Jazz CD Reviews

Omar Sosa – Afreecanos – Otá Records

With 18 discs to his credit (incl. limited distribution of Aleatronix and Promise primarily on MP3) Omar Sosa may be the best little-known musician on the planet.

Published on September 28, 2008

Omar Sosa – Afreecanos – Otá Records

Omar Sosa – Afreecanos – Otá Records OTA1019, 57:33 *****:

(Omar Sosa – piano, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone, marimba, bell, balafon, calebasse, finger snaps, chekere, guiro, maraca, wood block, vocals; Leandro Saint-Hill – flute, alto sax, soprano sax; Julio Barreto – drums; Childo Tomas – electric bass, kalimba, chivocovoco, vocals, foot stomps; plus 21 other musicians and singers)

Over the course of a decade and a half, the Cuban jazz/roots pianist has assayed everything from solo piano discs to multilayered recordings including various Cuban traditional forms, other Latin folk musics, rap, hip-hop, dance, electronica, tender ballads, post-bop, and beyond.  That not everything has been entirely successful doesn’t really matter because it’s all been leading up to his last five recordings, Pictures of Soul, Mulatos, Live a FIP, Promise, and this one, Afreecanos, which is the best disc he’s ever recorded.

With a unique piano style that draws from a huge pool of influences—everyone from Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett to ECM down-tempo to Frank Emilio to Esbjorn Svensson (RIP) to Jean-Michel Pilc—his crystalline tone, deftness of touch, rhythmic sophistication, and consummate taste place him among the top living jazz piano players.  He most reminds me of Egberto Gismonti, although having much greater stylistic range, sophistication, and refinement.  But as great a pianist as he is, he will be most remembered for the unique musical/spiritual vision he’s been crafting throughout his career and which reaches its fullest expression here.  

Afreecanos marks the coming together in a new and magical way that which has been going on at least from the 1940s when Dizzy Gillespie met Mario Bauzá and Chano Pozo and Afro-Cuban jazz was born.  But in reality, the coming together of African rhythms filtered through Caribbean sensibilities and mixed with European harmonies goes all the way back to the late 19th century when musicians of the African Diaspora met and played together in New Orleans.  Ever since, Latin-flavored jazz has been a major tributary flowing into mainstream jazz.  It has included some of the greatest names in jazz’s 100-plus year history, including Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, and Charlie Haden.  

When Egberto Gismonti came out with Dança das Cabeças and Sanfona in the late 1970s after spending three years in the jungle of Northern Brazil, he forged a new approach to the music.  He’d thoroughly absorbed not only the pre-bossa samba rhythms, but the maracatu, frevo, forró, baião, toada, and maxixe rhythms as well—more ancient and provocative forms.  His assimilation and transformation of these rhythms in an authentic jazz context did something fresh—it created a music where the ethnic/folk element of Latin jazz came into new prominence, and the musical world hasn’t been the same since.  That move was solidified with Magico and Folk Songs comprising the diverse but oddly simpatico trio of Gismonti, Charlie Haden, and Jan Garbarek.  

It would be more than two decades before someone took up, reconfigured, and moved Gismonti’s formidable legacy into exciting new territory.  That someone is Omar Sosa.  The process of assimilation and reconfiguration continues apace with this brilliant son of Cuba.  As mentioned above, he deploys the widest possible musical dragnet as he scours the outposts of African/Hispanic culture—including not only lonely Caribbean Islands, African villages, Central and South American jungles, but European and North American inner cities—for ancient/modern musical expression, all, amazingly, firmly rooted in jazz.  

It has taken him a while to craft this wild and wide-ranging vision into something approaching genius.  His first efforts, although always showing huge promise, lacked the necessary integration and cohesion that marks great art.  Consequently, elements either failed to coalesce or came together awkwardly.  His first great disc, Sentir, came only after he’d already recorded seven previously.  From then on everything has worked almost magically (save, perhaps, Mulatos Remix), with some being among the finest world jazz discs ever released (Pictures of Soul, Mulatos, and Afreecanos).

One of the things that makes Afreecanos stand out is the ease with which Sosa has conceived, directed, deployed, and played with a vast array of instrumental and vocal elements.  More than 40 instruments and nearly a dozen vocalists grace the proceedings, yet everything flows together seamlessly.  A deep and gratifying co(in)herence characterizes this recording, each player listening, reacting, and contributing a new color or emotion to a soundscape of dazzling hues and great musical depth.

Another remarkable thing about this disc is its sheer beauty—a beauty that only grows through repeated listenings.  That’s because it’s rooted in the deepest wells of authentic folk sensibilities (often also partaking in profound religio/cultural elements) framed with loving—if sometimes idiosyncratic—instrumental and vocal care, and wrapped in sophisticated though entirely accessible jazz structures.  

Additionally, Sosa has an almost magical gift of melody—always beguiling, never sappy.  This disc literally sings its heart out, sometimes vocally, sometimes instrumentally, most often in combination.  A good deal of the time the vocalists use their voices almost as another musical instrument, adding uncanny timbres and coloration to already rich musical imaginings.  That the vocals are all in languages other than English only adds to the mystery.

Finally, Omar Sosa has generally relegated his unique pianistic voice to a supporting role inside the fabric of a larger musical vision.  Consequently, Sosa never comes across as a prima donna.  Instead, he’s the brilliant facilitator who brings out the absolute best in his musical colleagues even as his genius occasionally fully reveals itself (as in “Yeye Moro,” “Babalad,” “Light in the Sky,” and “D’Son”) within the glories of the collective enterprise.

This is music you simply can’t go wrong with.  Splendid, luminous, burning with a quiet intensity, Afreecanos marks Omar Sosa as the most brilliant exponent of world jazz.

– Jan P. Dennis




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