Chopping up the Beef

Cuban pianist returns to La Peña for a long-anticipated reunion with drummer John Santos. What will happen is anybody's guess.

When Latin drummer John Santos and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa get together for a gig, they don’t have any need for a preconceived structure. They dispense with song charts and set lists. They don’t need to count off or play through chord changes. “A rehearsal with Omar is we’ll sit down and chop up the beef,” Santos explained. “… We don’t even talk about the music sometimes.”

The two men have always had that kind of intuitive relationship. They met at San Francisco’s Elbo Room in 1997, on a night both had been hired as subs for a group led by trombonist Marty Wehner. “We connected like that on that day,” Santos recalled, explaining that his first interactions with Sosa were trading solos on the bandstand. “Aat the end of the night we both kinda — almost like at the same time — came out like, we should play together as a duo,” he said. They were similar, after all: two seemingly indefatigable musicians who both embrace the protean qualities of Latin music. Despite his flamboyant appearance (Sosa wears African jewelry and long, diaphanous robes), Sosa, like Santos, is a closet workaholic. They dug on each other’s vibe.

Shortly after the Elbo Room meeting they recorded a live album at La Peña, in which all songs were spur-of-the-moment improvisations. Santos would play a line on batá, hand drum, or congas; Sosa would respond with a piano lick of his own; pretty soon it wasn’t clear who was responding to whom. Their 2002 album La Mar starts off with an arresting piece called “Niño Santo” (“Child Saint”), which features Santos playing a battery of toy instruments (sleigh bells, chimes, toy accordion, toy castanet, and a music box that plays the melody for “Frère Jacques”), and Sosa coming in with complex, dissonant piano harmonies that give the familiar nursery-rhyme tune a weird texture and a hallucinatory feel. “It just morphed into this thing,” Santos explained.

Offstage, Santos and Sosa’s relationship is unpredictable as well. In fact, about a week before the duo’s long-anticipated reunion at La Peña — their first in six years — Santos has no idea where in the world Sosa could be. Sosa now lives in Barcelona, but is constantly on tour. He appeared at Yoshi’s about two months ago, then took off for North Carolina. He’s always popping in and out of recording studios, working on electronic projects with San Francisco producer Greg Landau, or remixing his outtakes with Steve Arguelles and DJ Spinna. And he’s kind of a ham: At Yoshi’s, Sosa introduced the song “Tres Negros” with the caveat that “It means ‘three black men.’ But we are three negros, plus one more negro,” he said, pointing to the other members of the quartet. The line usually got a laugh.

Meanwhile, 52-year-old Santos is at home in East Oakland’s Laurel District, clad in sunglasses and a Cal football jersey. The drummer is trying to balance his musical endeavors with raising two small children, running his own label, and gigging several nights a week. Santos operates with many pots cooking at the same time. Whenever a touring Latin musician comes to town, he’ll come up with a reason for a session. His albums often contain material he recorded and squirreled away seven years prior. He also commandeers multiple groups at the same time, some of which he formed decades ago and later resuscitated. He’s working on two albums concurrently — an Afro-Cuban folkloric joint that mostly consists of vocal coro and drums, and a new quintet album that mixes contemporary Latin jazz with roots music.

Sosa is also preoccupied with linking contemporary Latin jazz back to its primary source material, and his new release Afreecanos is essentially a folk album. The pianist started out on drums and plays piano like someone who’s just discovered a new instrument, often using it to set up a groove rather than play melodies, bowing or plucking the piano strings, or battering out staccato chords with the intensity of a writer bludgeoning his typewriter keys. When you put Sosa and Santos together, they sound like two drummers in dialogue. Many of the pieces on their sophomore album La Mar are actually extended drum solos with Sosa creating ambient noise, or hitting a single chord on the offbeats, as though he were banging a high hat. They often start with just the piece’s title and no set plan, said Santos.

“He has something in his head, it just comes out — whatever it is that he’s thinking about at the moment, that just occurred to him — and it’ll remind me of something that I know from the folklore, or whatever,” Santos explained. Where it goes is anybody’s guess. “And that’s something I don’t really do with anybody else,” the drummer said. “He always says ‘Tírate del puente,’ which means ‘Jump off the bridge.’ It’s kinda self-explanatory.”

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