OK. Dr. Lonnie Smith and Gil Scott-Heron, even Nicholas Payton, reaped the lion’s share of publicity for the Soul’d Out Music Festival continuing through this week in Portland.
But Cuban-born pianist and composer Omar Sosa, making his Portland debut, proved to be as worthy of the buzz when he and his high-voltage Afreecanos played two sets April 19 at Jimmy Mak’s. In a red dashiki, faded red elf-like shoes, small green spectacles, beads and bells, Sosa was priest, magician and unorthodox musician, often playing two keyboards and singing at the same time. Sosa is a masterful impressionistic pianist who travels from one-note beauty to eye-popping Oscar Peterson keyboard speed, but he is always himself and forever a performer.
Don’t think about pinning this guy down to anything, including a set list or a style. Critics like to fit him into the World Music category, and he resists, saying his music “is from the earth. We play from moment to moment. In the moment.”
With irrepressible energy, he jumped up from the keyboards, persuaded the audience to sing along with” YeYe Moro” let out a yelp, then later sat down to perform a beautiful ballad like “Iyawo” from the album, “Mulatos.” His free-flowing style epitomizes “jazz is freedom,” his credo since he’s been pounding the marimba as a kid growing up in Cuba (the piano is his second instrument). He didn’t bring his marimba and mallets …”too expensive!” he said in an interview earlier this month from Barcelona, Spain, his residence.
The Afreecanos, whose music is rooted in African influences, including those of Brazil, the Americas and Cuba, improvised their way through “Mes Tres Notas,” cuts on the 2008 CD “Afreecanos” and a 20-minute opening Yoruba chant-like piece that added one instrument after another until an exotic frenzy was reached.
Forget even counting the instruments once the three other Afreecanos arrived on stage in similarly dramatic manners to Sosa’s. Saxophonist, bell guy and reed master Peter Apfelbaum picked through his dozen flutes, horns and hand-held percussion, holding the group together as seriously as Sosa did with a bemused half-smile.
The towering Mozambiquan Childo Tomas, on bass and a dozen other unfamiliar (to me) ancient percussive instruments, not to mention an electric hose which he pulled out of his grab bag of goodies, was as dynamic as drummer Marque Gilmore. These guys laughed together, ending and beginning precisely and tightly though you had no idea where each piece would lead. There was no time to drink your beer if you were tuned in as one tune faded into another, one sound layered on top of another, yet another instrument jumped in here — and then there.
Jimmy Mak’s attracted its usual loyal set of grey hairs and hipsters. Adding to the mix were two kids from Eugene who traveled up the valley with their parents for an exciting dose of music they had never heard before. The place wasn’t sold out but it filled up for the first set, pretty good for a drizzling Monday night.
Reedman and composer Peter Apfelbaum worked the crowd between sets, explaining some of his percussive instruments to the naive, while the other Afreecanos took a well-earned dinner break. “We wanted more,” I told Sosa backstage after the first hour set plus one encore. “We have another show!” Sosa said, and with the energy these guys put into their music, an hour full of surprises was enough. For some of us. Maybe.
Oregon Music News is happy to be a sponsor of the Soul’d Out Music Festival.