Latin Jazz Conversations: Arturo O'Farrill (Part 5)


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The idea of making a statement is given a lot of lip service in the jazz world, but little thought goes into the impact of that statement. Most times, people consider improvisational solos to be the major statements in jazz, and in a sense, that's true. Musical choices in improvisation say a lot about an individual's personality, culture, and identity; their public displays make an impact upon the people that experience their performances. Jazz can be more influential than any one person though, and it holds the potential to effect significant cultural change. It's the scope and intention behind the statement that determines the range of the impact.

Pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill spent years developing insightful ideas that have allowed him to produce hugely powerful statements as a mature artist. Raised under the shadow of his father Chico, O'Farrill was exposed to countless jazz greats and soon found a passionate connection to the music. He built his playing skill among his peers and got advice from older musicians, until he caught the attention of major jazz composer Carla Bley. The elder musicians took O'Farrill into her band and shared an avid appreciation for artistry—something that O'Farrill found everywhere except in Latin music. The young pianist rejected Latin music until he got work in his father's jingle business, necessitating a deeper understanding of the style. A friendship with Andy Gonzalez deepened O'Farrill's commitment to Latin Jazz, leading to an active role in revisiting his father's creative music. During this time, O'Farrill approached trumpet player Wynton Marsalis for guidance in the development of an institutionalized Latin Jazz big band, an idea that lead to Jazz At Lincoln Center's support of The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. The group produced a successful series of concerts and a Grammy nominated album, but financial difficulties led to Jazz At Lincoln Center rescinding their support. Determined to keep the group alive, O'Farrill created a non-profit organization, The Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, that helped keep the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra alive. With the support of the Alliance, the group experienced a creative surge, scored a Grammy win, and toured internationally. Fulfilling one of Chico's dreams, the Alliance raised funds to send O'Farrill and the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra to Cuba. With the big band on secure footing, O'Farrill continued pushing the band in new and creative directions, programming new music concerts and collaborating with cutting edge artists. The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra's latest album 40 Acres And A Burroexemplifies O'Farrill's exploratory edge with pieces by Gabriel Alegria, Astor Piazzolla, and Hermeto Pascoal. The pianist has composed large-scale pieces that recognize the importance of Latina Supreme Court judge Sonya Sotomayor and speak on the Latino condition in the United States. O'Farrill has brought the Orchestra to a place where they do more than simply play great music, they share challenging music filled with meaning and social relevance.

The statements being made by O'Farrill and The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra resonate on a deeper level than an individual improvisational statement. They force us to think about inequalities, they challenge us to reflect upon our lives, and hold Latin Jazz to the highest artistic standards. Without a doubt, this is music that leaves an impact that will last for decades. In Part One of our interview with O'Farrill, we discussed his childhood in Chico's world, his enthusiastic discovery of jazz, and his rejection of Latin music. Part Two moved towards O'Farrill's tenure with composer Carla Bley, his work in Chico's jingle business, and his renewed commitment to Latin styles. In Part Three of our interview, we delved into the resurgence of Chico's creative music, the establishment of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and their first album Una Noche Inolvidable. We looked at the Orchestra's departure from Jazz At Lincoln Center during Part Four of our conversation, and saw how the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance helped the group achieve larger goals. Today, we dig into the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra's album 40 Acres And A Burro, talk about the musical trajectory of O'Farrill's sons, and peer into the pianist's future.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: The new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is titled 40 Acres And A Burro, based upon a piece of the same name. Can you tell us a little bit about that composition?

ARTURO O'FARRILL: It was the final piece that we ever played on the stages of Jazz At Lincoln Center. It was a nod to Wynton and the emancipation of African-American slaves. We feel that Latinos are still waiting to be accorded some of that freedom. We're not enslaved, but Latinos—certainly in the world of jazz—are seen as secondary.

