I Can See for Miles: Omar Sosa’s Radical Reinvention of Kind of Blue

Photo by Andy Nozaka

Photo by Andy Nozaka

Omar Sosa’s new album rebuilds Miles Davis’ 1959 classic from the ground up. THE BOMBER JACKET spoke with the musician about Mr. Davis, jazz, and why the best note is often the one you don’t play.

When Omar Sosa first got the call to revisit and reinterpret Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for its 50th anniversary, his reaction was immediate. “I said no!” he laughs. “It’s a masterpiece already. How are you gonna help me revise it? It’s impossible!”

Yet Joan Cararach, director of the prestigious Barcelona Jazz Festival and the person on the other end of that call, persisted. The result is Eggun – The Afri-Lectric Experience, a wholesale reinvention of Kind Of Blue that sounds completely different than Davis’ record while retaining its sense of space and freedom.

Sosa was an inspired choice. Since his arrival to the international jazz scene in the late ‘90s, he released a stream of albums that combine Afro-Cuban jazz with hip-hop and a staggeringly diverse palette of styles from Africa, the Middle East, and Europe (as well as five albums of solo piano music). 2002’s Sentir is a case in point, using vocals and instruments from the Gnawa culture of North Africa to breathtaking effect.

Eggun is no different. Rather than simply covering Kind of Blue’s tracks in an Afro-Cuban style, Sosa delved deep into the heart of the record, using the solos from the ensemble–John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on alto, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, and of course Davis himself on trumpet–as a point of departure for a suite of entirely new songs.

Davis famously gave his musicians very little rehearsal or instruction during the Kind of Blue sessions, instead providing sketches of scales and melody lines around which they could improvise. The record went on to become one of the best-selling jazz records of all time, setting a new, modal direction for jazz musicians away from the bustling complexity of bebop and influencing artists further afield in rock and classical music.

Sosa’s approach to Eggun was remarkably different, with almost every note composed before the rehearsals started. “I didn’t want people to recognize any part of Kind of Blue on this record,” he explains. Despite this control, the record feels anything but lifeless. The tracks stretch out with a fluidity and elegance, underpinned by deft orchestration. The opening duo of “Alajet” and “El Alba” are a perfect statement of intent, each player combining beautifully without outstaying their welcome.

Given Sosa’s desire to conceal his source material, it’s surprising to hear the horns on “Alajet” marking out Davis’ chords for “All Blues” as an introduction. Yet Sosa’s composition chops soon take the song to a different realm, Joo Kraus’ muted trumpet making way for a Cuban-style piano break underpinned with syncopated Latin percussion. The percussion is a welcome addition, with Pedro Martinez, John Santos, and Gustavo Ovalles acting as the grit in the oyster, preventing the arrangements from becoming too smooth.

Sosa has assembled a top-notch ensemble for Eggun, with musicians from the U.S.A., Africa, Europe, and Latin America helping to create a diverse sound palate for his compositions. So, spidery guitar lines from Benin’s Lionel Loueke provide some unexpected twists and turns in “So All Freddie” and “Angustiado.” Six short Interludios based solely on Bill Evans’ piano solos, provide additional touches of color. With each lasting only about a minute, they help unify the album’s varied elements.

Although Sosa’s ensemble is significantly larger than Miles’s original sextet, the music is neither rushed nor crowded. “The only direction I gave the guys is ‘less is more,'” says Sosa, and this restraint explains the sense of space that permeates the record, especially on tracks such as “Madre Mia,” where horns, guitar, and percussion interweave sinuously as the chords from “So What” glide along, effortlessly, underneath.

Sosa’s own playing contributes to this calm and soulful vibe. He’s capable of switching between the percussive stabs of Cuban son and the mellow, extended chords of modal jazz in a heartbeat. It’s something that also characterizes Alma, his previous record–a series of duets with Sardinian trumpet and flugelhorn player Paulo Fresu. Check out NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert by Sosa and Fresu for a flavor of the musical communication between these two players.

THE BOMBER JACKET caught up with Sosa on the eve of a short U.K. tour–his first–playing as a trio with Trilok Gurtu and Fresu, before heading out across Europe with a sextet from the Eggun sessions later in May. Fittingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, encompassing an in-depth discussion of his methodology for the record, Sosa’s admiration for Miles, the importance of mistakes and many other things besides.

