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Live review: Omar Sosa and the Afreecanos Quartet at Jazz Bakery

April 3, 2009 |  3:36 pm


When Omar Sosa walked onstage at the Jazz Bakery on Thursday evening, magisterially dressed in head-to-toe white, he carried with him a candle in one hand and a small carved deity in the other.

Then, seated before his piano, he began tapping out notes in tandem with percussionist John Santos' extraordinary mélange of found and sampled sounds, including cymbals, chimes, a cellphone ring tone and a child's music box playing "Frère Jacques." Once in a while, Sosa reached inside his piano to gently brush the strings with his hands, in a gesture of syncopation solidarity.

Gradually, they were joined by bass player and vocalist Childo Tomas and saxophonist-flutist Peter Apfelbaum, taking their places with the practiced ritualism of priests.

The effect, which Sosa often produces at the start of his concerts with the number "Opening for Eleggua," is of hearing and watching music being assembled note by note with a kind of religious, ceremonial devotion that's in keeping with Sosa's hand-held props. But if music making is earnest business for the Cuban jazz musician, it's also an act of pure, childlike pleasure, which registers in his glistening eyes, spontaneous dance shuffles and the joyful yelps he sometimes utters when the band finds its way through his pan-African sonic labyrinths.

The Afreecanos Quartet (get it?) is the latest embodiment of Sosa's enthusiastic quest for the musical mother tongue that links Caribbean beats and progressive jazz with North African percussion and New York hip-hop style spoken word with fulsome brass. Significantly, at the first of his two Thursday night shows, the opening of a four-night stand in Culver City, Sosa hardly bothered to announce a single song title.

He didn't need to. Like the trans-global sources that inspire it, Sosa's music in live performance runs together in a more or less continuous flow that at times puts me in mind of a kind of Caribbean-Yoruban version of the second half of "Abbey Road," with Ruben González, Baaba Maal, Orestes Vilato and the Brazilian magus-madman Tom Zé standing in for John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Sounding rawer and more urgently improvisational than on last year's excellent "Afreecanos" recording, the quartet sustained several beautiful melodic grooves. Yet in Sosa's irrepressibly rhythmic creative idiom, every player is essentially a percussionist-in-waiting, every instrument a potential rhythm stick. When Apfelbaum wasn't pumping his saxophone he was meditatively shaking something soft and rattly. When Tomas wasn't plucking bass strings he was slapping his bullfrog cheeks to the beat.

Holding it all together is Sosa, and while he is an ebulliently theatrical performer, it would be inaccurate to call him a showy one. His approach is egalitarian and generous. He hands off a solo to one of his bandmates as gracefully, and often as abruptly, as an NBA point guard dishing a pass under the basket. Collaborators must be ever alert for a quick tempo shift, the sudden introduction of a motif, and these three were.

Sosa has attributed his music's spirituality to the influence of Santeria, the Afro-Christian religion that draws liberally from many different beliefs and unites them in an organic whole. It resists orthodoxy but respects its roots, which also could be said of how Omar Sosa is redefining Latin jazz.


(Photo by Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)