StLJN Saturday Video Showcase: Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban jazz legacy


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Today, our video spotlight shines on pianist, composer and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill, who's coming to town to perform this coming Wednesday, May 1 and Thursday, May 2 at Jazz St. Louis.

The son of famed musician, arranger, bandleader and Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer Chico O'Farrill, Arturo O'Farrill was born in 1960 in Mexico City and moved with his family in 1965 to New York. He first gained wide exposure at age 19 as part of pianist and composer Carla Bley's band, and subsequently went on to work with musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Howard Johnson, Steve Turre, and St. Louis' own Lester Bowie before landing a gig in 1987 as music director for Harry Belafonte.

O'Farrill got more involved in Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz in the 1990s, working as a substitute pianist Andy and Jerry Gonzalez's Fort Apache Band and with his father to revive the elder O'Farrill's career. Ultimately, after his father's death in 2001, Arturo wound up as the pianist and sole bandleader for what has come to be known as the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

During the 2000s, the group spent six years in residency at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which helped them reach larger audiences, get a recording contract, and begin touring to major jazz festivals and venues around the world. One of those stops in 2004 was at the long-defunct St. Louis Jazz & Heritage Festival in Clayton. Although that has been the orchestra's only local appearance here to date, O'Farrill also played here with his sextet for a week in January 2015 at Jazz St. Louis.

In all, Arturo O'Farrill has released more a dozen albums as a bandleader, earning a couple of Grammy Awards (plus four additional nominations) along the way. His most recent recording Fandango At The Wall came out in 2018, but even more recently, O'Farrill has just wrapped up a four-month residency at The Greene Space, the performance venue operated by radio stations WNYC and WQXR in New York.

The residency featured him performing in variety of contexts, both solo and with different ensembles, and it appears that many of the performances were recorded on video. That's provided a trove of recent material featuring O'Farrill, some of which you can see right now in this post, starting up above with “Invitation to Dance," a solo piano piece recorded at Greene Space in February 2019.

After the jump, you can see a couple of Afrobeat-influenced performances from January 2019 featuring O'Farrill and an expanded version of the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, with guest stars including singer and percussionist Tosin and guitarists Lionel Loueke and Bryan Vargas. Tosin takes the lead vocal on his composition “The Big Illusion," which is followed by another piece from the same performance, “Strugglettes And Struggles."

Next are two more performances from the residency, one featuring a smaller version of the Afro-Latin jazz ensemble, and the other marking the premiere of a new big band piece called “Gulab Jamon."

The final video, from October 2015, was produced by NPR in conjunction with the release of O'Farrill's then-new album Cuba: The Conversation Continues, and includes an interview with O'Farrill as well as live performances of music from the recording.

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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
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