THE BOMBER JACKET: How did you first become involved with the Eggun project?

When the Barcelona Jazz Festival called me to do a piece around Miles, it took me six months to really digest the request. I’m a big fan of Miles, and for me, he’s unique–in his approach and his musical style. I talked to my wife about it, and I said, “I don’t know if they want to help me or they want to kill me!”

So I started to watch a lot of videos of Miles, watching him and his group and reading about him, reading about Coltrane too, because they’re all related, right? And one day I woke up and I thought, “I have an idea, but I don’t know if it’s gonna work…” I wanted people to feel the vibe of Kind of Blue rather than the record itself. Everyone in the jazz world knows Kind of Blue. It’s a passport into the jazz universe. Everyone knows the melodies, because it is so peaceful and lovely, with not that many notes, well, Coltrane played a lot of notes…

[youtube http://youtu.be/-5GfQRKY628]

Tell me more about the idea…

My idea was to take the record and transcribe the solos. I did it in a mathematical way, putting one solo on top of another. When I put them together I thought, “Wow, I’ve got it!” I remember I told Cararach, “I have an idea but I don’t want to just play the record.” He said, “The only thing you need to do is play the first two bars of ‘So What,’ you know, ‘ba-da ba-dee ba-da, pa-DA,’ ” and I said: “Don’t worry, you’re gonna hear ‘So What’ all through the concert!”

The point is that when you deconstruct the chord changes and you put “pa-DA” on different harmonies, it sounds completely different. And this is why, if you listen to Eggun carefully, you hear this “Pa-DA” from “So What” in nearly all of the pieces.

Wow…

It was a lot of work! I must have listened to Kind Of Blue about a thousand times! My whole family was tired of it! My daughter is 8 now, she must have been 5 or 6 when I started this project, and I remember my daughter asking “Daddy, is this the only music we’re allowed to listen to at home?” and I said, “Hey, you don’t need to listen to this at all, but I have to!”

I’m old school, man. I do everything by hand. It takes a lot of time! So, with the solos, I wrote out one, then another one then another one! I took a note from a Miles solo, and then one from an Adderly solo, then two notes from another solo and I created a melody like that. But it fits perfectly, because they’re playing the same chord changes underneath.

Those modal chord changes Miles brought into the studio for the musicians to improvise over…

Yes! You’ve got it!

It’s different to your approach though?

I didn’t want anybody to recognize the melodies. I needed to be inside the record, to create something based on it, something where only a few people know there is something of Kind of Blue there.

It’s like a secret code.

Yes! You know, when I had almost finished the record, one of my friends told me you could get all of the music from Kind of Blue in a book, with everything, all the chords and notes, for about $14. So, I bought it and when I compared the music to the solos I had transcribed I said, “You know what, they’re the same! I’m not so bad at transcribing this!”

In fact, I used only some parts of the record. I just used some moments from “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader” and “All Blues,” not the whole record. Then, from “Blue and Green,” I transcribed the whole of Bill Evans’ piano solo to create the Interludios.

Tell me more about the interludes.

For these, I didn’t do much. I took just three notes from his piano solo to create the melodies for the horns–clarinet, mute trumpet, tenor saxophone and bass saxophone. Actually I didn’t write any music for the bass saxophone, I said to Peter [Apfelbaum], “You know the chord changes for ‘Blue and Green,’ just play around that, and don’t play too much.” This was Miles’ philosophy–that the best note is the one you don’t play.

Miles’ playing was very restrained…

Yeah! He never said, “I’m gonna play like Dizzy Gillespie, he’s a bad motherfucker, he plays a lot of notes, and he plays so high,” he never did that. He knew he couldn’t play like that, but he developed his own unique sound.

Another thing about Miles was that he always knew how to choose musicians. This was important, because if you choose the wrong musicians, you just won’t get the sound you need.

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How did you choose the musicians to create your record?

When I finished writing the music for Eggun, I went to New York to rehearse. I met Peter [Apfelbaum] who lives there and he helped to find a couple of musicians. So then we said, well, we need about two full days of rehearsals because this is kind of complex. Not because there are too many notes, but because of the sound. It’s not rushed music. It’s music where the horns have a conversation, they need to feel the idea behind every note I wrote.

