Los Angeles Times Review – January 19, 2003

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Los Angeles Times Review – January 19, 2003

Omar Sosa Stands at the Head of this Piano Class

January 19, 2003

By Don Heckman
Special to The Los Angeles Times

The relationship between jazz and Cuban music has been a virtual love
feast since the ‘40s, when Mario Bauza, Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and
Chano Pozo sat down at the same musical table.

The close connection continued through succeeding decades, enhanced by
groups such as Irakere since the ‘70s, and by the ‘80s defection to
the U.S. of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and woodwind specialist Paquito

More recently players such as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba have further
affirmed the persistence of the intimate relationship between the two
musical forms.

A new phase in the jazz and Cuban music linkage is being unveiled by
gifted pianist Omar Sosa. Previous blendings of the two genres have
tended to emphasize the powerful energies of Afro-Cuban rhythms in
combination with the harmonic structures and improvisational qualities
of jazz. Sosa, however, has moved beyond the parallelism of musical
elements into a kind of natural, organic expressiveness in which the
musics’ separate identities are replaced by a seamless, creative

In his latest release, “Ayaguna” (****, Ota Records), he teams up in a
live duo concert with Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles. Both
are followers of Santeria, the Cuban manifestation of the Yoruba
culture of West Africa. The album title describes one of the paths of
Obatala, a Yoruban deity associated with peace and wisdom as well as
revolution and progress. And the music on the CD, which was recorded
at a 2002 concert in Yokohama, Japan, superbly reflects all those

Reference points for Sosa’s performance include Thelonious Monk, Cecil
Taylor, Randy Weston and Herbie Nichols, among others. But he has
synthesized attributes from each of these adventurous pianists into
his own unique voice.

The results are extraordinary. Using the piano’s potential to the
fullest, usually from the keyboard, occasionally reaching in to stroke
the strings, he produces wildly spirited rhythms—complete, on “Una
Tradicion Negra,” with shouted interjections. On “Trip in the White
Scarf,” an electronic echo delay is employed, enlivening Sosa’s
powerful explosions of rich note clusters with eerie repetitions.

He contrasts the hammering intensity of passages reminiscent of Taylor
with the tender lyricism of “My Three Notes,” and emphasizes his Cuban
roots with the surging dance rhythms and scorching montunas of

Sosa, 37, immigrated to San Francisco in the mid-’90s and now has
reportedly moved to Spain. Each of his seven albums has revealed
impressive musical progression. His last album, “Sentir,” released in
2002, was nominated for a Latin Grammy and is a nominee for the Latin
jazz album in next month’s Grammy Awards.

“Ayaguna,” which arrives in stores the first week in February, fully
deserves even more attention, as does Sosa. Still far too little-known
in this country, he has all the traits necessary to become one of the
important figures in jazz.

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