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Saturday, April 17, 2004

Eric Crystal was the first to take the stage Wednesday night. The lone saxophonist cried out an invitation to his bandmates in the Omar Sosa Quartet and let the audience at Little Havana's Manuel Artime Theater know it was in for an exotic and exciting experience. He was soon joined by upright bassist Geoff Brennan and percussionist Mino Cinelu, the latter a veteran of the Miles Davis Band and Weather Report.

Then, emerging from the wings came Sosa himself. Carrying a candle in a red glass holder, the lanky, towering Afro-Cuban pianist was attired in an ankle-length white linen robe and leather sandals, crowned by a white cap of concentric circles and sporting white-framed glasses. As otherworldly as his appearance may have seemed -- Sosa is a serious devotee of Santería, a religious practice of his native Cuba that he adopted seven years ago -- as soon as he set the candle atop the piano and unfolded himself atop the cushioned bench, Sosa attacked the keys with unbridled joy, fervor and nonstop creativity.

The pianist was in almost constant motion, a dervish of activity beneath all that linen as he kicked one or both long, bony legs in the air, gestured extravagantly and kept-time with his busy feet, which also worked pedals that triggered electronic loops. The samples lent an even eerier feel, as a man's voice intoned the names of orishas, or saints, over and over and crackled with the texture of a phonograph needle skipping over the dusty grooves of an old record. Sosa used the samples, which also featured turntable scratching and odd, unintelligible voices, almost like overhearing a television newscast from another room, as just another percussive device in his arsenal, and it didn't seem gimmicky nor detract from the dazzling interplay among the musicians.

Like most of the audience, bassist Brennan watched Sosa intently and could hardly suppress an ever-present smile as he provided beautiful, resonant tone throughout. Cinelu, who resembles former Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, was simply a wonder, switching between his standard kit and hand-drums, playing with great sensitivity and color as well as athletic drive. Saxophonist Crystal also well realized his role, never overplaying and providing fine melodic counterpoint. As opposed to the standard jazz ensemble, the Sosa Quartet's playing did not screech to a halt so each member could solo before returning to the head melody, but rather each man was given an extended solo as his bandmates quietly exited the stage, and then returned and joined in.

The audience at the Manuel Artime was sparse at first, but expanded exponentially as late-comers filled the historic, converted church in Miami's Little Havana. Sosa addressed the audience for the most part in Spanish, and its enthusiastic response indicated he needed no translator. A standing ovation brought the pianist and his band back to the stage for an encore, a lovely piece that featured a sample of someone repeating the phrase "Another world is possible." Sosa then extinguished the candle with his fingers before leaving the stage.

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