Reviews

Omar Sosa
Free Roots Release Party
Saturday, Aug. 23
Great American Music Hall

Some danced during Omar Sosa's show two weeks ago Saturday. Grouped in packs of twos, threes, and fours, women and men hovering close to the walls and balcony of the Great American Music Hall let their bodies sway lustily in all directions. Back and forth, up and down, side to side. They felt the intoxicating synthesis of Cuban, African, Indian, and Ecuadorean rhythm and melody (with a nod toward European miscegenation) in their bones like rheumatism in reverse: It made their joints loose and fluid, not stiff.

Others in the audience wagged their heads in time with the show onstage, perhaps too timid to rise and join the show offstage. But the overwhelming majority of the crowd sat in numb awe of the musicianship radiating from Sosa and his collective of percussionists (Jesus Diaz, Michael Spiro), rhythm-keepers (Elliot Kavee on drums, Rahsaan Frederickson on bass), vocalists (Jose Luis Gomez, Fito Reinoso, Will Power), and horns (Sheldon Brown, Julius Melendez, Marty Wehner). The band served up two heaping sets of bold, Afro-Latin-flavored hard bop, post-bop, and experimental jazz.

Most of the arrangements Sosa showcased used the highly stylized traditions of Cuban dance music as a starting point. But rare was the number that remained danceable from start to finish. The uptempo "Fue Mentira (It Was a Lie)" evolved into a Mingus-like dialogue between horns and rhythm section. "Buscando la Clave (Finding the Clave)" borrowed liberally from the musical stylings of modern Cuban pop music, only to settle into a funk-drenched canvas for rapper Power to paint free verse-styled rhymes over. And "Pero No Lo Lef (But I Didn't Read It)" was infused with the kind of intensity that made bands like Weather Report, the Yellow Jackets, and Spyro Gyra so popular in the '70s, when the lines separating R&B, jazz, and rock first became blurred.

On the other hand, the band's more intimate pieces featured Sosa and his co-conspirators (as well as guest performers like popular percussionist John Santos) in small combos. Take for instance "Raya (The Line)," a beautiful tonal conversation between saxophonist Brown, bassist Frederickson, and Sosa. Or the polyrhythmic duet between Sosa and Santos on abakua (a percussive, gourdlike instrument). In either case, following Sosa is like riding your mountain bike down an unfamiliar switchback for the first time. You may think you know where you are going, but it all depends on the path's temperament. Just when it seems appropriate to grab a partner and cut the rug in between the Great American's cocktail tables, a sudden change in key and meter reminds you how "safe" you were in your seat watching Sosa "dance" instead. But focus on his wiry form bouncing, skipping, and stretching up and down a grand piano, and suddenly he is not a musician anymore. He is a boy at play on a melodic jungle gym. The band are his playmates.

But the energy exchanged between Sosa and the group has got to be seen to be understood. The musicians shared their spirits generously with each other and the audience, without pretext or forethought. But surprisingly, Sosa and company were at their sharpest when accompanied by Powers, whose singsong rhymes typically misfired on arrangements like "Travieson (Wild Boy)," "Buscando la Clave," and "AfroCuEs a Dada." But it's easy to dismiss Power's shortfall as a mixture of technical difficulty and an overabundance of positive energy. The microphone setup for Powers and Cuban vocalists Gomez and Reinoso did not do justice to any of their voices.

The cover art of Free Roots, the new album Saturday's show was organized to promote, features Sosa in the nude perched atop a piano stool. As his left hand strikes a chord on the piano, he looks out pensively at the purchaser, far more subdued than any of the bright grins, winks, and nods he sent the audience's way Saturday night. The contemplative airs were shed. "Free Roots" (the show) was more than a record release party, it was a celebration of tradition and innovation.

-- Victor Haseman

Lisa Stansfield
(Arista)

It seems entirely appropriate that Stansfield, a singer who made her mark by diligently reviving the Barry White/Philadelphia International sound and the optimistic spirit of the early '70s, would turn her attention to her own early career oeuvre. She departed her turf on her own terms in 1994, and since then only Maxwell and D'Angelo have invoked a similar influence with comparable power. But Stansfield still has an edge over these young rakes. The guys mine the '70s sound for its sensual implications (e.g., physical satisfaction), whereas Stansfield works it for the overwrought passion of longing (deprivation). So maybe, as she once sang, this is the right time. There is extremity in Stansfield's voice; she sings of love not as a nifty alternative to the Web or rented videos, but as the healing force of the universe. Stansfield's fundamentalist zeal was such that when on that debut single her voice caught in "All Around the World" ("And I-I-I-I can't find my baby"), you could picture her searching the back alleys of Jakarta.

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