By Mae Anthony
Guitarist Rafael Rosa (New York City) treated a packed audience to some Puerto Rican infused jazz on Tuesday evening at the Ellington. The room was set with a mellow vibe and a constant low murmur from the crowd. However, not at all disinterested, the audience effortlessly and greedily ate Rosa up like a box of unattended Ferrero Rochers. He shared the stage with some of the best local Perth players: Marc Osbourne on tenor saxophone, Karl Florisson on bass, Chris Tarr on drums, with special guests Sean Little on saxophone and vocals by Saffron Sharp. This was an evening of high calibre improvisation and musical expression; a unique experience to hear Jazz in with the addition of Rosa’s Puerto Rican influence singing out strong.
Both sets contained a mix of original tunes and standards, all with a signature Rosa twist. In fact, had I not been listening so intently, or if Rosa hadn’t informed the audience, I would have guessed all of the tunes were written by him. Opening with a blues instrumental work, the synchronised horn and guitar theme grasped the audience by the throat and reeled them in for some tantalising solos. But Rosa doesn’t tease. He shows you exactly what he’s about – technical mastery and improvisation, connected to the heart and roots of his Puerto Rican ancestry. Alternating combinations in the ensemble ended this piece nicely. The second tune had an interesting rhythmical introduction by Rosa, and a great scalic and impressive sax solo by Osbourne. This settled the groove, with Rosa showing us why sometimes more IS more, with his complex soloing. Chris Tarr, being a very secure and confident player, made the entire evening for me. With a great interplay in the ensemble for the ending, barely 15 minutes into the show, the second piece thoroughly engraved the world-class standard of the ensemble.
Rosa was absolutely fascinating. Always present, even when there were less musical ideas to work with. And although this was rare, it established a slow build, reaching a peak of astronomical feats. Here we could see how good he was at moving between the foreground and background in his transitions, from soloing to accompanying. Towards the end of the first set we met with the arrival of the first song of the evening and he accompanied Saffron Sharp’s vocals in good form, and arranged the ensemble parts to offer an earthy rhythm drive underneath the melody. It was here that I realised no pattern he created was ever repeated. It was a delightfully interesting mix of the vocal style, which was of a bright nature in tone and thus modern sounding.
His Puerto Rican influence was very evident in the tune closing the first set. An original by Rosa, it was percussive and sensual – different to the previous tunes in the sense that it contained a less frantic mystique leaving you wanting more. The presence of elongated musical phrases, as opposed to the busy musical ideas used previously, and the addition of Sharp’s wordless vocals made room for a nice build in texture and dynamics.
His Wayne Shorter cover seemed, at first, vague and melodically insensible. I initially felt distanced from the music, but it came to be a rather interesting contrast come the end, and left me convinced that it was my problem, not his. When the sax came in, it became more melodious. The guitar mimicked the saxophonist’s solo ideas, showing his incredible improvisational skills.
The great Sean Little was invited to the stage. Rosa made a remark about the size of the band on stage – “We could be playing basketball”. An amusing commentary considering each number was slam dunk after slam dunk. The standard “Monk’s Dream” displayed Rosa’s unique accompaniment and ensemble work. I loved how he didn’t use chords, but instead picked out dissonant harmonies and played melodies whilst others were soloing. Risqué business and hard to pull off, but it was very clever, and evident that he could hear everything he was playing. The popular standard “Skylark” brought Sharp back to the stage. Sounding incredible, this was the highlight of her performance for the evening. Guitar and vocals introduced the first stanza, and a Latin groove entered supporting the intimate resonances of the guitar and vocals together. The saxophonist, already on top form, played a very suitable and soulful improvisation that complimented the vocals nicely.
Another of Rosa’s originals, based on a Puerto Rican dance rhythm, featured a similar vocal wordless texture, by Sharp, that was experienced earlier in the evening. It was thrilling to see the return of this for the penultimate closing tune. Rosa did an incredible plucking accompaniment, creating a harsh texture and giving the tune a heavier and more anticipating feeling. This resonated very well with Tarr’s drumming.
Ending on an easy-going instrumental tune by Nicholas Payton, the group finalised the night on a solid groove. It was a fantastic and exotic evening of music presented by Rafael Rosa and ensemble.