Omar Sosa & NDR Bigband - Ceremony
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Omar Sosa & NDR Bigband
Ceremony
Melodia / Otá Records (melodia.com)

Think what you may of the Grammys, but the Academy got one thing (partially) right this past year: Omar Sosa's 2009 recording Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm & Ancestry was nominated for Best Contemporary World Music Album. While Béla Fleck took home the statue, the nomination introduced many people to the music of Omar Sosa.

For these new listeners, this is good timing. The most recent release by Omar Sosa, Ceremony, shows off his deep "world" credentials. Sosa, originally from Cuba, teamed up with Germany's NDR Bigband and Brazilian arranger Jaques Morelenbaum, and the result is a powerful recording of celebration and joy.

Sosa brought his own Afro-Cuban roots to the table in multiple ways. His compositions mine the musical tradition of Cuba, particularly in using dance forms like the danzón and the cha-cha-cha. He also brought his own rhythm section to the session; Cubans Julio Barreto and Marcos Ilukán sat in on drums and percussion while Childo Tomas of Mozambique played bass. Sosa played piano and demonstrated his remarkable skill on the marimba.

In addition to his musical vocabulary, Sosa also brought his beliefs and practices in Santería, a religious tradition of West African and the Caribbean. He is known to arrange his hotel rooms to properly celebrate and honor the spirits, the Orishas, with the proper offerings. This recording project was dedicated to the Orishas, and compositions honor Elegba and Yemaya specifically. Sosa is unafraid to embed his spirituality in Ceremony and he shares his positive, vibrant energy with his bandmates and listeners.

The Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) Bigband is the jazz orchestra of North German public broadcasting. Formed in 1955, the ensemble looks much like the American big bands of the 1930s and 40s that were popularized by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman, with eight brass players, five saxophonists, and a rhythm section. But as they say, this is not your grandparents' big band. The brass section includes various combinations of trumpets, flugelhorns, trombones, and tubas. The saxophone players double on flutes and clarinets. And the rhythm section is expanded to nine musicians, five of them percussionists. The big band format is no stranger to Afro-Cuban music, having been used by Mario Bauzá, Chico O'Farrill, and perhaps most famously, Dizzy Gillespie.

This is the palette that was handed to arranger and cellist Jacques Morelenbaum. Adding to these Afro-Cuban and European influences, Morelenbaum brought his own experience with Brazilian music, having worked with Antônio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa among others. The arrangements are spectacular and often jaw-dropping in both their complexity and their simplicity. Morelenbaum uses all the textures available, making especially good use of the reeds. The unison lines can be nearly overwhelming in their controlled power. Even in places where the arrangements veer toward traditional jazz, a soloist back by a rhythm section, the addition of so many percussion options imbue these passages with interesting, refreshing colors.

The NDR Bigband has solid players and works together as a tight ensemble. There are also many players who are allowed to stand out as soloists on this record. Fiete Felsch on flute, Franke Delle on bass clarinet, and Dan Gottshall on trombone deserve special recognition.

The Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and European influences come to a powerful confluence here. The combination of musicality and spirituality make this a ceremony full of celebration, thankfulness, and joy. With the awareness and critical acclaim brought to Across the Divide, this is a great time for new listeners to become aware of Omar Sosa. Ceremony is a wonderful follow-up and should solidify Omar Sosa's place in Contemporary World Music and far beyond. - Greg Harness

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