Omar Sosa: Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry

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Omar Sosa
Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry
Half Note Records

Listen "Promised Land"

A live Omar Sosa performance is always a revelation; he is an artist who exemplifies Monk’s determination never to play the same thing twice. Case in point: two quite distinct new releases, and Sosa’s weeklong April 2009 run at the Blue Note NYC, timed with the release of Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry. Like every dramatic new work, this one has a back story, one that reveals something of Sosa’s intuitive creative approach and boundless sense of musical freedom.

In April 2008, Sosa did a weeklong artist’s residency at Dartmouth College, where he sat in on 2–3 classes each day. One was singer Tim Eriksen’s world music course. Eriksen is a major scholar and interpreter of nineteenth-century white Protestant devotional music, whose raw, visceral spirit informs his singular singing style. The two had not met, but Sosa’s manager Scott Price relates, “A solid connection developed between Tim and Omar.” The class began at Eriksen’s direction with the students singing a drone, and Eriksen easing in with some spontaneous vocalese. Omar was moved to join as well on piano. At the residency’s end, Sosa performed at the Hopkins Center and invited Eriksen onstage, before an audience of some 900. Price relates that the encounter inspired Sosa to invite Eriksen to join for a San Francisco engagement. Then, in an extended June 2008 Blue Note stint, Eriksen was integral to the live recordings that comprise Across the Divide, whose title encapsulates the work’s uncompromising spirit, its rejection of stock categories.

In April 2009, at the tail end of a spring North American tour, Sosa returned to the Blue Note for six nights, where Eriksen again joined the quartet. On percussion was the Bay Area’s John Santos, and old Sosa partner. Santos came loaded to play: three congas, three stacked batá drums, bongos, a host of hand percussion, and a collection of toy instruments. Peter Apfelbaum laid out an array of woodwinds: flute, Chinese cornet, bamboo flute, soprano and tenor sax, an eight-hole bamboo sax (xaphoon), and melodicas. Mozambican Childo Tomas, a longtime Sosa mainstay, played a special, double-necked electric bass, kalimba, whistle, and assorted percussion. Sosa directed from his intensively miked grand piano and a Fender Rhodes, and the usual daunting set of electronic effects.

Sosa and Santos emerged first, the latter playing a set of children’s noise makers and an amplified music box rendering “Frčre Jacques,” against Sosa’s Obatalá orisha vocal loops. Sosa has two youngsters at home, so his integration of toy music making into the performance was all the more lyrical. Tomás entered next, chanting in his native Ronga language, as Santos worked the cowbells against Sosa’s driving accompaniment. Tomás took up a small bamboo flute, keeping beat with cowrie-shell shakers on his ankles, then chanting while fingering an amplified kalimba. Building the energy, Sosa potted up some samples of Elegguá orisha chanting as Santos moved to the congas. Last to enter was Apfelbaum, playing tenor then moving to soprano, in a lashing piece that built to several climaxes.

The evening’s most anticipated moment, at least for those who had previewed Across The Divide, was "Promised Land," featuring Eriksen’s first stage turn, in a haunting vocal rendition of “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” to batá and bass accompaniment, melodicas in two registers, and tenor sax, on Sosa’s keyboard foundation, a simple two-chord structure. This against the chanting of the entire ensemble and tape loops of Langston Hughes reading “The Struggle” (from The Voice of Langston Hughes, on Smithsonian Folkways), all with a brilliant sense of swing, resonating the transfixing ancestral power of a combined New Orleans second line and a nineteenth-century tent revival.

Closing the first set, Eriksen strapped on his fretless five-string mahogany banjo, Sosa and Tomás in spirited exchange with Santos on bongos. With inscrutable vocal authority, Eriksen summoned up a transcendental “Gabriel’s Gonna Blow,” infused with all the dark fury of a nation’s unredeemed history. If no walls came tumbling down, an invocation to the living spirit of the Diaspora, conjured up that evening, held out, for a moment, the audacious vision long deferred, of an unrealized humanity whose ecumenical soul may yet redeem the promise of Gandhi, King, and all those gone before. (Listen)

Across The Divide achieves something essentially unknown in contemporary U.S. jazz, and as with all visionary projects, due critical recognition of Omar Sosa’s fundamental contributions is likely to be some time in coming. Not that it matters for those with ears to hear. Particularly remarkable is the complete absence of pretense in Sosa’s work. There is none of the ponderous didactic screed and technique worship of those who hawk jazz as “America’s classical music,” but rather, a conception of “America” in its most comprehensive definition­a linguistic and cultural power shift that residents of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada intuitively understand. Sosa has no interest in grabbing the limelight, which only enhances the artistry of his ensemble focus. His generous musical spirit, his sonic curiosity, his openness to new sounds and their unusual combination, mark his life and work.

A particular measure of Sosa’s creative verve is the extraordinary diversity of people to whom his work speaks, the artistic range of those with whom he works, and the boundary-defying reach of his musical message. On hand for the opening Blue Note set were international tourists, New York cognoscenti, noted journalists, and a host of working musicians, among them rumba cowboy Ned Sublette and percussionist Adam Rudolph. Backstage, Rudolph was enthusiastic about the prospect of further collaboration with Sosa, following up on their Pictures Of Soul (Otá, 2004). A new EP, Simba (recorded at the same Los Angeles sessions that produced Pictures Of Soul in April 2002), offers a sketch of what to expect, hinting at yet another facet of a pianist, composer, and bandleader whose best work is ever and always yet to come. ­ Michael Stone


Omar Sosa, Tim Eriksen, and Childo Tomas on Soundcheck NYC (2009 audio and video):

Listen to "Promised Land" from Across the Divide

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