Juan Andrés Ospina is not just an original big band writer, but a deeply satisfying one as well.
By Michael Ullman
Many listeners first heard the music of the young Colombian composer Juan Andrés Ospina via his now nine year old small band recording BBB: Barcelona, Bogata, Boston, a remarkable collection of tunes that celebrated his peripatetic musical biography. Born in Bogata, Ospina travelled first to Barcelona to study music before receiving a scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. His senior recital was a big band set that featured some of the musicians found on his new disc, Tramontana, which features six buoyant, eclectic performances by a large ensemble. The musicians for the album were plucked from ten different countries, Canada, Greece, Argentina and Israel among them. “I thought it would be interesting to have so many different nationalities playing in this band, all bringing their influences to the music in some way. It’s something that might be very common in New York, but from a Colombian perspective it’s pretty crazy.”
In the past decade, Ospina has written for a variety of celebrated singers, including Grammy nominees and winners. Colombian singer Lucia Polido and Portugese vocalist Sofia Ribeiro both contribute to Tramontana; what’s striking on this disc is the songfulness of Ospina’s writing and the musician’s performances, as well as the unexpected, and in some cases unidentifiable, textures of the arrangements. This isn’t slam-bang big band writing. There’s a refreshing delicacy to much of the offering here, a graceful lyricism that floats over the subtle rhythms we would expect from a South American composer-pianist. One of the highlights of BBB was Ospina’s “Todavio No.” The Spanish expression means something like “Not Yet.” Revived here for big band, the track begins with the light play of cymbals struck by Argentinian Franco Pinna. Then the reeds, among them clarinets, soprano, and flute (I believe) come in before a resounding couple of bass note brings on a lively conversation between voices high and low, with the drums pounding underneath. This is all introduction. The delightfully sunny, gracefully articulated theme is first stated by Ospina’s piano and then by guest star Paquito D’Rivera’s soprano saxophone.
The title cut is named after a particularly severe wind that plagues parts of Spain. In fact, several of the pieces are based on aspects of the weather. Ospina wrote the dashing “102 Fahrenheit” in a New York apartment that didn’t have air conditioning. He remembers that his computer kept crashing from the heat. I wonder if he were also worried about making a a deadline: while the horns state the rather hectic theme, the drummer makes a tick-tocking sound that sounds like the inspiration for a headache. Then the band drops out and pianist Carolina Carvache plays a gentle chorus. It would seem that, despite the pressure, the composer found his groove. Time is also the theme on “Recuerdos de un Reloj de Pared,” which is inspired by Ospina’s memory of watching his grandfather’s clock. The bass clarinet heard here most likely evokes his grandfather: Greek accordionist Magda Giannikou solos over the bass clarinet and the rhythm section. I also imagine “Ver Llover” (translated as “See Rain”), was inspired by the short Mexican film of that name. The music begins with the sounds of rain before Lucia Pulido’s passionate vocal, otherwise unaccompanied, begins. The brass enter somberly, even respectfully. Then the piano picks up the tempo and we are given a dancelike section that alternates with the somber vocal.
The one standard on the disc is the delightfully reimagined “Like Someone in Love.” It begins grandiosely, with the entire band playing a powerful introduction that fades away before anything sounding like the melody is introduced. The latter is played so slowly that it seems as if it is being stretched, like taffy. Meanwhile, the rhythm section moves along blithely, as if unaware of the complicated re-harmonizations it is being called on to accompany. I’ve not heard anything like it. Ospina is not just an original big band writer, but a deeply satisfying one as well.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.)