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Live Reviews

Arturo O'Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra

By Published: September 28, 2004

Dance music is very powerful because it unites the brain with the body. —Arturo O'Farrill

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is led by pianist/music director Arturo O'Farrill. He is a well-spoken jovial man with a huge aura of energy about him.
O'Farrill, winner of the Latin Jazz USA Outstanding Achievement Award for 2003, was born in Mexico and grew up in New York City. Educated at the Manhattan School of Music, Brooklyn College Conservatory, and the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College, he played piano with the Carla Bley Big Band from 1979 through 1983. Arturo then went on to develop as a solo performer with a wide spectrum of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, Freddy Cole, The Fort Apache Band, Lester Bowie, Harry Belafonte and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis.
In 1995, O'Farrill agreed to direct the band that preserved much of his father's music, Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which has been in residence at Birdland, New York City's famed nightclub, for the past six years. O'Farrill was a special guest soloist at three landmark Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts - Afro-Cuban Jazz: Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, November 1995; Con Alma: The Latin Tinge in Big Band Jazz, September 1998; and the 2001 Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala: The Spirit of Tito Puente, November 2001.
In 2002, O'Farrill and Marsalis created the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra for Jazz at Lincoln Center. They will get national exposure October 18, 2004 on the PBS "Live From Lincoln Center" broadcast of the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall Grand Opening. (Check your local listings.) Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, located on Broadway at 60th Street in Manhattan, is the world's first performing arts center designed for jazz.

I recently spoke to O'Farrill about his work with Jazz at Lincoln Center as Music Director and pianist for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is a hand-picked sister ensemble to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that represents the music of the Afro-Caribbean genre. It's really as inclusive and wide-ranging in its scope as anything we have in contemporary jazz. A lot of people think of Latin jazz as a subset of jazz, but it really isn't. Latin jazz is a sister, a sort of sibling. They grew up in different continents, but they follow a very similar timeline. So the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has as huge a repertoire, in its specificity, as any modern day jazz orchestra."

He says the seeds for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra were planted a while ago, "We got together about nine or ten years ago, the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra played a concert at Alice Tully Hall with Marsalis. At the time I thought to myself, it would be really nice if the Latino jazz tradition had a similar set up. So I approached Wynton and asked if he could direct us towards foundations or institutions that might want this sort of orchestra to be a part of their ensembles. Wynton was very intrigued. Of course I never would have imagined that he, himself, would have embraced this orchestra and we're very proud of the fact that he did. It shows a lot about Wynton and his openness and the scope of his imagination. So he invited me to direct a resident Latin jazz orchestra, specifically an Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center family."

O'Farrill continues the discussion on this musical family, "Jazz and Latin have their roots in dance. Much of the turn-of-the-century New Orleans jazz was born in dance halls and bordellos and speakeasys. The same thing was happening in Latin music around the same time period in Havana. The music that was later to become the equivalent of jazz in Latin America was being born in bars, cafes, and bordellos."

He thoughtfully continues, "Dance music is very powerful because it unites the brain with the body. It really does. When it's well-crafted, dance music, in a very clever way, is the most consistent response to the dichotomy of mind and body. So when you listen to Latin music, Latin jazz especially, its a real synthesis of so many worlds. It's a synthesis of Africa and Europe and Spain...of intellect and body and mind and spirit. We need to let go. Latin music is a really good conduit for us to engage our feet without losing our mind."

O'Farrill says he got a call from Fernanado Trueba, the great Spanish filmmaker of Calle 54. He was making a movie that was set in China in the '30s or '40s. Trueba asked O'Farrill to help consult on the film since mambo music was so popular in China during that era. It's still popular in China today as Mr. O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra visit Shanghai Concert Hall in October (10/6/04 & 10/7/04). It is their debut performance in China. Additional upcoming tour dates include: 10/29/04 Orchestra Hall-Detroit, Michigan, 11/10/04 & 11/11/04 Memorial Auditorium-Stanford, California, 11/12/04 Paramount Theater-Seattle, Washington, 1/22/05 Rialto Center for the Performing Arts-Atlanta, Georgia, 3/25/05 Wharton Center for the Performing Arts-East Lansing, Michigan, 4/5/05 University of Illinois-Champaign, Illinois, 4/9/05 University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 4/22/05 New Jersey Performing Arts Center-Newark and McCarter Theatre-Princeton, New Jersey. For their complete tour schedule, visit www.jalc.org.

