Omar Sosa's concerts frequently spawn a kind of jazz calisthenics, with Sosa dancing around his piano, shifting in his seat as he attacks the keys, and waving his arms as he gets into the songs' freneticism. This high-flying Sosa is nowhere to be found on his latest album, Calma, whose musical spareness begs the question: What caused Sosa to change direction?
Call it a mid-career reassessment, or call it the way Sosa calls it: He's simply in the mood for more reflective music. It's not to the exclusion of his up-tempo style. Both dimensions will be evident when Sosa performs with his quintet next Monday, May 16, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, and Wednesday, May 18, at Yoshi's in San Francisco.
"I did the record to heal myself. I travel all over the world, and it's hard when I see how crazy the world is -- how we're treating each other," Sosa says. "I feel people need peace and calm."
Sosa has done what jazz musicians have always done: interpret their times for a bigger audience and for their own well-being. John Coltrane did this in 1963 when he recorded the song "Alabama," in response to a racist church bombing that killed four African-American girls. Sosa, who's been nominated for five Grammys, is now 46 and the father of two young children. One of the most prolific Cuban artists in jazz, Sosa is always juggling new projects and new concert dates -- a pace that heightens his awareness of how hectic and discombobulated the world can be.
Sosa's Bay Area performances are a homecoming for him -- he lived here in the 1990s, his record label, Ota, is based in Oakland, and it's here that he established himself as a jazz innovator. In Sosa's songs, you hear a melding of all the music that inspires him: Cuban, classical (including Satie and Debussy), African, Indian, and the jazz of Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and other American stalwarts. Since Sosa is so comfortable in different traditions, the element of surprise is always there with him; even within the same song (as on "L3zero," from his 2004 album Mulatos), a sequence may feature a sample of a DJ scratch, a Cuban rumba, a fantastical vibraphone, and a Benny Goodman-like clarinet solo -- all anchored by piano-playing that glides and cavorts from here to there. Composer John Adams used the Latin phrase for "genius" to describe what Sosa does, saying a few years ago that "Sosa is a deeply creative musician with an extraordinary harmonic sense. His piano playing is sui generis: It has obvious roots in Cuban music, but he's taken his approach to the keyboard into completely new regions."
Which brings us back to Calma. Sosa's new region is internal. It's that space where music turns you inward, toward contemplation and even rejuvenation. There's a complete cycle to Calma -- the album starts with the minimalist song "Sunrise," segues into more enlivened work (highlighted by "Aguas," which incorporates the recorded sounds of African Pygmy people), then ends with "Sunset," which ends on an emphatic series of notes. Recording Calma in a New York studio, Sosa needed only an hour to complete the 13 songs, improvising the whole time. The album is just Sosa and his piano, accompanied by a few recorded elements.
Sosa's career has taken him from his native Cuba to many countries in Africa and the Americas, and now Spain, where he divides his time between Barcelona and the island of Menorca. Sosa's musicianship and collaborations with international artists may remind some people of Randy Weston, the celebrated New York jazz pianist who also has a background in classical music, was also influenced by Monk, and has also spent significant time living abroad and recording with artists outside of jazz. Sosa, though, distinguishes himself by emphasizing the Cuban roots of his music. And Sosa was originally schooled as a percussionist, not a keyboardist. Maintaining a heavy beat is in his musical DNA, but he has learned in middle age to rein in his impulses, even if he's as outwardly frenzied as he's always been.
"Your music can be crazy but you can also be peaceful," says Sosa. "I'm happy with Calma. I'm not used to listening to my music when it's finished. You work ahead. But with Calma, it's completely different. I feel like it's another person playing."
Omar Sosa performs Monday, May 16, 2011 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, and Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at Yoshi's in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit kuumbwajazz.org and yoshis.com.