Wellington Jazz Festival, Town Hall
March 7 | Reviewed by Catherine Bisley

“I LOVE YOU,” a woman shrieked. Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca considered this declaration a moment before responding with a gravelly “Thank you.” No response was needed for the slightly strangled “YES” that issued from a male audience member at the end of Fonseca’s Saturday night performance.

Fonseca’s performance was physical. Sometimes he stood while he played; when sitting, the connection between his feet and the ground was tenuous. Though there were virtuosic runs, syncopated chromatics and tempestuous arpeggios, as you’d expect, by far the most striking thing about Fonseca’s playing and composition was the way he shaped the music: the varied percussive patterning of his melodies (or even a single repeated note), the underscoring of a simple harmony with a diabolic rhythm. Fonseca shifted from pummelling the keys to eliciting soulful, delicate timbres.

His band of five had superlative onstage rapport. Seamless shifts within songs reflected their strong communication; friendly ease radiated out to the near full house. Fonseca was strong, but did not overbear the group. Javier Zalba, a long-time collaborator, switched between saxes, clarinet and flute. (His flute playing was particularly striking - it redeemed an instrument, which in its classical form held bad connotations of breathy Debussy played by uptight prefects at high school prizegivings). Drummer Ramsés Rodríguez endurance grinned. In one track he cast away his sticks to drum only with his hands, while in another, his wall of cymbal clash provided a great counterpoint to Fonseca’s tender repeated harmonies. A second percussionist was particularly adept on the djembe drum and shimmering chimes. The one down point was that the few vocals (there may have been more I missed) were drowned out in the mix.

When introducing ‘El Niejo,’ a track dedicated to the late Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club fame), Fonseca talked of “the meeting of the child and the old one”. In this track, a familiar Buena Vista-esque beat was doubled up, given fresh syncopations; the clarinet soared in a plangent tune. The idea of the old meeting the new arched beyond this track. Fonseca is a young man. He sported a stylish hat (copycat styles were plentifully scattered throughout the audience). A third of their age, he toured extensively with Buena Vista greats – Ferrer, Cachaíto López, Guajiro Mirabal, Rubén González – after he was invited to join Orquesta de Ibrahim Ferrer as a support pianist to the ailing González. His sound is fresh, broad in its scope and the genres it draws on.

An eastern influence came through in ‘Un Congo Arabe’; the soprano sax winding up through the high registers in a reedy abandon. ‘Zamazu,’ the title track of Fonseca’s latest album, was jubilant and rocky but not without touches of sadness. As an encore the band played ‘Clandestino,’ a track which spanned South America with its fusion of Argentine Tango and Afro-Cuban.

In the face of all this exuberance, I suspect I wasn’t the only one whose feet cut loose under the table. A popular dance uprising could have happened, but the bounds of the tablecloth were not breeched apart from the odd swaying torso: there was just too much to listen to.