Clark screen studies Professor Soren Sorensen will never forget the first time he filmed Omar Sosa. The Grammy-nominated jazz pianist was performing alongside Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu in 2013 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey. Sosa’s skills on the keys combined with Fresu’s circular breathing during a rendition of “Rimanere Grande” felt magical.
“It gives me chills just thinking about it,” Sorensen says. “It was a beautiful moment.”
That moment is central to “Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums,” a feature-length documentary directed, produced, and edited by Sorensen that shows a slice of Sosa’s life as a composer and a native of Cuba. The Clark community can see a special screening of the film at 7 p.m. on April 14 at Razzo Hall, where it will play as part of the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. The film has been nominated for Best Feature Documentary.
“Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” will have its world premiere this month at the 2022 USA Film Festival in Dallas with Sosa and Sorensen appearing in person for a Q&A. It’s also an official selection of the 2022 Red Dirt Film Festival and the 2022 Golden Door International Festival.
For nearly a decade, Sorensen has filmed Sosa whenever he came to the Northeast — with each performance, he watched the musician continue to develop his craft. Sorensen decided to track Sosa’s artistic evolution, breaking from the usual structure of filming a performer for one tour or one album.
“His music is a little bit of jazz, a little bit of Latin. It sounds Eastern European, and it sounds classical,” says Sorensen, who has been a fan of jazz since high school. “There are a lot of different influences at play, and it really speaks to me.
“The movie rocks back and forth between his upbringing in Cuba and his music developing,” he says. “This is a guy who went to music school for percussion. He played timpani, he played marimba, and he played xylophone.”
Sosa, 56, got serious about the piano while serving in the Cuban military during the Angolan Civil War.
“He was one of thousands of Cubans who served, and he describes coming into his own as a pianist at that point,” Sorensen says. “He’s never really been trained as a pianist. He just works hard at it and plays it like a percussion instrument.”
Sorensen has interviewed artists from five continents about Sosa’s work.
“To have a Cuban artist be able to play with someone who’s from India as well as he plays with somebody from Italy, Germany, Venezuela, or the Bay Area, is pretty amazing,” Sorensen says.
Sosa’s magnetic personality caught Sorensen’s attention as much as his music did.
“He’s just a person you want to spend time with when you meet him. He’s warm. He’s really curious. He loves talking about his work,” Sorensen says. “And aside from his music, Omar has a collection of eyeglasses rivaled only by Sir Elton John.”
The film’s title was inspired by a line Eugene Holley wrote for The Village Voice in 2004: “Sosa’s pianisms evoke distant echoes of McCoy Tyner’s power, Keith Jarrett’s improvisational flights of fancy, and Thelonious Monk’s angular harmonies, transforming the piano into 88 well-tuned drums, which beautifully counterpoint [Chicago percussionist Adam] Rudolph’s Afro-Eurasian evocations.”
“The piano is a percussion instrument, but he plays it unlike any other jazz artist that I’ve seen,” he says.
Scott Price, Sosa’s manager since the mid-1990s, is co-producer of the film. Jason Rossi, an adjunct professor in Clark’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts, is the director of photography and donated his time for the project.
The Massachusetts Independent Film Festival will also include a screening of “Maneater!,” directed by Jack Rooney ’21 and starring Maddie Thomas ’21.
The film was Rooney’s honors thesis and Sorensen was his adviser.
“It’s great to cross paths with a student at a festival because it shows we’re peers,” Sorensen says. “I consider students to be my equals and Jack is a way better filmmaker in some ways than I am.”
The Massachusetts Independent Film Festival runs from April 13 to 16 in Worcester. Admission to the April 14 screening of “Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” is free for those who register with a Clark ID and $10 for the general public. The screening is supported by the estate of Selma B. Geller, the Clark University Higgins School of Humanities, the Shawna Foundation, and the film festival.
“Maneater!” will be shown at 8 p.m. on April 13 at WCUW 91.3 FM studio at the corner of Main and Hawthorne streets. Admission is $10.