Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca is one of those immediately dazzling musicians, having rapidly developed as a distinctive, individual artist in his own right following his role with the Buena Vista Social Club, replacing the late and legendary Ruben Gonzalez on piano. The hyper-real levels of energy and commitment he brings to his playing are frequently astonishing and his willingness to find the common ground between a variety of musical styles makes for engaging listening.
Placed in context, much of Yo might be seen as a substantial contribution to a recent trend in projects finding the shared hinterland between African and Cuban musical styles. There has of course been the superb Afrocubism project – but it’s arguable that this can be traced back to the re-emergence of Orchestra Baobab, whose Assane Mboup is one of the many featured guests here. Fonseca makes frequent use of kora and ngoni here, blending them perfectly with his own lines, equally influenced by traditional Cuban music and by the fluent flourishes of Herbie Hancock or Bill Evans.
Yo is an unashamedly contemporary sounding album, dominated by fusions, hybrids and recontextualisations. On Gnawa Stop, he seems to be combining the sounds of several cultures in a relaxed, near effortless manner. Featured guests and collaborations predominate – but the album as a whole is far from disjointed and Fonseca’s own musical personality is never subsumed or lost. On tracks such as 7 Rayos, Fonseca deftly balances modern electronic sounds with more traditional sounds and modes of delivery (particularly Nicolas Guillen’s haunting vocal). The opener 80’s gives some unrestrained and fiery warning of his intent – a rapid-fire, brilliantly dexterous explosion of rhythmic imagination and urgency.
Other by now familiar guests include the superb Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, whose vocal on the wonderful Bibisa is subtly virtuosic. The poet Mike Ladd, whose collaboration with the supremely inventive pianist Vijay Iyer proved so versatile and imaginative, puts in an appearance on Mi Negra Ave Maria, one of this album’s admirable moments of real creative risk-taking.
Fonseca’s energy is the most immediately apparent aspect of his talent – but there are other important elements too. He is also a brilliant master of illusion. Mi Negra Ave Maria begins in solemn contemplation but eventually builds into a wonderfully intense and uplifting spiritual piece. He’s also remarkably precise – it is this accuracy that imbues his grooves with such richness and depth (this is particularly evident on the splendid Chabani). As Es La Vida also demonstrates that he’s more than capable of lyricism too, even if the strings end up making it feel a little syrupy. The two bonus remixes are a little superfluous and arguably render the album overlong but this is a minor quibble. Yo is immediate, polished and enjoyable – but it is also the work of an artist unafraid of challenging his audience. There are moments of real sophistication and adventure here.