Earshot Jazz Festival Preview: An Interview with Omar Sosa

Nov 4, 2013

Cuban-born pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa received a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian Associates in Washington, DC in 2003 for his contribution to the development of Latin jazz in the United States.  His latest CD Eggun (spirit guides) grew from a commission by the Barcelona Jazz Festival in 2009.  The idea was to pay tribute to Miles Davis’ seminal album, Kind of Blue, on its 50th anniversary.

Omar was reluctant at first, because, after all,  ”…it’s a masterpiece.  What can you do around Kind of Blue except try to play the pieces?”  But then he decided to dedicate himself to listening to Davis’s work, watching videos, reading interviews and Ashley Kahn’s book about the making of the album.  What changed his mind about accepting the challenge was a quote of advice from Miles:  be yourself.  ”I said, OK.  I can do this my way.”  Like Miles Davis, Omar Sosa is known for doing things his own way.

He spent 6 months transcribing the album’s solos— by hand, no software.  ”I write by hand, I’m old school.  I don’t know exactly what is going to happen until I give the charts to the musicians and they start playing.”  Saxophonist Peter Appfelbaum had to break the news to Omar that a book of complete transcriptions of Kind of Blue already exists.  ”I said ‘don’t tell me that!’  But it was interesting to me, to get inside this kind of detailed work.  I learned a lot about how Miles and Bill Evans wrote for the horns, the voicings…it was a nice lesson, really.”

Sosa used the transcribed solos as a basis for his compositions, taking a bit here and a bit there and combining it in a new way, “…like a puzzle.  And I created a melody around every note they played.  After that, I re-harmonized it in my own way, but always respecting the timing of the original piece.”  The finished product, Eggun, is a deep, multi-layered suite that somehow evokes the special feeling of Kind of Blue while taking the music in a different direction.  There’s one track titled “So All Freddie”–a mix of the elements of Kind of Blue’s biggest “hits”:  So What, All Blues and Freddie Freeloader.  The main pieces of Eggun are separated by short interludes that are based on the solos of Bill Evans.

Omar is happy with the process he used to write the pieces, and he’s pleased with the result.  “It’s a contemplative music, in some moments you can feel Africa, you can feel the Afro-Cuban tradition, you can feel the Latin tradition, you can feel the jazz, you can feel the electronic in a subtle way–not too aggressive.  I really enjoyed, in the end, finishing the recording.”

He’s also delighted with the guest artists on the album:  “I first heard (guitarist) Marvin Sewell on Cassandra Wilson’s record Silver Pony. I said ‘who is this guy?’  The way he played, he’s colorful, but at the same time his rhythm is tight, is African, is groove, is blues–I said I need to have him on this record.”  As for percussionist John Santos, they have a history.  “Santos is my teacher, my mentor, my big brother, my hero.”  When Sosa was working in the Bay Area, John Santos subbed for his regular percussionist.  Their kinship was immediate:  “We talk the same language, we have the same spiritual philosophy.  We have a really amazing chemistry together.”  They’ve toured and recorded together for years.

Omar Sosa’s Afri-Lectric Sextet will appear at Kirkland Performance Center on Wednesday, November 6 for the Earshot Jazz Festival.  “We’ll play Eggun in the way we did the record, to try to celebrate the legacy of all our mentors…with all our love, with all our hearts and with all our ache.” (ah-CHAY:  the life-force that runs though all things)