"I'm moving to Europe because I want to be close to Africa," says pianist Omar Sosa over the phone from a Paris hotel room. The Cuban-born Sosa is in the midst of a European tour supporting Inside, his latest CD on Ota Records, and he's talking about his recent move to Barcelona from the Bay Area, where he lived and worked for several years. "I want to be close to Europe, I want to be close to New York, I want to be in what I call the middle of the world. But mostly I want to be close to Africa, because for me, the mother is Africa. I have a mother, my real mother, mi mama, and I have another mother in my religion, but the big mother for all the black people in the world is Africa."
Sosa is likely making a smart move. Scott Price, Sosa's manager, producer, and Ota Records partner, says Sosa's albums (he has recorded six so far) have been received with much more enthusiasm in Europe, in part because "there's a larger young audience for progressive and sort of 'hip' jazz than there is here in the States." And Sosa, who lovingly refers to the Bay Area as his "second country," can't be faulted when he also notes that "it's a small scene." Since Sosa's arrival in San Francisco from Ecuador in 1995, he has injected the local music scene, in particular the Latin jazz and salsa scene, with an incalculable amount of virtuoso playing and startling originality. A pianist of seemingly boundless energy and technique, Sosa's most striking talent is perhaps his enormous stylistic range, which springs from his unique world view and diverse background. Born in Camagüey, Cuba, he was trained as a percussionist at the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Musica in Havana. When he couldn't find his first-choice instrument, marimba, he began to focus on the piano. Having studied everything from Afro-Cuban folklore to European classical music (interestingly he says he never expected to play jazz, because "in Cuba there's a lot of competition"), Sosa began to work with several popular Cuban pop singers in the late Eighties, and even helped jump-start a Cuban hip-hop scene in the early Nineties in a collaboration with Cuban rapper Ofil. He moved to Ecuador in 1993 and formed a jazz fusion band, Entrenoz, then landed in the Bay Area almost by accident after a visit in 1995.
Quickly connecting with some of the Bay Area's best Latin jazz and salsa musicians, he played steadily on the local salsa circuit with Fito Reinoso's Ritmo y Armonia, and with percussionist Jesus Diaz, before striking out to record six albums of his own. Marvels of cross-cultural pollination, Sosa's albums (most notably Spirit of the Roots and Free Roots, parts one and two of a planned Roots trilogy) mesh Afro-Cuban piano styles with a straight-ahead jazz sensibility, as well as liberal doses of hip-hop and funk, all infused with his own distinctly personal compositional style.
Which means Sosa isn't boasting when he talks about merging the many cultures that nurture and inspire him. "For me," he explains, "the world goes in one fusion between different cultures. This is my vision about the future. This is why I try to do the music like I do: Afro-Ecuadorian music, Afro-Venezuelan music, Afro-Cuban music, Afro-American music. Because for me the world is like that. It's one big place with so many different types of variety." These far-flung influences sometimes bubble to the surface in surprising ways (like the touches of an Afro-Ecuadorian choir and the spoken-word rapping of Will Power on Spirit of the Roots), but they also stem from someone clearly enamored of the jazz tradition. "This is what I feel about jazz: Jazz is freedom," he says firmly. "If you like jazz in this life, you are a jazz man. Whether you do music or not."
As a boy in Cuba, Sosa's father played Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole records every Sunday. But the son's love for jazz didn't flower until later, when he was exposed to the music of Thelonious Monk. He recalls excitedly: "I started to really love jazz when I found Monk. When I found his music I say, 'Wow! This is the guy!' This is what I expected about music, not only about jazz, but about music, because it's freedom. Play whatever you want, no matter what! Because so many people start thinking, Okay, this phrase don't go here. These changes don't go here. But this is stupid shit, man! Because what is good and what is bad? It's nothing, man. It's whatever you feel!" Sosa's angular phrasing, as well as his sometimes dissonant and percussive soloing style, are clearly indebted to the revolutionary jazz pianist, as they are to another icon of the jazz avant-garde, Cecil Taylor, whom Sosa appreciatively calls a "crazy motherfucker!"
But Sosa's appeal isn't all dissonance and bombast, a point that is beautifully demonstrated on Inside. A delicate and reflective solo piano recording captured in manager Price's living room over two days in December 1998, it finds Sosa in an impressionistic, introspective mood. At times it's almost reminiscent of Bill Evans's playing, as on the beautiful opener "Para Ella." But it never fails to be almost achingly personal and unpredictable, as demonstrated with "Ojos Locos," when Sosa reaches inside the piano to pluck strings like a harp. For Sosa the album marks what was a somewhat trying time for him. "You know, it was simple," he recalls. "I was ... I don't want to say depressed, but I start thinking about many things, I start reflecting, about moving out of the country to Europe, and for me the music is a spiritual thing; you need to express what you have inside of you, so this is the point behind this album."
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For Price the album was something of a return to the first time he ever heard Sosa play, in early 1996, shortly after Sosa had arrived from Ecuador. "I remember he came over to my studio, where I have a very nice piano, and he played for a few minutes, and I was literally stunned and amazed by the divine creativity and inspiration he had coming out of him," Price says. "It was really the first time I had been catapulted into another zone by someone's music."
The spiritual dimension of Sosa's music isn't an accident. His involvement in the Afro-Cuban religion Santería is deep-rooted and inseparable from his music. "Without the religion I don't know if I can say what I say now," he says. "Because sometimes, if you want to impress somebody in the crowd, like a competition, like a game with another musician or something, then the spirits don't come in. They don't play these stupid games. They play the real game. It's like, okay, you want to play? Then open your heart, open your mind, and let me say what I want to say. And sometimes then you say, 'Wow, I don't know what happened,' because it's a spiritual thing, this thing [that] happens when you open your heart. Maybe this thing happened with the solo piano."
Set for release in March, Sosa's next album, Bembon (Spanish for "thick-lipped," which Sosa says refers to the album's African elements), will complete the Roots trilogy with many of the same musicians who graced the first two parts. The album has its own flavor, though. Recorded partly in Ecuador, it features some older Afro-Ecuadorian musicians whom Sosa jokingly calls "The Buena Vista Social Club" of Ecuador. (To that end Sosa says he is "really happy that these people, like Ruben Gonzalez, and Ibrahim Ferrer, and Compay Segundo are finally at the level they are supposed to be.") And while Sosa has departed the Bay Area, he doesn't plan to abandon it entirely. "I want to go two or three times a year now to play in the Bay Area, because I love the people in the Bay Area. They support my music, they support my crazy concept, they support my spiritual side."
Spain, he insists, is not that far away. "For me the world is just one street. You know in San Francisco, you have Mill Valley, and you have Mission Street? For me the world is like that! It's just one street."