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Getting in the Flow With Omar Sosa’s Aguas Trio

March 3, 2020

Yoshi's Jazz Club

Cuban pianist Omar Sosa didn’t live in the Bay Area long, but his stint here in the late 1990s made a powerful impression on the scene. Plunging into the region’s deep pool of talent, he gathered a brilliant constellation of artists into his orbit, collaborating with Caribbean percussion maestro John Santos, Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Yasir Chadly, rapper Will Power, and Venezuelan vocalist Maria Marquez (sometimes in the same ensemble). Building on a foundation of sacred Afro-Cuban chants and jazz, popular Cuban, and classical European music, he kept adding new elements into the mix. The stage got increasingly crowded but somehow he made it all fit together.

Sosa has lived in Spain for most of the past two decades, but has maintained a regular presence on Bay Area stages. He’s also continued his talent-gathering ways, and every time he returns to California there’s tingly anticipation as to who’ll be joining him on the journey. Back at Yoshi’s for a weekend run, Sosa introduced Aguas, a trio from his 2018 album of the same name. The project features a body of music he composed with Cuban-born Swiss-based violinist-vocalist Yilian Cañizares, who was making her Bay Area debut. Beyond his keyboard prowess, Sosa is a savvy showman, and in Cañizares he’s found an equally incandescent partner. Playing and singing, sometimes simultaneously, she radiates joy while providing an earthy counterpoint to his shimmering, rhapsodic glissandos.

The album Aguas features Cuban percussionist Inor Sotolongo, but for this tour Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles, a close Sosa collaborator for three decades, completed the trio. With a third of the stage covered by an array of percussion implements, Ovalles carefully found just the right texture for each passage, opening on the sacred two-sided bata drums on “Cuadro de Casa.”

No matter who Sosa brings into a project his music retains his sonic markers with his percussive, bell-like touch on the piano and diffusive melodic approach that avoids hooks in place of extended lines. With a keyboard to his left of the piano Sosa thickened the music’s textures with panoply of samples of strings, spoken word passages, and incantations.

Cañizares was at her most magnificent on “Oshun” an Afro-Cuban Lucumí prayer to the orisha (Afro-Cuban deity) associated with rivers and love.

Given the elemental nature of Sosa’s music, it’s not surprising that water figures so prominently in his conceptual toolkit. His 2017 collaboration with Senegalese kora master Seckou Keita was titled Transparent  Water, and there were clear connections between the projects running through the enveloping string textures. But where Keita’s rippling kora evoked sunlight gleaming off a breeze swept pond, Cañizares is a torrential waterspout. Sosa soaks it all up, a universal solvent retaining the fundamental pulses of his homeland.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.