Harold López-Nussa
Jazz Pianist

At barely thirty, jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa has attained the kind of international recognition that most musicians could only dream of: first place at the Montreux Jazz Festival’s solo piano competition; a performance at Paris’s legendary Olympia; yearly North American and European tours; and five albums released to his name. 

Harold’s attitude, however, is light years away from loftiness: our interview reveals a highly centered individual firmly rooted in his country and his family who still gets nervous before a big show and feels the need to work hard every day to stay at the top of the game. “The ultimate achievement is to have no limitations—your head creates and your hands play what you’re imagining,” he says. “But that’s really complicated and you always have to work.” Could this combination of virtuosity, modesty and rigor be the key to Harold’s success? 

Born to a renowned battery player, Ruy López-Nussa, and a piano teacher, Harold began studying the piano at the conservatory when he was eight years old. “90% of what I am today I owe to my mother,” says Harold. “When I was a child she was always on my side. She taught me the piano and also to make mistakes—to know that it’s not the end of the world to make a mistake. That’s something you have to learn as well.” 

And learning to put things into perspective was essential to cope with a very demanding system of music instruction: “In Cuba, music is studied with a lot of rigor from the very start; it’s conceived for children who want to be professional musicians,” remembers Harold, who, as a young child, would have preferred to become a baseball player. 

Even if he doesn’t believe that music should be treated like a competitive sport —“it’s not a 100-meter race where an athlete comes in first place; there are simply opinions on who does it better and who does it worse”—, he does have fond memories of winning a competition or two as a kid: “We would throw a huge party at home and my mom would make cold salad and buy soft drinks,” he remembers. 

Harold’s performance at Montreux in 2005 opened many professional doors: he found an agent in Paris to take him on tour and got the opportunity to record an album and to return to the festival the following year. It also gave the young pianist the confidence he needed to do jazz: “I had a classical music background where you know how a piece starts and how it ends. With jazz, improvisation is fundamental and I was very scared of that first.” 

By 2010, Harold fulfilled his dream of performing at the Olympia with his trio, which features his brother, Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, at the battery. He has also been invited to play at countless jazz festivals around the world to other prestigious stages like the Barbican and the New Morning. “But I also enjoy playing at small clubs in Havana and knowing that the audience knows me and goes to see me because they love my music—even if it’s just 50 people,” he says. 

Harold says that although he rarely plays classical music these days, but he is grateful for the solid foundation that he acquired at the conservatory as it gave him “the arms, the elements to face new music styles like jazz or danceable Cuban music.”  Like many of the island’s musicians, Harold navigates comfortably between genres and insists that he enjoys experimenting not only with jazz but also with rap, salsa or son.  He sometimes plays with Cuban pop stars like Kelvis Ochoa and Descemer Bueno: “Watching how a song is composed so that it is liked by everyone—by entire people— is very enriching.”  

And what does a man who’s pretty much had it all before turning 30 wish for the future? “I would like to tell you that I’ve played four other times at the Olympia and that it was packed, couldn’t fit everyone in— sold out, full!” he laughs. “And that I have five children, and a house with a pool—I love water— or at the beach, yes, to live at the beach! I would love to tell you all that. And that I’m happy ten years from now. I really do hope so.”