CD REVIEW: Omar Sosa & NDR Bigband – es:sensual

Omar Sosa & NDR Bigband – es:sensual

(Ota Records OTA1030. Review by Peter Bacon)

This is the second album the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa has made with the Hamburg radio band – its predecessor  was called Ceremony and came out in 2010 – and as before the arranger is the Brazilian Jacques Morelenbaum. I haven’t heard Ceremony but if it’s as good as es:sensual, I must seek it out immediately.

The NDR is a dream of a band for, it seems, any soloist or arranger. It not only brings impeccable musicianship to the studio, but also a sensitivity to a wide range of musical styles. Sosa has shown with his own releases a great versatility, incorporating American roots music on Across The Divide, flamenco flavours on Ilé, and a real Afro-Cuban collaboration with Transparent Water, his duo album with kora player Seckou Keita, so the NDR is a likely to have a ball here.

Sosa’s solos are as propulsive and melodic as one would expect, whether at the grand or going electric, but the real icing on the cake is Morelenbaum’s arrangements. The other bonus is that Sosa has brought with him his own drummer. Much as I’m sure the NDR’s kit man could have done a fine job, there’s nothing quite like the real thing, here in the form of fellow Cuban Ernesto Simpson. Add NDR’s Argentine super-percussionist Marcio Doctor and the music’s base becomes a seething sea of the unexpected over a bed of rhthmically rippling sand.

The tunes are taken over the range of Sosa’s back catalogue, from Cha Cha Du Nord (Free Roots, 1997) and Reposa and L3zero (Mulatos, 2004) to Glu-Glu (Across The Divide, 2009) and Sad Meeting (Ilé, 2015). They range far and wide in terms of manner and mood, and the instrumental delights just keep coming.

Cha Cha Du Nord is the perky opener, reminding me a little of Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing. The band glides over the top, the piano nestles into the rhythm and all is strikingly well-recorded. Morelenbaum’s arrangements stretch from orchestral and expansive (Reposo) to tight and funky (L3zero), and the solos emerge naturally from the ensemble writing.

One of my frustrations with big band soloists is that they are so often over-virtuosic – as if the player has to show us all his (the pronoun is intentional) complete bag of tricks in the confined space allotted to him. Such frustrations rarely impinge here, a piece like Reposo showing big band soloing at its most sensitive, naturally moving from soprano (I think – no soprano is mentioned in the saxophone section) to Ingmar Heller on double bass to bass clarinet (again not mentioned but presumably bari-player Frank Delle doubling) to Sosa on electric piano.

Glu-Glu, introduced by natural African sounds and Sosa on vibraphone, builds slowly to its compulsive riff full of pull and push, retreat and advance. It’s something of a show-stopper sitting at the centre of the album. Later in the programme the flutes (presumably some doubling by the sax section) get a chance to shine in the generous near 13 minutes of Angustiado.

Omar Sosa has made some albums that are dear to my heart, but this might be the one that tops them all.

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