Omar Sosa & NDR Bigband: Ceremony

Omar Sosa & NDR Bigband

Pianist Omar Sosa has developed a reputation as an ambassador of Afro-Cuban music, world jazz, and exploratory global fusions. His varied recordings for Otá, the record label set up specifically to produce and disseminate his work, have included rap, spoken word, world jazz, and traditional music from all over the globe, with particular emphasis on the music of Africa and the African diaspora. For Ceremony, Sosa has teamed up with Germany’s NDR Bigband and Brazilian composer-arranger-cellist Jaques Morelenbaum for a series of reinventions of earlier material and new compositions. The album represents a reining in of the disparate, globe-trotting styles of Sosa’s last recording, Across the Divide (2009), while still extending his music into new sonic and geographic territories.

Previous albums, such as Free Roots (1997), Mulatos (2004), and Afreecanos (2008), have emphasized Sosa’s interest in roots and routes, while also making space for reflections on spirituality and affirmations of the ritualistic aspects of Yoruba religion. Ritual is at the heart of Sosa’s latest release, as its title suggests. Indeed, ceremony seems to be a central tenet for Sosa in both life and art. Producer Stefan Gerdes recounts the calm and methodical manner with which Sosa will lay out gifts and offerings to the Orishas (Yoruba gods) in the rooms in which he is staying. The pianist-percussionist is also known for the ceremonial aspects of his live performance and for the careful structure he applies to musical arrangements. This quiet determinism is evident in the organization of his albums too; Ceremony opens and closes with tracks dedicated to Elegba, the messenger god and Orisha of human destiny.

“Llegada Con Elegba” signals the arrival of Sosa’s new collaborators, the piano taking a back seat to Reiner Winterschladen’s trumpet and Morelenbaum’s cello. “Changó En Esmeraldas” reworks the theme of “Fabriciano Con Changó” from Spirit of the Roots. The track, named after the Orisha of thunder, gains new textures in its transfer from a percussion-and-rap exercise to a big band arrangement. The massed brass goes to town on the main theme, paving the way for the three soloists. Sosa contributes his first major piano part, Peter Bolte provides a scorching blast of alto saxophone, and Roland Cabezas adds some fine electric guitar flourishes.

Morelenbaum’s beautiful cello on “Danzón De Tus Ojos” marks the tune as one of the standouts of the set. The track closes with a focus on percussion, something of a Sosa trademark; a range of percussion is utilized over the course of the album, including batá drums, congas, guiro, cajón de rumba, and marimba. Morelenbaum provides more vigorous attack on “Carambabá”, a track that gains much of its texture from Frank Delle’s bass clarinet. “Yemaya En Agua Larga”, named after the goddess of the sea, brings Fiete Felsch’s flute to the fore in an updating of a melody previously explored on Spirit of the Roots. There is a splendid passage in the new recording where the oceanic brass recedes to highlight a stark trombone playing over Afro-Cuban percussion. “Remember Monk”, another Spirit track, is reworked as “Monkurú”, Sosa providing the expected angular piano associated with the tune’s subject, while fellow Cuban Julian Barreto contributes some powerful drumming behind Lutz Büchner’s excited soprano sax.

“Luz En El Cielo” (which reprises “Light in the Sky” from Afreecanos) contains some of Sosa’s sweetest piano playing. It’s another standout track, featuring subtle, supportive work from Cabezas and Felsch (this time on alto sax) and a haunting flugelhorn solo from Ingolf Burkhardt. “Cha Con Marimba” lifts the tempo with a fresh take on a familiar Sosa theme, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and flute flanking Sosa’s marimba work to sparkling effect. These two tracks and “Danzón De Tus Ojos” alone would be enough to lay a claim for Ceremony as a vital contribution to Sosa’s rapidly expanding discography.

“Salida Con Elegba” closes the album in a suitably stately manner, Morelenbaum’s cello ceding to a final flurry of percussion that serves as a reminder of the ceremonial structure at this music’s heart. Once again, Omar Sosa has produced a distinct take on world jazz while renewing his own exploratory project, all within the carefully orchestrated confines of ritual space and time-honored practice.

RATING 8 / 10