Boston Phoenix – Live Review – May 2003

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Boston Phoenix – Live Review – May 2003

THE OMAR SOSA TRIO
LATIN JAZZ WITH A TWIST

Cuban pianist Omar Sosa made his Boston-area debut at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center a week ago Thursday with a set of infectiously joyful Afro-Cuban jazz. Unlike a lot of Latin jazz, however, the music played by Sosa and his trio was exploratory. The folkloric traditions that root Latin jazz in its danceable rhythms and give it its folksy appeal also have a tendency to make the style formulaic. But though it’s clear that Sosa, percussionist Gustavo Ovalles and alto-saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa know those formulas well, they never let orthodoxy stand in the way of their pursuit of freedom. In the first of the trio’s two sets, Sosa enlivened the mix of jazz, blues, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms with electronics, and he played the inside of the piano with brushes and other objects. Tempos were fluid and the mood changed freely. In the end, the performance was doubly exhilarating: Sosa’s trio took full advantage of Latin jazz’s fun and funky grooves while adding experimental touches to keep listeners on their toes.

Sosa and Ovalles are the heart of the trio; the mixture of respect and playfulness that they bring to Afro-Cuban rhythms set the tone for the concert, as it does on their new duo CD, Ayaguna (Ot). The opening ” Eleggua ” combined the ritualistic beat of bata drums (which are used in santera religious ceremonies) with Sosa’s restless piano. Sosa played a teasing, episodic solo – a Puckish improvisation in keeping with the trickster personality of the santera deity after whom the tune is named. It ranged widely and jump-cut from motif to motif, but there was little of the surface flash and technical dazzle usually heard in Cuban jazz.

A duet with Mahanthappa found Sosa using an echo effect in the same way dub reggae producers do: when he hit a chord, the pulsing echo added an extra rhythmic layer to the groove. Mahanthappa dove right in with a dark reedy tone and driving lines that thrust themselves over and around Sosa’s chords. When they built the tension to a fever pitch, Ovalles slid in with a medium funk groove that sent the band off into a prolonged three-way jam.

Traditional montuno piano vamps set the stage for the trio’s version of ” Remember Monk. ” But it wasn’t long before Sosa was stretching the song’s Cuban roots to the snapping point. At one point, he got the audience to snap their fingers in time as Mahanthappa started soloing. Then he began to scrape the piano strings with a brush, creating scratching shimmering sounds. With Sosa playing both the piano strings and the keyboard in synch with Ovalles’s congas, Mahanthappa’s chromatic lines knotted their way into the percussive weave in one of his best solos of the night.

There were more sonic surprises in store. On ” In a Dream, ” Ovalles twirled a plastic tube over his head to create a ghostly humming melody that complemented Sosa’s hushed gospel chords and Mahanthappa’s tender alto playing. On ” Karanbao en D, ” Sosa tossed a clump of shells onto the piano strings while Ovalles played the berimbau (a Brazilian one-stringed percussion instrument). It was a mark of Sosa’s progressive conception of pan-Latin jazz that the most melodically abstract moment of the night was also the funkiest. The final ” Iyawo ” showed Sosa at his most delicate and lyrical, and it reminded us that as far and wide as this trio were willing to range, the basic jazz building blocks of melody and rhythm remain the spiritual and emotional bedrock on which all their music rests.

BY ED HAZELL
Issue Date: May 2 – 8, 2003

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