Thursday, June 12, 2008

Music: Omar Sosa at the Blue Note

Writing about music is hard for me. There is no narrative to grasp hold of, and no imperative, even, for language at all. The better the music is, the harder it is to write about. And the music Wednesday night was great. I might have written before about the old Cafe Babar in San Francisco, where I used to hang out as a kid on Saturday nights, drinking hot chocolate at the bar and playing solitaire while my dad's band practiced in the back room; that's where I learned an appreciation for jazz. The cafe's owner had an absurd mustache, a crowning bald spot over his otherwise bushy gray hair, and the most amazing vinyl collection of jazz I've ever seen; I'd love to get a Fulbright just to sit in his house for a year, digitizing the entire thing for posterity. In any case, I've been listening to jazz since early childhood, and nothing gives me that warm, secure sense some people find in smells and tastes so much as the low loud trill of a trumpet, the clink clink of a piano, and the swish of a brush against a snare. I have the standard albums, Miles Davis Kind of Blue, and the bit more out there Mingus Ah Um, and Keith Jarrett's Coln Concert. But as for anything happening, jazz-wise, these days, I'm clueless. I'd pretty much assumed it was over and done with, having seen one or two crappy shows at Lincoln Center's dedicated Jazz space.

The looks of the Blue Note didn't help to inspire; because of its location (West Third and MacDougal), and its still cover charges, I'd always assumed it was little more than a tourist stop, where Midwestern couples could moon at each other over the atrocious "smooth" jazz before going back to the Hilton to horizontal mambo. Once inside, that fear is confirmed; the walls are paneled with strips of mirror and black sound-proofing; the tables are cheap and set in regimented lines instead of casually scattered; the stage is hung with a tacky black strip of cloth and a big, shining sign that reads "Blue Note" and features their ultra tacky logo of, you got it, a note that is blue. I was there with my mom, who was giddy, having arrived early and gotten to chat with Omar himself, and I was expecting the worst. And then the musicians came on stage, started playing, and totally blew my mind.

I had a great seat, about two feet away from Omar himself, and partially behind him, so that I could see his hands on the piano keys and all of the electrical pedals and samplers he had on the floor. Their music was not the Latin Jazz I had been expecting (for no other reason than the name "Omar Sosa," but a kind of post-Miles Davis fusion, heavy on Sosa's brilliant piano licks, with spoken lyrics in an unfamiliar African language, crazy weird percussion, ambient sampling, and killer trumpet, saxophone, and flute playing by Leandro Saint-Hill (to a person who cannot play one instrument, a man who has mastered more than three (for there were two different kinds of flutes, and two different kinds of saxophones) is beyond amazing), as well as drumming that sounded like rain and an electric bass (although I do always prefer the upright, I suppose this was a better fit). Sosa is a strong leader and the band was perfectly tight; watching their network of constantly shifting glances, warning and encouraging each other, was fascinating, as was the man's energy. Despite his obvious depth of skill and knowledge, the man plays with the fresh excitement of a child, a huge, open grin on his face, as if he can't believe how well things are going.

Sosa invited another musician into the mix, whose name I infuriatingly missed, who comes out of a completely different tradition (ancient American folky bluegrass, as in pre-Civil War), but who managed to blend with the group for a few fascinating numbers; he played banjo (for which I am a sucker), fiddle, and sang with deep, twangy mountain-man voice, reading lyrics from what seemed to be a pocket-sized bible, brown and worn with a hundred years' use.

I wished the set had been longer; I didn't really want the music to ever end, but the cocktail waitresses brought checks, interrupting the last number, because everything at the Blue Note, great music aside, works like money-making clockwork, and the tables needed to be cleared for the next shift of cover-charge paying people. That place must rake in a fortune, filling up fresh three times each night. But I can forgive them, if only for introducing me to Omar Sosa, who is, basically, amazing.

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