Roberto Fonseca ‘Akokan’ (Enja Montuno) 4/5

Cuban pianist and arranger Roberto Fonseca first came to prominence as arranger for the very last Ibrahim Ferrer album, but debuted as a leader internationally (a few previous Cuban only albums)with an outstanding release in 2007, ‘Zamazu’ that promised a great deal. He returns with a second album that confirms his compositional prowess and an offering that will surely end up as one of the year’s best. Following on in the piano lineage from both Chucho Valdes and the vastly underrated Emiliano Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s and from Gonzalo Rubalcaba in the 1990s and beyond, Roberto Fonseca is throughly grounded in equal measure in jazz and Cuban roots, and in some respects is a pianistic equivalent of trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez. This recording, like the previous effort, is light years away from the conventional Latin jazz album and several external influences are evident which range from the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim to African, European and Latin American folk music.

Surrounded by his trusted trio of Ramses Rodriguez on drums and Omar Gonzalez on double bass, Fonseca has augmented the format with percussionist Joel Hierrezuela while soprano saxophonist/clarinetist Javier Zalba participates once more. That Fonseca has listened widely is beyond doubt and is highlighted by the assimilated folk tunes on ‘Bulgarian’ where Fonseca’s Cuban piano vamps beautifully accompany Hierrezuela’s rootsy clarinet sound. Another tribute, ‘Lento y despacio’ this time to Latin America, is performed as a quartet outing and impresses as does ‘Lo que me hace vivir’(’What makes me live’)which emphasizses the cohesiveness of the quartet. Two trio performances reflect the sophistication of Fonseca’s compositions as on ‘Cuando uno crece’ and in his reflective tribute to French cinema on ‘Como en las peliculas’. 
In a similar vein the gorgeous lullaby ‘Drum Negrita’ that features Fonseca and clarinetist Zalba in duet. Guest vocals come in the form of Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade who sings in Cape Verdean Portugese creole on ‘Siete Potencias’(Bu Kantu) devoted to the Orisha gods while Raul Midon is a revelation on the swing jazz song ‘Everyone deserves a chance’ on which he also manages a guitar solo. This writer would like to hear an entire album of Midon singing in a jazz context. Recorded in just four days in the legendary Egrem studios of Havana, the crystal clear sound and mastering captures every nuance of the instrumentation. This is a recording that reveals great subtlety from a musician who will surely play a major role in the jazz piano for many years to come.

Tim Stenhouse