With the release of ABUC it has become eminently clear that everything Roberto Fonseca has been writing and performing, and capturing on disc has been leading up to this proverbial watershed moment writing his personal Cuban story as well as his own chapter into the history of Afro-Cuban music. Fonseca, more than any other young pianist of Cuban origin, with the possible exceptions of Omar Sosa and Elio Villafranca, has clothed his persona in the African origin of music, following his ancestral grandmasters – Bebo and Chucho Valdés – of course. But in every respect: technique, expression and dynamic, as well as in his reverence for what you might consider the summation and perfection of tradition, Roberto Fonseca is his own man – graceful, passionate and a force of nature.
The Afro-Cuban contribution to contemporary music, especially to Jazz, has been seminal from the earliest days of the 20th century; probably even before that if you consider that the African influence came many years before even Louis Moreau Gottschalk came to Cuba in the middle of the 19th-century. Later, it was Dizzy Gillespie, who probably helped popularize the music with his legendary association with Chano Pozo, and the contributions of Machito and Mario Bauzá that ignited the fuse which led to the explosion – the tremors of which we still feel today. However, what remained in Cuba was a complex tradition coded in Santeria that evolved from Yoruba culture, indelibly imbued from the motherland. Melded into this was the inevitable influence of Spanish traditional dance music. If this seems like an over-simplification of the Afro-Cuban paradigm it is because a much larger space would be required to present a true dissertation of the musical diaspora. But like his musical ancestors Roberto Fonseca has also written several musical narratives into the modern history of Afro-Cuban music one chapter at a time throughout his impressive discography.
The music of ABUC marks the crest on his musical wave as it hits the shore with a thunderous crash, frothing and foaming in sun-splashed ecstasy. In his elaborate and absorbing notes that accompany the disc, one is struck (but not surprised) by the depth of Roberto Fonseca’s spirituality and also (again, not surprisingly) by his reverential approach to the Afro-Cuban tradition. It is true that he appears in dazzlingly virtuosic form throughout the disc, and that he is joined here by a galaxy of stellar musicians including Eliades Ochoa, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel, both from the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, and Rafael Lay Bravo and Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez from the equally legendary Orquesta Aragón, as well as young sensations, vocalist Daymé Arocena (another one of many talented artists fostered by Canada’s “Havana” Jane (Jane Bunnett) and her producer/trumpeter husband Larry Cramer, whose love for and deep understanding of Afro-Cuban music has never received all the attention it deserves). Also included on ABUC are guitarist Munir Hosn, the talented Brasilian percussionist Zé Luis Nascimento, the silken-voiced Mercedes Cortés Alfaro, among others. But the stars are only as good as the ensemble that sends them up into the stratospheric realm and here, Roberto Fonseca leads this large ensemble with his two rhythmic pillars bassist Yandy Martínez and drummer Ramsés “Dynamite” Rodríguez who also act as the glue that holds it all together.
If it is true that the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts, it is also true that without a leader to spearhead the music and bring to it the right balance of poise and profundity this disc would not really become the mesmeric narrative written in a series of fourteen distinctive chapters. It’s hard not to be hypnotised right from the opening track itself; a sterling tribute to Latin Jazz with Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” as interpreted twice by Roberto Fonseca (a lyrical elegy appears at the end of the disc). The music ignites like a fire that is stoked one song at a time. It smoulders through “Contradanza Del Espíritu”, burns with a blue flame through “Sagrado Corazón”, explodes like tightly bound sticks of dynamite in the short interlude, “Tierra Santa Santiago De Cuba” and smoulders again through “Habanera” and the glorious bolero, “Después” with the smoky vocals of Mercedes Cortés Alfaro and a beautifully translucent, muted trumpet performance by Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel’s trumpet. At every turn Roberto Fonseca makes magical use of tone colour through his masterful use of the piano, constantly urging the other musicians to further explore their instruments’ capacities for harmonic complexity and haunting expression. Through it all, Roberto Fonseca is in particularly radiant form. Despite being the led voice throughout his arrangements – together with those by Joaquin Betancourt, Mark Mullins and Javier Zalba – are so imaginative that only occasionally does one become aware of the music being divided into several instruments.
Such is the dramatic effect of the music on the ear, that one is apt to find oneself quite breathless by the time the hypnotic “Velas Y Flores” comes around, complete with the drama and menace of spoken word and bottom-register-heavy tones and textures. The gorgeous exposition of Afro-Cuban roots concludes with a dazzling solo performance by Roberto Fonseca as he explores Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” once again, this time with a completely different set of harmonics and a near-mystically fading rhythm at the end. A masterful performance such as this on ABUC is going to be hard to top. Nevertheless one waits for the next episode from Roberto Fonseca’s epic journey with bated breath.
Track List: Cubano Chant; Afro Mambo; Tumbao De La Unidad; Contradanza Del Espíritu; Tierra Santa; Sagrado Corazón; Family; Tierra Santa Santiago De Cuba; Habanera; Soul Guardians; Asere Monina Bonco; Después; Velas y Flores; Cubano Chant (Solo Piano Version).
Personnel: Roberto Fonseca: piano, keyboards and vocals (6), percussion (8); Daymé Arocena: vocals (2); Carlos Calunga: vocals (2); Eliades Ochoa: vocals and guitar (3); Alexey Rodríguez “…el tipo ese”: vocals (10); Munir Hossn: electric guitar (3, 5); Sekou Bah: electric guitar (10); Joe Gore: acoustic guitar (7); Drissa Sidibé: kamalen ngoni (10); Rafael Lay Bravo (Orquesta Aragón): vocals (7); Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez (Orquesta Aragón): vocals (7); Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel: trumpet (12); Yandy Martínez: double bass (1 – 7, 9 – 13), percussion (8); Ramsés “Dynamite” Rodríguez: drums (1 – 7, 9 – 13), percussion (6, 8), vocals (6); Inor Sotolongo: percussion (1, 2); Zé Luis Nascimento: percussion (5, 7, 10); Yaroldy Abreu Robles: percussion (8, 11m 12); Eddy de Armas Camejo: trumpet (1, 2); Lázaro Amauri Oviedo: trumpet (1, 2); Roberto García López: trumpet (4); Bobby Campo: trumpet (5, 7, 8); Yuniet Lombado Prieto: alto saxophone (1, 2); Emir Santa Cruz Hernández: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 4); Alonzo Bowens: tenor saxophone (5, 7, 8); Ben Ellman: baritone saxophone (5, 8); Trombone Shorty: trombone (1); Joel Enrique Sagó Bell: trombone (1, 2); Yoandy Argudin Feffel: trombone (1, 2, 4); Mark Mullins: trombone (5, 7, 8); Javier Zalba Suarez: alto saxophone (4), baritone saxophone (2); Policarpo “Polo” Tamayo: flute (11); Mercedes Cortés Alfaro: vocals (12).
Release date: October 2016
Running time: 52:57