So in a very unhidden manner, I wrote a piece that I think shows that for a lot of people, we are gardeners, nannies, cooks, delivery boys . . . and it's wrong. What we bring to life in the United States is rich and filled with great culture, history, joy, and beauty. So I wrote this piece, and in a very specific way, it deals with that issue.

It starts with the sound of a donkey, you can hear it in the first few measures. You can hear the impression that people have of the Mariachis and the sense of that's what we do and that's who we are. There's a section that I left out for the recording because it wasn't quite working called Stravinsky meets Tito Puente. It's a section where the saxophones play a Petrushka chord in a Tito Puente rhythm.

There's a third section called Latin white noise where you hear the buzz, the white noise of life in America. When you think of who delivers your food and who does your gardening, it's usually a brown skinned person. So there's this whole Latino white noise. You have to really become aware of this stuff after a while.

It explodes and then there's this whole beautiful Songo/Mozabique section where we play a rhythm that jazz musicians in particular find very difficult to play. I use that rhythm because it's not easy for them to cop. It's our way of saying, “Hey, look, we're going to do something that you can't do." It's a very simply, silly lesson, but the point is that we love who we are, we love what we do, we're proud of it, and we will bring it.

LJC: There's another piece on the album that plays into that idea—the piece that you wrote for Sonia Sotomayor, “A Wise Latina." How did that piece relate to what she accomplished?

AOF: How do you set in music the purely legal process of installing a judge? There's actually a lot of artistry and imagery that I saw in that. I was moved to tears when she was nominated, and even more emotional when she was confirmed. It was very meaningful to me. I started to write the piece, and the commission came afterwards. After I had started composing, I happened to mention to one of my board members that I was writing the piece because I was so moved by the experience. They were responsible for helping someone come up with some money so that I could continue! The piece wrote itself. I remember looking at my sketchpad—one minute it was blank and then literally an hour later it was filled with ideas.

There's a very distinct quality to the beginning of the piece, which to me, heralds the idea of justice. Justice is a very abstract concept; it's supposedly a universal idea. There's some inalienable rights that we all talk about universally, but the realities point to another worldliness. There's an abstract idea called justice that human beings didn't even make up. This first opening section has these juxtaposing, large, existential figures that kind of go and point to a larger idea.

Then the second section is the simple rise of a young Puerto Rican girl living in the Bronx, which technically means that she should have ended up as a maid instead of appointed to the highest court in the nation. You see her rise in the music—it's a very simple melodic statement that the trumpet makes as she rises. Then that scene gets repeated over and over again as it gets cast in different settings. It is a constant legal sounding melody that is supposedly legal discourse. It gets more confusing and more confusing, yet the Latina keeps rising and rising.

Eventually it opens to an improvisational section, which is really my idea of this ascendancy being complete. At the end, there's a large and open celebratory section; but it's over some pretty dark sounding chords.

It's a piece that really wrote itself because I felt like the ideas were big—life it always more poignant than art and literature. We just need to look. I could not have foreseen the day when we would have a black president or a Latin Supreme Court justice; I could not have made that up. I would have bet against it twenty years ago.

LJC: A lot of the repertoire on the album really embodies what I love about the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. You've got part of the recording that explores a different side of Latin Jazz with songs like “El Sur," and “Tanguango" and then you've got some very traditional things like “Almendra" and “A Night In Tunisia." How do you balance that line between tradition and innovation?

AOF: I'm firmly committed to new music. My mantra is new music—I love it. I cannot play the same thing all the time. At the same time, I believe in retrospectives. I feel like every concert or every record should be like an interesting meal. There should be something in the meal that is comforting and something in the meal that is challenging. I like a little spice, I like to wake up my taste buds and give them a challenge; but I also like a bowl of rice pudding.

I love to progress; I love to move forward. I love to look at new chords, new sounds, and new rhythms. I love for myself and my musicianship to be challenged. I am not embarrassed to have my musicianship challenged. I am not embarrassed to have to sweat to play a particular piece of music. It doesn't embarrass me because I think that the greatest thing in the world is to learn something new. The day I stop learning, that's the day that I leave the planet.

