Recognition for the considerable talent of Cuban pianist, Roberto Fonseca has spread far and wide, and if there was another dimension to enter, it would be the one that qualifies an artist to greatness. However, Fonseca fights shy of any attention that distracts from his music. A deeply spiritual person, who just happens to express himself through his art, he prefers to defer to the mysterious and invisible force that compels him to make music.
Fonseca worships at the altar of spirituality, and it is this that drives the voice of his musiche appears to deny all else. He is blessed with sublime techniquesomething that he does not take for granted, yet he remains understated both in his manner of speaking, as well in his playing. It appears that almost everything is guided by his omnipresent mothera sort of Mother Earth. His musical associates are also important factors in his life. With them he shares his life, and together they make music that lets audiences in to experience the journey that they take together.
Akokan (Justin Time, 2009), which translates as "From the Heart," features, amongst other songs, a definitive version of the classic Cuban lullaby, "Drume Negrita." While the record is destined for a blockbuster reception among fans of music, Fonseca was gracious about its qualities, preferring instead to talk about what makes him the person that he can be, rather than the musician that he is.
All About Jazz: What is your earliest memory of discovering the wonder of music? Was there anyone, say in Grade School who got you to love music?
Roberto Fonseca: My mother... Everything comes from my mum. It goes way back to when she used to cook and she would sing me that melody from Romeo and Juliet [sings]... I learnt how to love music from then. It was always my mum. She gave me the opportunity to grow and to feel love, when transmitting it through music.
I also remember my first musical "job." It was as the drummer for a band doing covers of Beatles songs. They were a clear influence.
AAJ: Did you know at a very young age that you were going to make the pursuit of music your life's dream?
RF: I have always loved music and wanted to play. But I'd never known when my dream would become true. Speaking of school and when I was a student, I was very nervous, and there was a time when I didn't want to study anymore. But one day (I don't know when exactly) it "hit" me. I remembered a lesson from my mother: that music is the best thing can happen to the human being, for the fact that it can transmit [my] every mood. This was exciting. I also found that when I played music I could make people happier.
AAJ: Tell me something about you mother? I've heard her on two of your recordswhat a beautiful voice! How profound was her influence on your life?
RF: My mother is like a goddess who lives on Earth. I owe her everything that I am. I dedicate my whole life to her. She has been my source of inspiration and the wellspring of energy for my whole career. I am also very grateful with my father Roberto Fonseca, [a drummer of considerable repute in Cuba] who is also very close to me and with whom I am very close as well.
AAJ: Did your mother actually teach you? I am sure that she must have been a good teacher... Does she still simply fire your imagination?
RF: Oh yes she did... Still does. I am still learning from her. I really appreciate everything that she has taught me, especially interpretation, and also how important it is to tell, in a very sincere manner, your every thought and channel [them] through music... Not only that, my mother also taught memore importantlyhow all this is so important also for the everyday life that I lead.
AAJ: Is your mother then the first person (other than your band) to listen to what you create?
RF: Oh Yes.
AAJ: What was it like at Instituto Superior de Arte? You have said elsewhere that you were a "bad student," but obviously you learned a lot there? Who was your biggest influence at music school?
RF: I studied at Instituto Superior de Arte for just one year. It was a period when I started to really work with music. I was constantly searching and I tried hard to look for my language and my own style. I learnt lots of things from that school, where I studied classical music. There is a certain way in which all classical music is taught. You learnbecause the courses are very structuredto employ a strict discipline. Every musician...every student of this music works on and must learn every aspect of playing music... everything concerning techniques and everything concerning correct interpretation. But getting to know one's self is a very different discipline and experience. I found this part of myself on the street, in the jams and in the night clubs.
AAJ: Of the great classical composers, who inspired you the most and which periods in classical music do you like the best?
RF: I continue to be inspired by Bach, Wagner, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky... All are great technicians and also very emotional and spiritual... And, without a doubt, I love best the period of the Romanticsall of it.
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.