O'Farrill confides, "Consistently, to my surprise, I find corners of the globe where this music is loved and played. It's really special. In my correspondence, I've received queries from China and Africa and Israel. People wanting to know more about this music, more about how to play it, more about how to perceive it, how to place it in their understanding of things. It's really amazing to me. I think it's because it has such a lovely synthesis of so many world cultures. It's Arabic, Spanish and Moorish. Latin music is such a great meeting ground of so many cultures."

What New Orleans is to jazz music, so is Santiago to Latin music, O'Farrill explains. "One reason was the African expression in Cuba. There were generations and generations of slaves that had taken root in Santiago. It was a place where the music of Europe was intermingling heavily with the music of Africa. I have found in my travels to Cuba that there is a very easy relationship between black and white. It's a magical relationship and I say "magical" with a great deal of reticence because there is nothing magic about racism, but there's a love and intermingling and mutual respect between races that I've rarely found anywhere else."

Comprised of 18 prominent soloists from the Latin jazz scene, (subject to change) the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra currently consists of: Arturo O'Farrill (Music Director and piano), Michael Philip Mossman (trumpet), John Walsh (trumpet), Jim Seeley (trumpet), Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Luis Bonilla (trombone), Noah Bless (trombone), Reynaldo Jorge (trombone), Douglas Purviance (bass trombone), Bobby Porcelli (alto saxophone), Erica vonKleist (alto saxophone), Pablo Calogero (baritone saxophone), Mario Rivera (tenor saxophone), Bob Franceschini (tenor saxophone), Ruben Rodriguez (bass), Phoenix Rivera (drums), Joe Gonzalez (percussion) and Milton Cardona (percussion). (When these guys perform, they're always dressed to the nines because one of their sponsors is Brooks Brothers.)

Arturo's father, Chico O'Farrill, was born in Cuba. "My father was a brilliant composer. He was a brilliant orchestrator. He was at the crux of the integration of a lot of styles," he tells us. "Phil Schaap, who is part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center family (Jazz at Lincoln Center Curator), put it best at Chico's memorial. He said Mario Bauza introduced us to Latin and jazz, but Chico gave us its greatest expression. Chico gave us its intellect. Chico was often, mistakenly, called the 'Duke Ellington of Latin jazz.' He's really the 'Chico O'Farrill of Latin Jazz. He was an important figure. He was very well respected, very well-loved. I was very touched to find that in his passing, that he had a much greater impact on the world than I knew. He was noted in such mainstream publications as Newsweek and People. He was mourned throughout the world in his passing but celebrated throughout the world for his contribution to worldwide culture. I'm very proud of him, very proud to be his son."

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has been busy all summer with their Mambo Madness Tour. Arturo says "Mambo Madness is our inaugural foray into the world of touring. It is descriptive of our philosophy which is to introduce many audiences in performing art centers and venues throughout the world to an overview of what the Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban big band jazz tradition is. Mambo is the operative word because the first exposure that people have to this music is through dancing. Its a real meeting of the mind and body. Its a great experience as a concert setting and as a way to experience the total power that Latin music can be."

On a separate note, I was surprised to learn that one of his musical influences was Jimi Hendrix. "I loved Jimi Hendrix!" he yells. "I never met Jimi. I never heard him 'live', but I drove my father bananas! (laugh) 'Cause I would blast 'Band of Gypsys'... I would blast that record in my room. My father had absolutely no idea who Hendrix was and there was a real demarcation of cultures and eras for us along Jimi Hendrix. I just find Jimi Hendrix's music to be the embodiment of everything that we consider jazz. He was just extraodinarily explorative, extremely innovative. Jimi Hendrix painted. In my opinion he was a colorist. He used music in a very visual way. He used improvisation in a very beautiful manner. He was a visionary like Miles Davis. His eyes were set twenty years ahead."

You can hear the Latin influence on Jimi Hendrix's "House Burning Down" from the album "Electric Ladyland." Mr. O'Farrill says the influence of Latin music is everywhere. "Really what it comes down to, and I think Hendrix realized this, I think Miles (Davis) realized this, I think Dizzy (Gillespie) embodied this and embraced this with his whole heart and being, is that Latin music and jazz are closely related. The Africa influence exists because some of the slave trade ended in New Orleans and some ended in Havana, those elements never stopped creating unbelievable music and embracing the cultures they ended up in."



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