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Omar Sosa Afri-lectric Quintet: New York, May 5, 2011

Dan Bilawsky By

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Omar Sosa Afri-lectric Quintet
Blue Note
New York, NY
May 5, 2011

Cuban-born/Barcelona-based Omar Sosa doesn't simply perform for an audience when he brings his music to a club. He conjures musical spirits and creates a magical realm, unlike any other. The pianist fuses the most ancient and modern ideals imaginable into a wholly organic production, and his latest band—Afri-lectric Quintet—might be his finest creation yet.

There was plenty to marvel at during Sosa's first set at New York's Blue Note on Cinco de Maya, from his unaccompanied piano work with electronically enhanced fringe to the explosive interplay between Sosa and his special guest, guitarist Lionel Loueke. The set began with music that developed like a séance. Sosa arrived on the stage with a candle in his hand, and he immediately hypnotized the audience with his intensely spiritual solo piano work. One by one, the rest of the band walked onto the stage as the intensity continued to build. Trumpeter Joo Kraus arrived first, adding some waves of emotion with his Harmon-muted horn. As each subsequent band member made their way to the stage, they brought a mixture of whistles, wind instruments, shakers and clanging bells through the club. When the entire group was finally assembled onstage, the music developed a more pronounced direction and forward thrust, as the band reveled in heavenly rhythmic crosscurrents of passion. The music eventually arrived at Fender-laced funk, but returned to its roots before coming to its conclusion.

As the evening continued, Bassist Childo Tomas chimed in with some vocals in Ronga—a language endemic to his native Mozambique—and his playing proved to be the rhythmic catalyst that spurred Sosa on, until Louke's arrival later in the set. Multi-reedman Peter Apfelbaum picked up a horn that looked like a bamboo alto saxophone, and the band delved into music that was the ultimate mixture of primordial proclamations and sophistication. While Apfelbaum worked with some standard axes throughout the set—like soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone and flute—he also used all manner of wind instrument oddities, coming off like part jazz guru and part professor of musical antiquity. Eventually, pure primitivism took over, with cheek slaps and clapping, but Kraus' flugelhorn took control and brought the music back to the modern epoch. The band shifted from an urban atmosphere to a form of music that was pure Cuban rock, further demonstrating its versatility in a natural manner.

After forty minutes of mind-blowing ensemble work, the quintet welcomed Loueke to the stage and he added another angle to the African-rich vein of musical exploration in which Sosa swims. While their initial back-and-forth possessed some uncertainty, the pair developed a strong rapport as the collaboration continued. The mixture of electronic samples, processed sounds, vocals—from Sosa and Loueke—and heady improvisation, took the music to even greater heights as the set came to an end.

Sosa's week-long stay in New York brought this unique musical amalgam to discerning audiences, but it also served as a precursor for recording sessions with this particular ensemble ...and Loueke. Sosa, with twenty-plus diverse albums under his belt in less than fifteen years, hasn't been known for staying in one musical head space for very long. While he's clearly a restless musical journeyman and spiritual songsmith capable of creating music that pulsates like the very heartbeat of Africa, he's also a clever conceptualist and keen observer of musical possibility. With that in mind, hopefully he'll keeps this band together so future audiences can experience the same magic he brought to the Blue Note.

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