Omar Sosa (with Gustavo Ovalles): Ayaguna

Robert R. Calder

Omar Sosa (with Gustavo Ovalles)


Label: with Gustavo Ovalles
US Release Date: 2003-02-11
UK Release Date: 2003-02-24

Omar Sosa's command of piano is prodigious and European; and his orthodox jazz credentials -- established at once here after some investigations inside the instrument -- could certainly impress more Kenny Barron fans than me. He'd have no problem playing Prokofiev if he wanted to. The opening "Black Reflection" seems to have an extra dimension in comparison with such (non-Latin) dancing (at times reeling) tours de force. Every note seems to have a more precise and perhaps more variable rhythmic value, spontaneously. It's as if the music could go in any of a wide range of directions -- like in the "reeling" mentioned above, where his fingers race away from what thus far has been the line of improvisation -- but unpredictably he has found his way. He is an immensely fresh player, full of echoes of Spring.

"Una Tradicion Negra" is tricky to follow, with one after another harmonically or modally staggering phrase suggesting one after another development until the progression of the performance finally reveals itself as sheerly rhythmic. The point seems to have been to do literally too much, it's not display but involvement. Every one of those phrases or runs is constrained by Gustavo Ovalles' laid-down rhythm, each run has to come to a swift end. But in every one the man gets in as many notes and shifts as one might imagine he possibly can. It's not rabbits he pulls out of the hat, but larger beasts, each of which, once out, immediately disappears.

"Iyawo" is a prelude -- playing inside the piano and fingering keys simultaneously in synch with the percussionist -- to "Dias de Iyawo", which starts rhythmically and modulates from a gentle Latin theme through an Abdullah Ibrahim melodic line into a Bill Evans "Peace Piece" lyricism.

I like "Toridanzón" very much, where at one point Ruben Gonzalez metamorphoses into latter-day Randy Weston, suggesting an ambition to find a common matrix of those so far mentioned, a compositional style and genre. "Africa Madre Viva" may seem based on a reharmonisation of the key figure of "Cow Cow Blues" but condensed to rather less than 12 bars. Its development passes through an idiom like the imitation English folksong of Percy Grainger.

At times, Sosa finds and plays a passage of so many bars to a definite rhythm, then plays a succession of variations on different aspects of it -- sometimes becoming more elaborate sometimes with more notes, sometimes a more complex rhythm from the percussionist -- then modulates out of it by condensing, simplifying, shortening it. Sometimes the cumulative development of a (say) eight-bar measure produces a change of emphasis, and then five bars into what began as the latest eight bars he plays another five bars based on those five bars so far, entirely rethought, recontextualised. The percussionist, who can accent slow meditative passages as brilliantly as he can drive the music onward, holds the whole together. Sosa is able to re-envision what he has just played, to make fresh starts moving forward all the time.

At times he finds a bold rhythmic figure in the left hand, sometimes after a tinkling in the strings as Ovalles toils away on his prodigious collection of implements, and then racing passage work such as McCoy Tyner likes to get out of his system before his big band kicks in. Sosa hunts through key changes, until a rhythmic-melodic figure, or a percussion ostinato, emerges. The definitive theme of "Toridanzón" doesn't declare itself until after some other figures have come out and been put back. Actually I know this theme of old, my late father taught me it before Omar Sosa was born, but he'd no idea where he picked it up on travels which did not include Latin America. It's fun, it's joyful, and as the third last track probably a kind of release for which the earlier performances prepared. Of course, if the performances didn't occur exactly in the order of the issued recording, it can't have been prepared for in quite that way. I also have a suspicion that some publicity material for this issue reflected a careless listening by overemphasising the idea of one performance. They may all be in Omar Sosa's distinct idiom, but the movements are nine in number.

The sound engineers, with Sosa's blessing, varied levels a little now and then, but extremely subtly, like the odd inoffensive echo, a fact liable to be overstated like supposed "vocals" which amount to no more than the noises a lot of past solo pianists have made (Bud Powell very unfortunately on some private French recordings), not to mention classical instrumentalists (Pablo Casals, on being told of this noise, said the recording company could use it to justify charging extra). The supposed "bonus" here is a final video track whose insertion into a computer CD drive will display Sosa on-screen saying that there are better things than devotion to sheer financial gain. For the rest of the couple of minutes I'm not interested to "see how V.J.'s sample, mix, and project images in synchronisation with the live performance." The preceding music is on its own a sufficiently interesting and challenging stimulation and vindication of the life of track nine, "My Three Notes". Its series of quietly restless progressions, each of which implies a possible direction of climax the music does not then take. A great deal of understanding was required to resolve them all in statements of peace. Ayaguna is the name of the Yoruba god of peace, wisdom, and revolution, I am told. So far, these three elements have hardly ever been handled well together outside music.

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