Thursday, March 11, 2004

Omar Sosa is a font of creative energy. In a little less than a year, the Cuban-born pianist and composer has released three exceptional recordings (a total of 10 for the Otá label since 1997), the most recent of which, Pictures of Soul, pairs him with percussionist and world-music pioneer Adam Rudolph.

With the exception of a pair of Sosa compositions, the music on Pictures of Soul was improvised by the two instrumentalists. The communication between Sosa and Rudolph is so seamless and sensitive that it's hard to believe that they made most of it up on the spot. On pieces such as the opening "Portrait" and "The Call," the pianist's nimble, thoughtful playing evokes images of quiet and solitude (not loneliness), like sunlight filtering in through the trees of an isolated glade. Rudolph shadows Sosa on a variety of hand drums, adding exotic accents such as gongs and cymbals which echo and shimmer and tease the ear with sense memories, as the compositions gradually build in intensity before quiescing to a state of calm.

The twosome picks up its feet on the swift-moving "Kachirumba," which begins with hand drums and a bird-call-like flute, before Sosa enters, plucking the strings of his piano and then issuing spiky, staccato bursts of notes from the keys. Taken at a quick tempo, the tune becomes increasingly agitated as Rudolph shouts along with Sosa's swiftly darting piano, and then ends as it began with just hand drums.

A handful of miniatures provides textured appetizers and keeps the pace of the album brisk. Rudolph pipes a lovely toned cane flute that dances atop Sosa's gorgeous countermelody on "Eye of the Blackbird," which clocks in at just over two minutes. "Dreams" and "Intermezzo," each lasting just over a minute, and "Kiss of the Rain," at a minute and a half and featuring plinking thumb piano, shakers and "prepared" piano, paint spiky, surreal tonescapes.

Rudolph utilizes a light but masterful touch on a variegated pallette of sounds, from softly splashing gongs that recall waves lapping at the shore on the tender "Winter of the Flower," to the resonant drone of his multiphonic vocals, or "throat singing," which contrast with Sosa's crystalline piano on the minimalist, Asian-sounding "Green Silence."

Sosa's combination of Afro-Caribbean influences that bristle with the mystery of ancient ritual, and the introspection and embrace of dissonance often associated with modern jazz, make for an intriguing and original voice. And when that voice is heard in conversation with an equally fascinating artist like Rudolph, the results are nothing less than spellbinding. Sosa will be performing at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami with a full band, including percussion great Minu Cinelu, in April. More details to come.

Monday, March 01, 2004

The simple truth is you shouldn't dick around with perfection. Yet that's what Alligator did when it released Speaking in Tongues, The Holmes Brothers' nonetheless critically hailed 2001 debut for the label, on which Joan Osbourne's production added all manner of electronic bells and whistles to an album almost entirely composed of spirituals. Thankfully, Simple Truths, the trio's sophomore effort for the Chicago-based blues imprint, returns Sherman, Wendell and Popsy to their stripped-down -- and secular -- splendor, with rootsy and understated producer Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones) at the helm.

Simple Truths kicks off with the classic Holmes Brothers sound via the Wendell Holmes-penned "Run Myself Out of Town," a hard-driving blues number featuring Wendell's growling lead vocals and fang-toothed guitar. Wendell also receives songwriting credits for the infectious, old-school R&B-sounding "We Meet, We Part, Remember," featuring some terrific harmony singing (drummer Popsy Dixon remains one of the best vocal blenders in the biz) and a chorus that will have you joining in on first listen.

Bassist Sherman Holmes lays down his instrument and takes up lead vocals on the Bruce Channel classic "Hey Baby," which gets a rhythmic assist from a pair of acoustic guitars and David Piltch's upright bass, and again makes brilliant use of Dixon's high harmonies. The blues staple "Big Boss Man" has been done to death, but the Holmeses invest so much energy into the tune, which also utilizes some zesty lap steel from studio ace Greg Leisz, that you won't mind hearing it for the umpteenth time.

Perhaps it's Street's influence, but the Holmeses also include some excellent material from disparate sources. The trio performs a positively joyful rendition of Collective Soul's "Shine," and a deeply bluesy, textured read of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." The Holmeses sprinkle a few country tunes throughout, including Wendell's solo read of Willie Nelson's "Opportunity To Cry," on which he accompanies his gritty, heartbroken vocals on piano, and the evergreen "He'll Have To Go," which receives some tear-stained lap steel from Leisz.

Still, Popsy Dixon once again steals the show with his pure, almost operatic lead vocals on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' "Everything Is Free," a wistful plaint about the plight of working musicians ("We're gonna do it anyway/even if it doesn't pay"), and a stunning version of Bob Marley's inner-city lament "Concrete Jungle." Simply put, The Holmes Brothers are at their best when they're left more or less to their own devices, as Simple Truths aptly proves.

Coming up: Concert reviews of Kenny Drew Jr. Trio, Michael Pickett and Hubert Sumlin, and a CD review of the new CD by Omar Sosa and Adam Rudolph.

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