In the end, I presented the music in Barcelona, at the Jazz Festival. It was different than the record, it was more “jazz,” more aggressive because it was live. And I remember, all of the journalists said, “Omar has an excuse to make another record.” I hadn’t thought about that, because I was tired, you know? It was a lot of work, nearly a year’s work just for one evening!

How did you get the best out of your musicians?

You know, Miles could be tough with other musicians. I’m completely different. I’m completely positive! When you have the right people, you don’t need to tell them very much about what to do.

When I want to record or tour, at the start we all get together round a table and we eat really well, with good food and good wine, and we start talking–and this is all part of the rehearsal. Everyone needs to be chilled and love one another, and you can hear this in the music. I hear a lot of music that is really beautiful, well played, with nice solos, but I don’t feel love. I need some love–even some mistakes.

Because the mistakes make it real?

Yes, because what are mistakes? Mistakes are expressions of human beings, right, and people playing in the moment.

The percussion is fantastic on the record, and the mix with electronics is very interesting.

I am from the Afro-Cuban tradition. This is why you hear all these drums, this percussion behind the voices of the horns. We have Marque Gilmore playing on the record, who is a real pioneer, playing with drum and bass and all these crazy things.

But when I spoke to the guys, I said that they didn’t need to play to prove anything. No long solos, no complex solos. Because sometimes, solos are like the inner voice of our ego. I’m 48 now and I want to erase all of that from my life. Solos are your voice. When you talk, you listen to other people talk and you think. It’s not a monólogo … I don’t know how you say this in English…

A monologue…

Exactly. For me a solo is like a conversation. I learned this from Miles. You hear people sometimes, they play long solos! I think, OK, I know you’re good. You don’t need to show me all the time! Now, let’s play together.

My wife doesn’t like jazz because she says it is like a competition. She says, “Omar, when I listen to people playing together, I don’t wanna hear them playing solos. This is supposed to be about people communicating with each other.” And she’s right.

Could you tell me about the significance of the record’s title?

I’m a Santero, a member of the Afro-Cuban religion and in Lucumí [Santería’s liturgical language] this word means “ancestors.” Nearly every single guy involved in Kind of Blue–except Jimmy Cobb, Miles’ drummer on the session–has passed. They have left their legacy. We play what we play today because of what they did before. Not just Miles and the guys on Kind of Blue, but to Patoyo, Monk, Joe Henderson, Don Cherry, and all the others. So this is my humble way of saying thank you to them.

Alma, your record with Paulo Fresu, the one before Eggun, is beautiful!

Well I recorded Eggun a month before it, but Eggun was released afterward because of the marketing and everything. I came to Paulo with the vibe I had from Miles. I said, “The only thing I need is peace” and this is why that record was called Alma.

You’ve been touring with Paulo as part of a trio, right?

I’m playing in a trio with Paulo and Trilok Gurtu. Way different than Eggun, more improvised–although not too improvised because Trilok loves structure!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on three projects. The first is a series of improvisations in a studio in New York. It was just me, alone, in a room with a really beautiful piano. I was there as part of a different project, but I had the key, and went there at midnight, or 2 in the morning. Totally silent. The record will be called Senses, just solo piano. I’m also working with a quartet–the Afro-Cuban Quartet–with Ernesto Simpson, Leandro Saint-Hill, and Childo Tomas.

My other project is called Transparent Water. It’s a mix of China with Wu Tong, a musician who has played with the Silk Road project and a kora player from Senegal, Seckou Keita. It’s a mix of Chinese music, African music, and the avante-garde, a real mixture!

Sounds amazing! Looking back, what’s your favorite recording from your varied career?

Well I always say the next one is gonna be my favourite  But there’s a record I made, Sentir; the way I recorded it is the way I want to record Transparent Water. So, for Sentir, I put everyone in the studio, musicians from Morocco, Venezuela, from Cuba, and we didn’t talk about music – we talked about colours. Colours are very important to the Santería religion and to the Gnawa religion in Morocco too. The whole record was improvised, using colours as a guide. This is what I want to do now with Transparent Water, create something totally improvised.

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omarsosa.com

 

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