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'Let's have freedom'

Omar Sosa's spiritually and musically open ethos enlivens the crowd at the Cerritos Center.

October 02, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

High drama was in the air as Omar Sosa's octet gradually arrived on stage Tuesday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Moving through the gently wafting vapor of smoke machines, past arching daggers of light, the players, one by one, took their positions, adding musical contributions to what started as a basic rhythmic pattern.

First the two percussionists, followed by the bassist, the saxophonist, the rapper, the Afro-Cuban singer and the Moroccan singer. And, finally, Sosa. Tall, slender, garbed in a sweeping white outfit, he settled in at the piano, punctuating the gradually accumulating flow of sound with a magisterial presence.

Alternately standing and sitting at his instrument, occasionally reaching inside to pluck the strings with his fingers, he directed the music with sweeping gestures of his arms, often accompanied by intense body movements.

Driven by Sosa's powerful guidance, the music -- a piece titled "Elegua" -- ascended in a collective arc to a climax in which a roiling rhythmic foundation supported a front line of melody embracing Gnawa chant, Afro-Cuban vocalizing, jazz saxophone improvising and crisp vocal rapping.

It sounds like an utterly incompatible blend, and by rights it should have been. But not in Sosa's hands.

The 38-year-old Cuban-born percussionist turned pianist's vision of contemporary jazz reaches across every imaginable boundary. Its foundation is the spiritual beliefs that invest both his music and his conversation.

"When I arrived at my Afro-Cuban religion, at my spirituality," he said before the performance, "what I came to believe was that no matter what kind of religion we practice, no matter what kind of country we come from, no matter what kind of skin we have, we go to talk to the same Supreme Force. You can call Buddha, you can call Dios, but in the end, it's all the Supreme Force. And with the music, it's the same way.

"The main theme in my religious belief is to have love, to try to be together, and try to be honest and clean, and say what you have to say. And this is what I want to do with my music."

Sosa came to his musical vision growing up in Camaguey, Cuba, where his father was a fan of a variety of music. Sunday afternoons were family party days in which the background sounds embraced everything from Glenn Miller to Benny More, Count Basie to Chucho Valdes.

After living in Ecuador in the early '90s, he moved to the Bay Area in 1995, invigorating the region's Latin jazz scene with a series of recordings and performances. In 1999 he relocated to Barcelona, Spain, which remains the base for his numerous treks around the globe.

As Sosa's set continued, the impact those journeys have had upon his musical vision became clearer.

At one point, Moroccan singer Yassir Chadly exchanged vocal phrases with Cuban singer Martha Galarraga (daughter of the great Cuban percussionist Lazaro Galarraga); amazingly, Chadly's winding lines fit perfectly with Galarraga's crisply rhythmic phrases.

In other passages, American drummer Josh Jones' surging jazz swing flowed in and around Gustavo Ovalles' percussion, which embraced everything from conga and bata drums to a Brazilian berimbau.

Rapper Brutha Los somehow fit his socially provocative lines into the mix, and bassist Geoff Brennan drove everything forward with insistent propulsiveness.

The evening, which began with a very different, but equally compelling performance by the superb Los Angeles Latin jazz ensemble Tolu, climaxed with "Remember Monk," a piece dedicated to Thelonious Monk, one of several artists Sosa likes to refer to as "my guru."

Here, as elsewhere, there was never any doubt about the jazz elements integral to Sosa's approach, enhanced by the superb improvising of saxophonist Luis Depestre.

Ever present, as well, was the feeling of Afro-Cuban rhythms, occasionally alluded to whenever Sosa tossed in a brief montuna. But there also was a constant sense of his refusal to be locked into any specific genre.

"Everything I do is based in freedom," said Sosa. "We have a theme -- 12 measures, 16 measures -- but where the music goes after that is completely different. I give the music to the musicians; I say, 'Let's play, let's enjoy. Let's have freedom. Let's check how the spirits come to us.' Because everybody has their own spirit when they play the music. But the basis is freedom."

Sosa's set came to a close at a relatively late hour, around 11:30 p.m., but his enthusiastic audience remained until the last note. Leading his listeners in singalong phrases, encouraging them to snap their fingers to the clave rhythms, he was as engaging as he was musically fascinating.

By the time he had concluded, his unusual array of players and styles had convincingly proved his beliefs in musical eclecticism, in the joy of musical freedom and in his spiritual link with his musical predecessors.

"Every day when I go to play, I pray," he said. "And the spirits I call are John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Don Pullen, Frederic Chopin, Eric Satie, Lili Martinez, Peruchin. Because they're with us. And what they give us is the opportunity to express ourselves. We need to take their legacy and keep it going."

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