nussa’s culture.

He joined us from his home in Havana to talk about the musical and cultural influences that inspire his music.

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We have a history. You were here with your brother in 2014 on the stage of Koerner Hall.

Yes, I remember very well. I was in a gala some years ago, and I played with my brother. That was a wonderful experience. You really support us a lot, and I’m very grateful to have you on my side.

Tell me what the last few months have been like for you and your family. What’s it been like in Cuba?

Those times have been very difficult for everyone, especially for artists. We miss so much playing in front of the real, live public. I have been mostly in my house, spending time with my two daughters and my wife. The pandemic started here in March, so we were making like teacher for a couple of months, to the girls. We got one week at the beach, but then things came back here in Havana and we’re at home again for a little while.

You not only have said that you like the relaxed atmosphere of Havana, but that you need it — that it’s something that’s intrinsic to you. Can you give me a sense of what that city means to you personally and musically?

I think the most important [thing] is people. The people are very special here. I’ve grown up with a lot of friends, and people are very friendly in the street. They have a lot of respect for musicians, so a lot of people recognize me in the street and they tell me beautiful things. That’s important for me because it’s my country, it’s my city. I was born in a little apartment in Centro Habana … and I have a strong connection with people [here] and the way that we live and the way that we think. Even when we’re in trouble — when the economy is not good, or now … with the pandemic, it’s even worse than before — people still have a smile on their face, they’re still dancing, they’re still applauding the doctors every night at 9 p.m. That’s something that inspires me to compose and to make music. I took a lot of inspiration from life in Havana, and I try to put it in the music we make.

When you’re walking down the streets of Havana, you hear music coming out of clubs and out of people’s homes, people are dancing, people are celebrating. That’s the spirit that you wanted to capture with the music.

Yes, definitely. This is the kind of joy that I want to show with our music.

Your father was an outstanding musician, your uncle, your late mother, your brother. Was it preordained that you would be a musician? 

Music was powerful in my life, from the beginning. The piano was in the dining room, and my father had his drums in the bedroom with my mom. We grew up with all these musicians who came every day to our house, to play with my father or students of my mother. That was part of our life. But in fact, when I was a child my dream was to be a baseball player. I love baseball and I love sports, so it was between playing piano in my apartment and playing baseball with my friends in the street in Centro Habana. I was sharing my days with those different passions.

What was your position on the baseball field?

Second base. There was a guy, Juan Padilla, who played for Industriales, a baseball team in Havana. He was my hero.

You studied classical music up until the age of 18. How did jazz come into your life, and how did you make that leap?

That was a big change for me. In school here in Cuba, we just learned classical music. It’s kind of strange, because in the schools here we don’t even learn how to play Cuban music. Hopefully one day it will change. Until I was 18, I was just playing what I was learning in school. I wanted to improve myself and try to do something else, so that’s when jazz and Cuban popular music came to me. It was with me from my beginnings, but when I was 18, it was the first time that I really tried to play it. It was very hard in the beginning, because when you come from the classical school, you learn how to play the exact notes in the score. In jazz, I remember my uncle showed me the charts for a standard, and he said now you improvise. What? “You just improvise — whatever you feel.” What?! I was too scared in the beginning. But I had a lot of support from my family and friends. We were trying to learn standards together. So after a couple years of trying, I was more confident playing this music.

Were there any American pianists who influenced you early on, or were the jazz influences mostly Cuban musicians?

They came from Cuba a lot, but also America. My father used to listen to a lot of the Chick Corea Elektric Band. That was a big influence in my beginnings with jazz. And then my uncle introduced me to the music of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. I fell in love with an album from Herbie Hancock called The New Sound. When I got this in my hands here in Havana, I was crazy [about] it. So yeah, I get a lot of influence from the States and from Cuban musicians as well.