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Thursday night at the Reynolds Theater on the campus of Duke University saw a well-filled double-bill featuring the Omar Sosa Afreecanos Trio and Jerry Gonzalez with the Fort Apache Band. The concert was presented by Duke Performances as part of its ongoing "Following Monk" series. Omar Sosa is an expatriate Cuban (b.1965) with an impressively long discography. His music inhabits the space between "world music", jazz, electro-acoustic, and Cuban traditions. Listeners on Thursday knew that they wouldn't be hearing straight-ahead jazz from the moment that Sosa, Mola Sylla, and Childo Tomas processed on stage in traditional African attire, chanting, and playing hand percussion.
Sosa is a capable pianist, and almost all the musical burden fell on his shoulders. His colleagues, Sylla from Senegal, playing percussion, and Tomas from Mozambique, playing percussion and electric bass, were clearly on a second plane, with their contributions creating the sort of musical ambience also provided by pre-recorded samples unleashed by Sosa during the performance. The three were to have been joined by drummer Julio Barreto, who was turned back by the Department of Homeland Security at the Atlanta airport (perhaps he will be able to join the group for later stops on the tour).
The set was made up of four long numbers, the first a harmonically static modal vamp for piano and percussion. The second number was indebted to the rhythmic and harmonic style of Coy Tyner of the 1970s, though without the virtuoso solo lines that Tyner might spin off. Next came a slow Jarrett-esque improvisation which morphed into a montuno with a repeated riff, which the charismatic Sosa managed to make the audience sing (and later added polyrhythmic clapping); it was a big crowd-pleaser. The set concluded with a number based around Mola Sylla's stratospheric tenor and the riff Sylla laid down on an African lute.
The group was warmly received, and turned in an engaging performance despite the absence of their drummer (whose empty drum-set was present on stage). From a jazz point of view, there was not much that was innovative, no memorable solos, no catchy heads, not much in the way of interaction – but Sosa is clearly a showman.
The headline act for the evening was the Fort Apache Band, much more in the traditional jazz vein, though with a heavy dose of New York latinidad. The leader, trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, in contrast to the flamboyant Sosa, was a strangely reclusive presence on stage with a brilliant white Panama hat and dark shades. His trumpeting was limited to a Harmon-muted trumpet and open flugelhorn, competent but hardly compelling. Where Gonzalez shone (and what was clearly his passion) was in his playing of a set of five congas, and especially in a long non-improvised solo in which he played in unison with drummer Steve Berrios. Pianist Larry Willis turned in some fine playing. But the musician who I would like to hear more from was definitely saxist Joe Ford, who turned in some burning solos on both alto and soprano sax.
Low marks to the tech crew at Reynolds who provided unacceptably poor sound for both groups. At this kind of venue there is no excuse for that level of sound quality. And low marks as well for the dozens of audience members who were streaming out throughout the entire Fort Apache set.