Jazz Notes: Omar Sosa Octet

New York--

Welcome to the first in a handful of updates I'll be providing on New York's JVC Jazz Fest over the next week. Why should a Minneapolis-based paper bother with events over a thousand miles away? Because ever since bebop supplanted swing as the genre's dominant strain in the 1940s, New York City has been both the Sundance and the Hollywood of jazz, simultaneously a wellspring, proving ground, and melting pot for an art form that's most accurately described as "the sound of surprise." Because among the many concerts taking place at the Fest, there are star-studded summits that will never be reprised and performances by groups who will be making their way to the Twin Cities over the next few months. And because I was dying to go.

Every night of the festival offers a wide array of enviable options. On Monday, I decided to forgo a remembrance to Teddi King at Hunter College (featuring Marian McPartland, Jackie and Roy, Bucky Pizzarelli and others) and a gig at Birdland by the Bill Charlap Trio (with guests Phil Woods and Frank Wess) in favor of a performance by the Omar Sosa Octet at the Blue Note. The Octet is coming to Minneapolis in September for a concert jointly sponsored by the Northrop Jazz Series and the Walker Art Center. Sosa's Sentir CD was recently named the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Album of the Year by the Jazz Journalist Association. I was hoping that my frustration with the limitations of Sosa's polycultural conceit would be rectified by seeing his ensemble in a live performance. Instead, the five-song, 70-minute set mostly confirmed my appraisal that the disparate elements in his music lack synergy and cohesion.

Although only three members of the Octet onstage at the Blue Note appeared on Sentir (Otá Records), Sosa's purpose seems the same: to demonstrate the common African root in music played by natives of Cuba, Venezuela, Morocco, and the United States. The Cuban-born pianist isn't shy about promoting the overtones of political correctness and new-age spirituality embedded in his approach. In the liner notes to Sentir (which means "to feel" in Spanish), he dedicates the disc "to everyone who holds faith in their hearts," and later adds, "much blessing, light, peace, and love for everyone."

At the Blue Note, he ascends to the stage in a turban, holding candles. Each member of the Octet is introduced first by where they are from in the world, and then by name. The cynic in me is suspicious that all this conceptual pomp and circumstance is meant to deflect rigorous scrutiny of the music itself.

The set's opening number typifies its haphazard attempts at a mosaic. Each band member is featured in 15-to-30 second intervals, a show-and-tell procession that precludes subtle interplay or sustained momentum from the whole ensemble. As the show unfolds, huge variations in talent among the individual musicians become evident. Cuban-born singer Martha Galarraga, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Tina Turner (albeit somewhat older and wider), is a pulse-quickening purveyor of Africa's Yoruba vocal tradition and has the fluid, saucy hip-sway of a Mahotella Queen. Oakland-born rapper Brutha Los, like the rapper on Sentir, is an almost laughably bad representative of the hip-hop nation, displaying a turgid flow and a weak imagination. He telegraphs the intent of his "freestyle" rhymes about the Blue Note, his "topical" take on Giuliani, and his "humorous" narrative about hanging out with Jesus.

The Brutha aside, there is a lot of individual ability displayed during the set. In addition to Galarraga, Gustavo Ovalles (from Venezuela) is an obvious master on a wide range of percussion instruments. Geoff Brennan is a stalwart, straight-ahead bop bassist. And Sosa is a virtuoso pianist equally capable of clave rhythms and jazz phrases reminiscent of McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill.

But too often the group interrupts promising developments for ostensibly crowd-pleasing gimmickry. It's delightful to hear the dolefully sonorous, East Asian-inflected chant-song of Moroccan vocalist-percussionist Said Hakmoun over the Afro-Cuban beats, so why divert it into a quasi-comical rap? And on a delicate ballad that is the highlight of the set, why does Sosa choose to break the azure stillness of the mood with a series of playful asides and exaggerated facial expressions? Throughout the set, Sosa seems to careen from beneficent spirituality to such banal flourishes as finishing a piano-long finger slide across the ivories by jumping to his feet.

I left the gig wishing that he and the rest of the group would have trusted in the improvisatory magic of jazz enough to explore their cultural commonalities and differences more thoroughly and on the fly.


Tomorrow: A review of a trio of Minnesota natives known as The Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard.

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