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Omar Sosa & Paolo Fresu Duo: New York, NY, January 24, 2013

Dan Bilawsky By

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Omar Sosa & Paolo Fresu Duo
Blue Note
New York, NY
January 24, 2013

Some musicians settle into a club and simply play a set of music, but that's never the case with Omar Sosa. The pianist treats every performance as a musical séance and an opportunity to bare his soul. It's hard to know whether to call his work jazz or spirit music, but labels aren't really important when it comes to his work; his impressive oeuvre speaks for itself, regardless of what it's called.

When Sosa came through New York in early 2012, he had just released Alma (Ota, 2012), a gorgeous and quietly absorbing duo record with prolific trumpeter Paolo Fresu, but he was touring his explosive Afri-lectric outfit. As 2013 took hold, the tables were turned. The Afri-lectric band's tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959)—Eggun (Ota, 2013)—was due to hit shelves, but Sosa was making the rounds with Fresu. Their four-night stand at New York's Blue Note marked the first North American appearance of the duo and served as the start of a mini-tour that would take them from the Big Apple to Washington D.C., Boston and, finally, New Jersey.

As both men arrived on stage for their first set on a frigid Thursday evening, opening night jitters and stiffness were nowhere to be found. They delivered more than an hour of music with quiet intensity, joy, passion and a sense of purpose. Sosa and Fresu got the juices flowing with a free introduction that allowed the pianist to toy with the guts of his instrument. Both men immediately established themselves as master mood setters and manipulators of sound as they settled in. Fresu moved from harmon-muted trumpet to flugelhorn here and throughout the night, and he augmented his sound with decaying echoes, breathy manipulation and found-percussion sounds (e.g., wedding ring-on-horn-bell). Pulsating streams and otherworldly sounds collided as both men colored their acoustic work with electronically manipulated thoughts.

Sosa introduced the first proper tune—"S'Inguldu"—with some wistful piano thoughts which were only interrupted by a single moment of spiky chordal dissonance. Joy took control when the percussion sample kicked in and Fresu's horn entered the picture. Sosa even interjected some Cuban asides and montuno magic as the song developed.

While the majority of the music was fleshed out with electronically tweaked embellishments, Sosa and Fresu went the unadorned route for their follow-up. Fresu sat with his head and horn bowed at a downward angle of musical repose as Sosa intently followed his every gesture. Fresu's horn spoke in mournful tones, hypnotizing the room with its quiet power and immediacy. The trippy "No Trance" came next and gave the duo an opportunity to continually build tension into their work. At one point, Fresu's second valve was all aflutter and Sosa took to percussively pounding at the piano. Both men engaged in a brief bout of one-upmanship here as they raised the energy level.

This high spirited gamesmanship appeared again in "Angustia." Fresu leaped off out of his chair and turned to Sosa as an invitation to start a musical game of chicken. Both men delighted in playing with, and at, one another, and Sosa's Cuban roots crept in as the song neared its end. They came out of this high energy number as synchronized instrumental heroes.

A more reflective and placid tone came to the fore as "Alma" unfolded, but the music developed Latin underpinnings and took a bluesier turn as it evolved. A brief take on "Rimanere Grande!" came off like a late-in-the-set hymn, but the outward enthusiasm returned for the closer—a cover of Paul Simon's "Under African Skies." The backing sounds, which included gentle vocals, helped to add a sense of weightlessness to the music.

While the Sosa-Fresu duo has thrilled European audiences for a while, Americans have been left out in the cold until now. Hopefully, now that they've broken the ice, this will be the first of many stateside appearances for this musical match made in heaven.

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