Omar Sosa: Live à FIP
Spare, melodic lines whispering past on the breeze of a blown kiss. Squat, atonal chord bursts delivered with the lickety-split surprise of a grazing jab. Phrases that rumble in low, then strike lightning. Like fellow Cuban-born pianists Rubén González and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Omar Sosa prefers the percussive approach. Unlike his latest studio recordings, though-which are characterized by a meditative, poetic cadence-this set, taped in front of a live studio audience at Radio France in Paris, is all about the crescendo.
Fluent in the retroactive pulse of Latin bop and the hummable harmonies of sub-Saharan pop, here Sosa walks the thin line between inventive fusion and cloying smooth jazz-a feat made particularly precarious by saxophonist Luis Depestre, who has a silky, infectious tone reminiscent of Spyro Gyra's Jay Beckenstein. The quintet, which also features electric bass, drums, and percussion, never trips over into schmaltz, though, thanks to Sosa's sly solos and unwillingness to let the band get stuck in a rhythmic rut. The result is a hook-laden hybrid that even jaundiced purists can enjoy (mostly) guilt free.
On a melancholy note, featured conga master and former Afro-Cuban All Star Miguel "Ang‡" Diaz, whose unique, five-drum technique brings a crackle to Sosa's fire, died of a heart attack in August at age 45. Live à FIP, recorded in May 2005, is dedicated to his memory.
JACKIE MITTOO: Wishbone
(Light in the Attic)
Hordes of hipster musicians try to mimic the retro-cheesy-cool sounds of the 1970s, but Jackie Mittoo has a much easier time of it. After all, he actually recorded in the '70s, and this reissued album of glossy pop-soul songs is so drenched in the free-living, bell-bottomed vibe of the era that it's a funkily irreproducible document. On songs with titles like "Groovy Spirit" and "Love of Life," Mittoo, a Kingston-to-Toronto transplant, burbles along joyously on his electric organ as horns, backup singers, and musical styles glide by. Here is a Ray Charlesy R&B rave-up, then a Hugh Masekela-style horn jam, then a Jimmy Cliffish reggae lite anthem. (Mittoo was marketed as a reggae artist, but his skank is pretty subtle.) Is it hopelessly dated or totally cool? Think about it on the dance floor.
NORFOLK AND WESTERN: The Unsung Colony
Citizens define a community, but colonists build them from scratch-and the seven musicians who collaborated on The Unsung Colony clearly felt free to chart new musical terrain. This expansive folk-rock record, the fourth from an ever-rotating cast of players anchored by frontman Adam Selzer, is opulent with accordion, timpani, trumpet, and strings, and charmingly prone to artistic wanderings; many songs defy structural convention, and no one track is emblematic of the whole. The percussion-driven pop of "The New Rise of Labor," for example, seems at odds with mellower tunes reminiscent of folk-rock stalwarts Wilco or Luna. The scope is a delight but can be unwieldy, leaving the listener clinging to the sonic artifacts scattered throughout-a distant horn, crackling film feeding into a projector-wondering if there's a legend for this map.
(Dare to Care)
Malajube would be the band playing a beachside carnival at dusk as you tipsily search the throngs for friends lost in the excitement. You pause to absorb the ensemble's raucous fun, appreciating the French lyrics and instrumental lines that remain boisterous even as playful vocal tones slide into sorrowful vulnerability. Chances are you've heard a similar breed of torrential rock with melodic undertones and passages before. Indeed, there are detectable strains of better-known bands lurking amid the sound waves of Trompe-l'oeil, Malajube's second album. But as a piano plays ragtime or a xylophone riots behind the requisite drums and guitar, a distinctive sound emerges from beneath the noise rock. Once the Montreal quartet's eclecticism has revealed itself, even the "been-there" skeptic is likely to come around.
DAN REEDER: Sweetheart
The mellow and melancholy folk-doggerel on Dan Reeder's second album, Sweetheart, is solid evidence that comedy and tragedy are bedfellows-and that their rumpled sheets have a slightly rank odor. Reeder is a "found" musician (like Iron & Wine's Sam Beam) who lives on a musical planet mapped by some chart other than Billboard's. A visual artist who lives in Germany, Reeder sent a home recording to John Prine, who recognized a kindred spirit and signed him up. Reeder's voice, world-worn and slightly strained, accompanied by homemade guitars and banjos, practically whispers songs that reveal sad, funny life truths hiding behind the preoccupations of a lonely former adolescent (the masturbatory habits of cowboys, for example). The music builds an odd and oddly compelling wormhole to Reeder's planet-a planet that feels surprisingly like home.