It was the warmest night of the year so far, when the heat hung still in the air, every Soho crevice melting in the furnace, and Ronnie Scott’s excellent air conditioning gave one more reason to confirm it as the coolest spot in town. Thus it was the perfect occasion to enjoy the equally heated Afro-Cuban jazz vibes of pianist Roberto Fonseca. Schooled in the unmistakeable rhythms of Cuban music, first at exclusive Havana academy the Instituto Superior de Arte, then as a player with the Buena Vista Social Club, Fonseca, still in his thirties, has been performing on the Cuban jazz scene for 20 years. His style, initially a funky infusion of Cuban rhythms and Herbie Hancock, has over the last decade been accumulating more diverse accents, especially from West Africa, so that it now has foundations in Havana, New York, and Mali, with a seasoning of blues, rap, and Gnawa (traditional Moroccan spiritual music). His players are all Cuban except for Malian kora player Sekuo Kouyate, but they adapted expertly to Fonseca’s smartly shifting moods. Where some bandleaders will switch key or rhythm mid-track, Fonseca switches continents.
The programme was mainly a reprise of his 2012 album Yo (‘I’ in Spanish), without the vocals. His own contribution was always key, whether on piano – by turns lyrically bluesy and funkily percussive – synthesiser, singing or playing samples. His piano lays down a Hancockesque funk line against drummer Ramsés Rodríguez’ virtuosic, polyrhythmic battery in the opening of ‘80s‘. On ‘Bibisa’, Kouyate’s kora, with a sound somewhere between harp and guitar, offered a beautifully ethereal and effectively contrasting tone to the streetwise talk of the keyboard and drums, funk piano and drums superbly balanced by its innocence and delicacy. Joel Hierrezuelo on Cuban percussion turned out also to excel as a moody singer, while Yandy Martínez, a fine if mostly discreet bass guitarist for most of the set, took an occasional turn, most prominently on ‘Quien Soy Yo’ (Who am I? Or Who I am) skillfully slapping Latin rhythms on double bass. Fonseca’s samples, either of choral singing, or urban street sounds, were used simply but always effectively to add atmosphere.
The music was more conventional than it first seemed. For a European jazz audience, the sampling and the use of kora was unfamiliar. But the approach to constructing a piece, the introduction of a melody, the working through of harmonies, the solos, was all jazz as Parker would recognise it. Fonseca’s genius lies in his ability to choose and blend an unusually wide range of sounds in a way that are enticing without ever compromising his core musical values.
He’s also a charismatic MC, flirting with the audience thanks to his thickly accented English and the smouldering glances from beneath the brim of his hat. Band members, too, were engaging performers in the old-fashioned sense of putting on a visual show, as well as being versatile and brilliant soloists. Jorge Chicoy, a sublime electric guitarist for most of the night, played ‘Quien Soy Yo’ on a miniature acoustic. It looked like something a magician would extract from a vase of flowers, but it added an exquisite new texture.
– Matthew Wright