Review: Sosa, Keita & Ovalles

Michael Tucker hears Omar Sosa, Seckou Keita and Gustavo Ovalles take the music of their recent album, Transparent Water, somewhere else again

I wasn't able to make the London Jazz Festival performance by the Cuban Omar Sosa (p, kyb, v, pc), the Senegalese Seckou Keita (kora, v, pc) and the Venezualan Gustavo Ovalles (d, pc, v) (pictured right, at Leeds). However, I did catch this outstanding ensemble in concerts at the Turner Sims Hall at the University of Southampton, which drew a healthy house, and, some days later, at a packed African Fever night at The Ropetackle in Shoreham. A far-ranging tour of England and Wales offered 13 gigs in all, each focused on profiling the group's recent Transparent Water release on Otá Records.

When I reviewed this disc for JJ, I suggested that the modal dreamscapes of music graced at times by Eastern touches from, for example, guests Mieko Miyazaki (koto) and Wu Tong (sheng, bawu) were a seemingly natural extension of and companion to Tony Scott's mid-1960s masterwork Music For Zen Meditation. While I stand by that characterisation, the concerts I heard took the music somewhere else again.

There were delicious treatments of various entrancing, sometimes lilting or gently dancing tracks from the album, including Dary, In The Forest, Fatiliku, Tama-Tama and Mining-Nah. However, a full-on Afro-Cuban or Latin spirit fired up many an improvised riff and variation – as well as the acutely attentive and wildly enthusiastic audience, who were (successfully) encouraged to participate in a couple of numbers. At one moment, the music morphed into a three-way romp on percussion; at another, the musicians put aside their instruments to join in a joyously improvised dance.

Sosa has spoken of the importance of Monk to him – "the intensity of all that ringing space around the notes" – and certainly, there was plenty here of Sosa's characteristic poetic finesse, his sensitivity to reverie-rich space and unfolding, atmospherically coloured melody. As I have remarked before, times past can figure fruitfully in the work of a pianist as subtly aware of European classical traditions as he is steeped in Afro-Cuban tropes. The 90-minute concerts began and ended on a compelling meditative note: floated over drone-fed pulses, Ovalles's mysterious vocalising conjured a mythic mood reminiscent of the concluding and classic Calling from Sosa's Eggun (Ancestors) of 2012 – on Otá Records, again. But the rolling-and-tumbling percussive pianism which drove much of the rest of the music conjured shades not so much of Monk as Bud Powell.

The late Joe Zawinul – long one of Sosa's favourites – believed that "You'll always see that very rare individual come up. I don't care if there are millions and millions who play, those one or two guys will always be there, a little further along. They're the ones who make it sing, who are telling the story the right way". Sosa is surely one such. One of the things that makes his songs, his storytelling, special is the organic way in which he is able to weave sampling into his diversely sprung lines and moods; another is his consistently brilliant choice of musicians.

From first note to last, the trio displayed a special empathy: small wonder that Keita's radiant smile so often lit up the stage. The Senegalese master's flowing melodic and rhythmic creativity, his simultaneous refinement and power on the kora, was matched by the resonance of his broadly and warmly pitched vocals. The call-and-response interaction between him and Sosa was often breathtaking, inspiring Sosa to some extraordinary combinations of richly anchored bass grooves with upper-register glisses and snapping staccato clusters.

Ovalles (who featured on Eggun as well as the more recent JOG Otá live release with Sosa and trumpeter Joo Kraus) was the ideal – listening – percussionist for music of both limpid poetry and stomping power. He played a rich but selectively employed range of Afro-Venezuelan percussion – hear the potency of the bata drums on Transparent Water's Moro Yeye – and in one especially haunting number even induced water to flow, underlining his Taoist-like sensitivity to the materials of his craft. I've seldom seen a percussionist so sensitive to the relations of stage space, sound and silence, complementary groove and contrasting accent, solo statement and evolving group dynamics.

Fabulous, deeply soulful and life-affirming concerts, these. If I could have made all 13 gigs, I would have done so.

Pictures by Simon Godley

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