Review by Willard Manus

When I made a trip to Havana ten years ago I spent just about every night in a jazz club called La Zorra y El Cuevo (The Fox & The Crow). Managed by Tony Orlando, who was born in Cuba but has spent considerable time in the USA, dealing with the agents and managers who supply talent to Cuba's annual International Jazz Festival. Orlando also helps to arrange the visits to the USA of Cuban jazz groups (such as Buena Vista Social Club). He writes about jazz in Cuban periodicals and hosts a Sunday night jazz show on Radio Cadena Habana.

La Zorra featured a different Cuban jazz player every night, including a young pianist named Roberto Fonseca. He was only seventeen then, a tall, handsome, cocoa-colored kid whose virtuosic playing made my jaw drop. Ortega told me that Fonseca belonged to a generation of jazz musicians, proud children of the revolution, who had been trained at either the Fine Arts Insitute or the Cuban Music Insititute. So high was the level of their musicianship that many European companies came to Havana to record their latest albums, whether the music was Latin-flavored or not.

I learned later that Fonseca has toured widely in Japan, Europe and Canada, mostly with the Grammy-winning singer, Augusto Enriquez.

Now Fonseca has released his first album in the USA, AKOKAN, which takes its name from the Yoruba word for "from the heart." The title is well-chosen, because his music touches one deeply, even on first listening. There are thirteen cuts on the Justin Time release, three of which offer vocals by Mercedes Cortes Alfaro, Mayra Andrade (who also wrote the lyrics to her offering, Siete Potencias) and Raul Midon. The latter, a guitarist, composed the final song on the CD, Everyone Deserves A Second Chance. Fonseca himself croons (soulfully) on Cuando Una Madre Llama A Su Hijo, a song he wrote about a mother mourning the death of a daughter ("her tears shook the earth and made her presence felt.")

Fonseca plays solo piano on that track and on another one as well; otherwise his contributions blend into an ensemble featuring, for the most part, Javier Alba (baritone sax), Omar Gonzalez (double bass), Ramses Rodriguez (drums) and Jose Hierrenzuelo (percussion). Together these talented and like-minded artists make remarkable music together.

There are no fiery, swinging numbers on the disc, just warm, vibrant, deeply-felt compositions. "I am not interested in showing off any kind of giftedness," Fonseca confides in a press note. "With what I have learned, I want to enjoy and transmit the essence of the music."

The pianist adds, "Cuban artists and American artists have always been very connected. From studying each country's music, really amazing things have appeared, and this helped us and our cultures. We would like that these cultural relations were normalized and that music was left alone, because music is the best remedy for the soul and spirit. All of this helps to get us a little closer to a place where there aren't any differences between countries because, as we all know, music doesn't have any boundaries."

Visit montuno.com or robertofonseca.com or myspace.com/robertofonseca.