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.

Her 1992 follow-up, Real Love, marked a solid progression. Her fervor remained, but she applied it to keeping the flame alive. She was just as determined to maintain a relationship as she was to find one. However, things went awry on her third recording, 1994's So Natural (not released in the U.S.). She abandoned the up- and midtempo soul that worked so well for her in favor of slow, dirge-y torch songs. The tunes were poor vehicles, and her singing was often lethargic; she'd gone from true believer to hourly employee.

Her new self-titled recording arrived with the kind of big-budget promotion geared at making it a summer blockbuster (though it may have bombed, since the record had a middling debut on the charts). The video to the first single, "Never Gonna Give You Up," which features Stansfield walking naked through crowded city streets (ah, gratuitous nudity, another early '90s throwback), seems calculated. The music plays it very safe; the single is faithful to White's original, and there are loud echoes of tunes from the first two recordings amid the song list. What makes all this algebra worthwhile is Stansfield's voice. Again, she is singing as if each note were catharsis. Her fanaticism lifts songs that might otherwise have been exercises in homage. Her discussions of love embrace a teen-ager's naivete rather than a divorcee's savvy.

When, on "The Real Thing," she sings: "No more living in chains/ No, I don't give a damn what the people say/ There's no use holding back desire/ We've burnt our fingers, now let's jump into the flames," it's not poetry; it's dogma. It marks a return to form -- and yet, for all this devotion, it's the least of her three domestic releases.

By the time they get three or four records under their belt, most artists have found something that works, a technique that will save them from either 9-to-5-ing or doing session work. And they cling to that something with the tenacity of a small, frightened animal. For Stansfield, it's an obsessive compulsion for romance. Let's hope she holds on.

-- Martin Johnson

Spectrum
Forever Alien
(Reprise)

If you ever doubted that musicians, including that too-cool species sniffing around in the underground, are basically a bunch of bug-collecting, stamp-coveting, bottle cap-hoarding, baseball card-fondling, thimble-cataloging geeks -- only with a fetish for sound, rather than toys -- allow me to introduce you to Sonic Boom and his latest project (in the strictest science-fair sense), Spectrum. Mr. Boom (known pre-pseudonymously as Pete Kember) was of course a member of the eternal droners Spacemen 3, who achieved some renown years back by simply proselytizing about all the drugs they took while allowing their instruments to hum in a more-or-less player-free fashion. Take a line of feedback, interrupt it here and there with a few hesitant drum strikes when the percussionist remembers the stick in his hand, and there you have an instant Sonic Boom classic.

Which is not meant to be too dismissive. Many groups sound better when heard through the oddball sieve of college-radio programming, played against differing varieties of high weirdness, and the Spacemen 3 were no exception. But their output was really more interesting as an artifact than as an art form -- as an invoice for freedom, showing that someone could, and in fact was entirely willing to, be that weird and dull. Auditing such stuff with any focus proves difficult; it's like studying shopping music. (Drugs help; anything's better when it sits on a Ritz.) And Spectrum really isn't all that different, except that Boom and his new ancillary cronies have swapped the penis substitute of a guitar for the brain substitute of an electrode. Just look at the liner notes: Boom is credited with "EMS Synthi & VCS3, OSCar, Theremin, Serge Modular Music System, Vocoder & Vocals." (What was the model number on that last one?) Alf Hardy gets the nod for his "Voltage Controlled Synthesizers, Vocoder & Vibraphone," and extra special thanks go out to Pete Bassman for his ... nope, for his "Programming Vibrations." Throughout the liner notes are various pictures and diagrams of some of these technologies, as if showing us all the wires, dials, and switches gives the artists some sort of license.

And, of course, the results are once again listenable only in the most passive sense, as a sort of remote background radiation you might notice coming in on the dish once in a while, but then dismiss as nothing more than the odd bit of cosmic flatulence. Sure, there are words; on "Owsley," perhaps running short on LSD, Boom asks, "Owsley, where are you now?" But the words are just another atmospheric bubble, as essential to the understanding of a Spectrum track as any of the "Creature Feature" warbles or signal-to-noise ratios. Collegiate, iconoclastic, and obscure as it may be, this sort of experimentalism is far dorkier than anything Thomas Dolby ever came up with. But by all means, go out and secure this algebraic product for your personal shopping environment. Be a part of the underground. Be a geek.

-- Michael Batty

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