Gurtu/Fresu/Sosa: Music that vibrates

PILGRIMS HAVE been tramping to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain’s north-west fastness of Galicia, for many centuries.
Paolo Fresu will play with Omar Sosa and Trilok Gurtu. Picture: ContributedPaolo Fresu will play with Omar Sosa and Trilok Gurtu. Picture: Contributed
Paolo Fresu will play with Omar Sosa and Trilok Gurtu. Picture: Contributed

When I speak to Cuban pianist and world music adventurer Omar Sosa, that’s where he is, not necessarily to visit the shrine of St James, but to participate in Galicia Connection, an international music gathering hosted amid the sculpted, ultra-contemporary architecture of Santiago’s Cidade da Cultura de Galicia.

A centre of pilgrimage seems an apt enough location for the 48-year-old pianist, given his untiring exploration of the African roots of Cuban and other Latin American music. Next week, however, he tours Scotland as part of a powerful collaboration with Italian jazz trumpeter Paolo Fresu, who made such an impact in February, guesting with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and Indian percussion maestro Trilok Gurtu.

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Sosa, who is based in Barcelona, has made numerous Scottish appearances in the past, the last with his high-powered Afreecanos quintet, blending pan-African sounds with electronic and other contemporary elements, a gig which he dedicated to the memory of Glasgow music promoter Billy Kelly, who died in 2007 and whom Sosa still regards fondly as his Scottish mentor.

His most recently released album, Eggun ­– a Yoruba term referring to the spirits of the dead – is indeed a powerfully realised homage, not only to the ancestral African voices which inform Latin American music, but to such landmark figures in jazz as Miles Davis, whose music undergoes a glorious, Africanised mash-up in one particular track, So All Freddy.

But there is another side to Sosa’s music which emerges in his now established playing partnership with the Sardinian-born Fresu. The pair last year released a beautiful album Alma, the music of which is mellow, indeed sometimes elegantly melancholic and cinematic, with the help of Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum. On Alma – Spanish for “soul” – Fresu’s spare, lingering trumpet phrases are eloquently reminiscent of Miles Davis, whose music he champions, with Sosa’s piano answering gently, although an occasional distant heartbeat of drums reminds us of the African mother lode that so much of the Cuban’s music taps into.

“I don’t really change, I just try to adapt myself to the energy,” says Sosa of playing with Fresu, which he clearly relishes. “I love to play with Paolo. We don’t try to overplay, and I have to say that the philosophy of the record [Alma] is that less is more.”

It is, he agrees, peaceful, almost contemplative music. “Most of the time with jazz, it’s people trying to demonstrate all the time – ‘Oh, look how many notes I play, look how complex the music is.’ But actually, the world, is so crazy, man, that we need to give some love … love with slow notes, with space. Like Miles said, the best note is the note you don’t play.”

However, joined by Gurtu, with whom both Sosa and Fresu have collaborated in the past, that mellow groove undergoes some dramatic transformations, although even on stage with the Indian, widely regarded as one of the leading percussionists in the world, and a musician who as at home playing with European jazz musicians as with Indian classical music, Bombay pop or a string quartet, they don’t lose sight of that contemplative approach, says Sosa: “One song we do that I really love is a mantra with Trilok singing, a song he learned from his spiritual master in India and that he plays using his water gongs. We’ll be playing a few songs from Alma, although with Trilok on percussion they might take a little different direction. But half of the music has been created specially by the trio, and of course, we do a couple of really crazy songs as well. If you know Trilok, you’ll understand,” chuckles the pianist, who regards Gurtu as one of his long-standing musical heroes. “I grew up listening to his music, and I remember the first time that Trilok and I met, I said, ‘I want to play with you before I die,’ and he said, ‘Well, you don’t need to die,’” Sosa adds, and an explosion of laughter echoes down the line from Santiago. “What we do on stage pretty much is to try and recreate our traditions, try to present, let’s say, one unique sound representing the three of us. You’re going to see Trilok playing Cuban rhythms on the tabla,” he chortles. “It’s real fun.”

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The Scottish tour is part of the J-Word programme, a joint initiative by the Scottish Jazz Federation and several venues to both create a more viable tour network and also try and change the image of jazz and encourage fresh audiences. Certainly Gurtu, Fresu and Sosa should dispel a few preconceived notions – although, as Fresu has conceded, while they play improvised music, it may not necessarily fit everyone’s criterion of jazz: “We don’t get hung up on styles and repertoire,” the Sardinian trumpeter said recently. “We play music that vibrates and that should vibrate the audience. I would not call this a ‘jazz concert’, but rather a true musical journey where everyone – both us and the audience – can find their own world.”

The home-grown support act for the tour similarly defies categorisation. Saxophonist and bagpiper Fraser Fifield and his similarly eclectically inclined collaborator, guitarist Graeme Stephen, straddle jazz, folk and much else. When I tell Sosa that Fifield plays pipes as well as sax, the Cuban responds enthusiastically, having been exposed to the gaita, the shrill Galician bagpipe, during his visit to Santiago. “I like that,” he says. “I’m here in Galicia, and the person who co-ordinated the event was a really amazing gaitera, Christina Pato. I’m really into this [bagpipe] sound now, so it’ll be good to continue to listen to it in Scotland.”

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• Gurtu/Fresu/Sosa and Fraser Fifield with Graeme Stephen play Perth Concert Hall, 29 April; Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 30 April; Music Hall, Aberdeen, 1 May; Eden Court, Inverness, 2 May; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 3 May; Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 4 May.