Saturday, July 8
SJW MEMBER: $44 premium | $34 reserved | Child (17 and under) & Student (present valid student ID card) $10
NON-MEMBER: $52 premium | $42 reserved | Child (17 and under) & Student (present valid student ID card) $18
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Omar Sosa, piano, keyboards
Sheldon Brown, sax
Ernesto Mazar Kindelán, bass
Josh Jones, drums
“As dazzling a pianist and idea-maker as there is in current Latin jazz and beyond, Omar Sosa is an immense talent, and never ceases to amaze.”— Hot House Jazz
An astonishing constellation of Cuban jazz pianists has surged through doors first opened by Chucho Valdés, but even amidst this glittering array Omar Sosa stands out as a singular figure. It’s been far too long since he performed at the Festival, but the impact he made on the Bay Area scene during his relatively brief sojourn here is as remarkable as his ever-evolving music. Sosa first landed in Oakland in 1995 by way of the Afro-Ecuadoran province of Esmereldas and quickly earned attention with his commanding technique and percussive attack. By the late ’90s he was recording prolifically for his own label, Otá Records, while his music expanded exponentially, combining the sounds he was encountering in the Bay Area with the influences he brought with him. Every performance seemed to add another player into the mix as he somehow integrated Yoruba chants, hip hop rhymes, post-bop harmonies, and Moroccan cadences within a spectacular matrix of Afro-Cuban rhythms. Sosa’s musical universe has continued to expand since he settled in Barcelona around the turn of the century, with each recording capturing an evolving international cast of improvisers. The latest twist in his creative journey is his Quarteto Americanos, a group based on the formative relationships he forged here in the mid-90s. During a 2021 Bay Area run of gigs Sosa reconnected with saxophonist Sheldon Brown and drummer Josh Jones, who both toured and recorded with early iterations of his band. Supremely versatile musicians, they played an essential role in forging earthy and graceful sound. Adding Bay Area-based Cuban bassist Ernesto Mazar Kindelán into the mix completed the multi-directional quartet, which seamlessly combines funk, jazz, Afro-Cuban grooves and Sosa’s extravagant melodic imagination.
Omar Sosa didn’t live in the Bay Area for long, but during his brief California sojourn he made a profound impact on the local music scene, putting down roots that continue to bear delectable fruits. The Cuban-born jazz pianist came to the Bay Area by way of South America, where he spent several years exploring the little known Afro-Ecuadoran culture of the coastal province Esmeraldas. Landing first in San Francisco in 1995, Sosa quickly moved across the Bay to Oakland, where he forged deep ties with musicians such as percussionist John Santos, guitarist/producer Greg Landau, saxophonist Richard Howell, and Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Yassir Chadly. Berkeley drummer Josh Jones hired Sosa for his Latin jazz combo, but it wasn’t long before Sosa started to establish a musical identity of his own. “I was part of the acid jazz movement, developing my own band, and then Omar met Scott Price and became the icon that he is,” said Jones, referring to Sosa’s longtime manager.
With Price encouraging Sosa to develop his own music, the pianist started searching out Bay Area musicians with the diverse skillset necessary to navigate Afro-Cuban clave, jazz, and other African diaspora grooves. Reed expert Sheldon Brown, who was known as a highly versatile player for his work in Balkan, klezmer, and various jazz settings, hadn’t even met Sosa yet when he got a call inquiring whether he was available to record. Arriving at the first rehearsal he found that Sosa had also summoned drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee and bassist Rahsaan Fredericks.
“He started a groove and we started to play, and he seemed very pleased,” Brown recalls, noting that the sessions laid the groundwork for Sosa’s 1997 album Free Roots, his first album as a bandleader. The early months with Sosa turned into a master class into Afro-Cuban syncopation. “I had very little experience playing salsa or other Cuban music, and I think that’s what he wanted, somebody who could come to the music fresh,” Brown says. “I certainly learned a lot about Cuban music after we started playing together. I remember I was in in the recording studio with trombonist Marty Wehner and trumpet player Bill Ortiz, and Omar kept saying that we were dragging. We’d look at each other and say, ‘No, we’re not dragging.’ Finally we said, ‘Okay, this take we’re going to rush,’ and afterwards he came in and said, ‘That’s it!’ In jazz the model is Dexter Gordon. He’s behind the beat. With Cuban music and a lot of African music, you’re right on top of the beat or pushing it but without pushing it. It creates this energy, this very high intensity.”
Brown ended up touring internationally with Sosa, hauling his bass clarinet, tenor, and soprano saxophones around the world until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the resulting economic slowdown put a damper on global travel and entertainment.
It was another international calamity that led Sosa to create Quarteto Americanos. While mostly based in Barcelona since 1999, he’s long considered Oakland a second home, assiduously maintaining his creative ties to the city. Even as he’s built an expansive web of collaborators around the world, he always seems to find opportunities to renew his East Bay ties.
“My heart is divided between Cuba, Oakland, and Barcelona,” Sosa said. “Here, I have all my closest friends. Oakland for me was the inspiration to continue what I was doing. Every time I come here, I’m more productive.”
With Europe shutdown due to the pandemic, Sosa started looking back to the Bay Area for creative partners. For one run of Bay Area gigs he put together the Diaspora ensemble featuring Moroccan-born vocalist/violinist Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Afro-Peruvian percussionist Juan Medrano Cotito, and bassist Geoff Brennan. For Quarteto Americanos he reached out to Brown, Josh Jones, and Cuban-born Bay Area bassist Ernesto Mazar Kindelán, who gained widespread notice touring internationally with Grammy-nominated salsa and timba group David Calzado y su Charanga Habanera.
Often describing himself as a frustrated percussionist, Sosa can attack the keyboard with bracing force. But he’s also an unabashedly romantic player with a gift for impromptu rhapsody. Quarteto Americanos is a sleek vehicle for his intricate rhythmic forms and his sumptuous lyricism. “I always look for melodies,” he said. “I’m a percussionist, but I want melodies.”
One reason that Sosa has thrived for a quarter century, earning seven Grammy nominations, releasing three dozen albums as a leader or co-leader and performing around the world, is that he possesses a gift for bringing together new ensembles that unite seemingly disparate musicians. One of his latest albums, 2021’s An East African Journey, documents a particularly ambitious endeavor.
Recorded over 10 years across seven countries, the project started in 2009 when he took his Afreecanos Trio with Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas on a tour down the east side of the African continent. Supported by the French government, the sojourn ran from Sudan and Ethiopia through Kenya, Zambia, Madagascar, and Mauritius. Built into the tour was a series of encounters with folkloric musicians, sessions recorded by the trio’s sound engineer. A 52-minute documentary directed by Olivier Taïeb, Souvenirs d’Afrique, captured Sosa’s experience in East Africa, but the album was the ultimate objective.
Featuring artists such as Kenya’s Olith Ratego, Zambia’s Abel Ntalasha, Burundi’s Steven Sogo, and Ethiopia’s Seleshe Damessae, An East African Journey reflects Sosa’s deepest commitments. “I’m pretty obsessive with the African diaspora,” he said. “I feel Cuba is another province of Africa.”