Review: Omar Sosa at Ronnie Scott's

Omar Sosa's Quarteto Afrocubano provides Michael Tucker with a fabulous evening of first-class Afro-Cuban music, full of a life-force unique to jazz

There's always been a lot of first-­class Afro-Cuban music to be enjoyed at Ronnie's and this year is no exception. A programme rich in upcoming gigs from Pat Metheny, Arild Andersen, Tommy Smith, Ingrid Jensen and Archie Shepp can also count among its forthcoming highlights Richard Bona – in a Cuban­-inspired setting – and Cuban stars Omar Puente and Chucho Valdés. Valdés founded the legendary Irakere group which practically became synonymous with Ronnie Scott's in the 1980s and which returns to the club for two nights in mid-May. Puente, Valdés and Irakere were all strong influences on the early development of Omar Sosa (pictured right by Massimo Mantovani), the Barcelona­-domiciled Cuban pianist and composer whose Quarteto Afro-Cubano set a sold-out Ronnie's alight on the first Sunday in May.

Sosa has played in London before but this was his first appearance at the place of legend, and it clearly meant a lot to him. He brought with him long­time collaborators Leandro Saint­-Hill (as, ss, f, v, pc) and Jose Julio “Childo” Tomas (elb, v, pc) with Lukmil Perez Herrera deputising for Ernesto Simpson on drums. Simpson's full­-on work played a major part in the success of the concert this quartet gave at the 2013 Ystad Sweden festival, when Sosa and his colleagues dug into the ritual and shamanic roots of the music to deliver one of the best gigs I'd experienced for quite some time.

Any worries I might have had about Simpson's absence were dispelled from the start, as Herrera laid down one infectious, subtly turned groove after another. He ended the first set with a solo sequence of ultra­-potent, driving and forceful figures and opened the second set where he had left off, with some ritually crafted, deep-­toned accents which brought the late, great Elvin Jones to mind – conjuring for me special memories of catching Elvin at Ronnie's in the mid-­1970s.

Times past can figure strongly in Sosa's work. In the opening moments of the first set, when he appeared all in white looking like some specially garbed and be-hatted healer of ancient times, he used a piano­-dampening effect which made his limpid lines sound like they were not so much created by him as conjured up from some long-neglected vein of memory and melody. The impression was deepened by his use of the mesmeric vocals from Calling Eggun from the Eggun (Ancestors) release of 2013. More material from that surpassing album featured later in the evening, as well as pieces from the recently released JOG album with Joo Kraus and Gustavo Ovalles (and Sosa enthusiasts will be pleased that a further new album, this time with Paolo Fresu, is scheduled for immediate release). Sosa ended the second set as he had begun the first, bringing an appropriately circular, summarising note to the proceedings, before he and Herrera emerged to offer the warmly appreciative audience an engaging, lightly cast and beautifully rolling encore.

As he mixed and layered shape­-shifting archetypes of strongly Afro­-Cuban rhythm and often European-­inflected melody, recharging them for today through an expansive yet disciplined use of samples and electronics, Sosa (pictured left by Yannick Perrin) took the audience on a generously pitched journey.

If the backbone of his music is Afro-­Cuban, the flesh on that backbone can at times owe as much to a discriminating awareness of Chopin, Satie and Bartók as to a long­held love of Monk and Zawinul. The music of both these last­-named has been of special import for Sosa and there were moments in the second set, when he stood up to create a series of keenly pitched, dramatically projected yet flowing upper-register runs on synthesizer and electric keyboard, when one could practically sense the approving presence of the Weather Report maestro in the room.

Sosa is a most serious musician who throughout employed both assertive and excellent two-­handed technique and considerable poetic finesse. But he's also aware of the fun side of life, of the need to engage an audience. So too are Saint-Hill and Tomas, with the latter's ostinato melodies on kalimba early on just one aspect of his concern for delivering enriching textures and tones as much as spacious yet deep grooves, the latter enhanced by some sharply executed glisses and bass body percussion. Saint-Hill is a superb musician, who featured flute and affecting vocals much more than I recall at Ystad and who played alto and soprano with both a clipped, searing authority and a tender lyricism all his own. Like Sosa, he got to the hearts of the often wildly enthusiastic audience – there was a standing ovation at one point – with his encouragement to them to add “cha cha cha” repeats to an especially dance­-driven number. And like Sosa again, he was able to move effortlessly from such astute showmanship (if that is the right word) to the most serious engagement with music of the calibre of Light In The Sky, that questing meditative classic from the Sosa canon.

A fabulous evening, then – full of the life force unique to jazz – with which to kick off what promises to be an especially memorable month at Ronnie's.

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