Omar Sosa Goes Big Band, and Kit Downes Goes (Almost) Solo

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Cuban pianist/composer/shaman Omar Sosa has once again teamed up with arranger Jaques Morelenbaum and the formidable NDR Bigband to project his compositions on a wide orchestral screen, and Kit Downes plumbs the orchestral capabilities of three pipe organs on a spacey collection of improvisational performances.

Omar Sosa and NDR Bigband
Es:sensual (Otá Records)
A review

The quality of any jazz performance depends largely on the collaborative abilities of the performers. Es:sensual, the latest release from Cuban pianist/composer Omar Sosa, brings together three of the world’s finest collaborators—Sosa, Brazilian arranger Jaques Morelenbaum, and one of the world’s most impressive jazz orchestras, NDR Bigband (North German Radio/Norddeutsche Rundfunk)—and predictably yields a big, bold, and beautiful result. It’s the second meeting of these three, who first recorded together in 2007/08, producing the album Ceremony (Otá Records, 2010). Once again, Morelenbaum, whose résumé includes work with such luminaries as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gilberto Gil, and Césaria Evora, among others, unpacks Sosa’s lyrical compositions and projects them onto a wide screen, turning the heat up under the burners and pillowing the ballads in a warm, humid mist. His textural genius takes full advantage of the sonic potential and the sheer power of this exceptionally disciplined orchestra. He also gives the soloists—first-rank jazz musicians to a man—all the room they could wish for, and they respond with galvanizing improvisations. Not least among them is Sosa himself, who delivers several hair-on-fire performances, clearly energized by the massed brass and reeds. Underpinning it all are the irresistible Afro-Cuban rhythms generated by drummer Ernesto Simpson and percussionist Marcio Doctor. Highlights include the opener, “Cha Cha du Nord” (from the 1997 Sosa album Free Roots), which signifies that it’s party time; “L3zero” (Mulatos, 2004), whose punched, syncopated fragments put an electric charge in the air; “Reposo” (Mulatos), which gentles the waters; and “Angustiado” (Eggun, the Afri-Lectric Experience, 2012), which burns a hole through the entire orchestra. Top-drawer performances, exceptional arrangements, and a big band with all pistons firing make Es:sensual an invigorating and essential addition to the Sosa catalogue.

Kit Downes
Obsidian (ECM Records)
A review

Kit Downes, who has made a mark as a jazz pianist on the UK scene, returns to the pipe organ—three pipe organs actually—on Obsidian (ECM Records), his first solo effort, with a guest appearance by saxophonist Tom Challenger on one track. (Downes and Challenger have previously conspired on two pipe organ/saxophone recordings, Wedding Music [Loop Collective] and Vyamankal [Slip].) For Obsidian, Downes chose to work on three distinctly different instruments: the monster three-manual organ of London’s Union Chapel; the nimble two-manual instrument of St. John’s in Snape, Suffolk; and the single-manual organ with no pedalboard at St. Edmund’s Church in Bromeswell, Suffolk—a harmonium on steroids. Eight of the 10 compositions were either developed from improvisational fragments or are purely improvised, with the traditional “Black Is the Colour” and “The Gift,” based on a composition by Downes’ father, filling out the track list. Downes’ sensitivity to the particular sonic qualities of each instrument delivers a satisfying orchestral feast of timbres that references electronica as much as the purely acoustic. His command of the technical elements also offers some arresting moments: for example, by manipulating the air flow to pipes, he is able to slide pitches up or down, adding a theramin whiff to the proceedings. He offers a diverse musical menu that ranges from the spacey radio signals of “Rings of Saturn” to the folkishly sacerdotal “The Gift.” The fairy sounds of “Seeing Things,” an improvised piece that chains together a series of charming musical squirls, and the swirling “Flying Foxes” take full advantage of the Snape instrument’s attack. On a couple of tracks, the ominous “Kings” and “Last Leviathan,” Downes’ fascination with an ambient carpet of sound throbbing with the periodic regularity of a sine wave can wear a bit on the ears, but overall, his orchestral sensibility, technical proficiency, and improvisational acumen illuminate the vast potential of very old instruments to deliver compelling new music.

© 2018 Mel Minter

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