It's funny because a lot of people really hate that. They use music as a comforting kind of sensation—it confirms and affirms their rightness. I think that's so counterproductive, and I think that so many of our jazz institutions do that. So many of our jazz institutions want to affirm the idea that America's classical music is jazz. Really what they want to do is prop up a system that is already in danger of dying so that they can continue to draw salaries in their various roles. I think that's contrary to the spirit of jazz, which was always about surviving in the face of oppression. The spirit of jazz is always about pushing forward an agenda that may not be popular.

We don't have to be classicists. You can love classical music and you can love jazz, but you must not ever loose sight of the fact that classical music was at one point, daring and risk-taking. At one point, somebody said, “Mozart is out of his mind, he's mixing French and German music!" So for me, every concert is an opportunity to program something new, to teach something, and to program something old.

LJC: I wanted to ask you about an album that I've been listening to a lot—Giant Peachfrom your sons, The O'Farrill Brothers. What can you tell me about them?

AOF: They are extraordinary young musicians. I don't even know where to begin. The fact that they chose to be musicians is astonishing to me. That they have the freedom to access their aptitude and their inner selves is a source of pride for me. They grew up in a house where they had no fear of music, they had no fear of rhythm, and they had no fear of expressing themselves. That's a great source of pride to me.

Zach has performed all over the world. Adam has performed at the White House and at the Grammys. It's amazing to me—it's an incredible delight and thrill that they are doing music.

People ask me all the time if I'm proud of them—I'm not proud of them so much that they're great musicians, I would hope that they be that. But they're really good people, they're sweet human beings. They're generous, not full of themselves, they're not jazz replicans, and they're open to the larger implications of this music. I think that's their mark of distinction—that they're openhearted human beings with a predisposition to like the world and liking people. I think that's what Chico was, and that's what I try to be. In that sense, the lineage continues.

LJC: So what projects are on the loom for you and what's ahead?

AOF: I would really, really love to write an opera. Maybe not an opera, but some sort of oratorio or vocal work that is based on the life of a gentleman by the name of Marcelo Lucero. He was an immigrant that was killed in Port Washington, Long Island, as an act of hate. It was a hate crime committed by a bunch of kids. They were quoted as saying that they were going “Mexican hunting." They came upon this poor man and they beat him to death. It's not simple, and the story doesn't end there. It really begins there. Some of these kids came from backgrounds where they had a lot of Hispanic friends. The guy that actually did the killing had a Spanish girlfriend. I think it's a very profound story that has a lot of interesting, powerful lessons for us to learn in society. For me, music is always a vehicle for change and activism, so I'd like to do that.

The next immediate thing that we're doing is trying to create an Afro-Cuban jazz school in Cuba. That sounds crazy, but we'd like to bring a jazz educational exchange component to Cuba. We'd go down there and they'd come up here. We could really start educating American musicians about what Afro-Cuban music is. Then we could really start educating Cuban musicians with what we know about jazz. But we'd do this from a healthy perspective of mutual respect. We're actively working very hard to create this for next year. I think it's something that's really going to happen.

As always, we're going to continue our programming at Symphony Space. Next year's program is going to be a little bit backwards looking—I feel like it's time to pay tribute to Andy Gonzalez. One of our concerts is going to be dedicated to Andy. We're going to bring Jerry here and do a real retrospective of Andy's life and work. In another concert, we're going to orchestrate In These Shoes, which is an album that I did with Claudia Acuña. As always, our third concert next year is our new music concert.

This year's third concert is also going to be interesting. It's part of an initiative called Sonidos at Symphony Space. I've been commissioned to write a piece for chorus and Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. We've got an 80-voice chorus that is going to be onstage with us in May 14th at Symphony Space—an 80-voice chorus with The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra! I promise you that it will not be regurgitate; I'm already hearing things that are really modern and extraordinarily interesting to me. It'll be a great concert.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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