Arturo O'Farrill: Upholding the Latin Tinge
"I certainly didn't expect him to open up Jazz at Lincoln Center as a possible home for the Latin jazz big band tradition ... In 2001, he said he would love to do that at Jazz at Lincoln Center. So we began our run at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2002," O'Farrill says. "We've performed all over the world, incredible concerts for Jazz at Lincoln Center and worked with many great artists. We have a very wonderful and satisfying residency."
The band has since moved to Symphony Space in New York City. Having the cachet of JALC played a role in getting the new venue, as well as establishing a profile visible by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. However, he says, "Let's not attribute it all to Jazz at Lincoln Center. I have very good credentials from having established the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra at Birdland for 14 years, and a long and well-articulated career in many performance venues."
The Chico O'Farrill begins its 14th year at Birdland in November. "It's interesting to note that there really is very little crossover [of band members] between the orchestras. There are about three or four members that I keep in both bands. That's because I love to have key position players that I trust in leading the sections. That's my comfort zone."
The two orchestras are different in their presentation as well.
"I love my father's orchestra and I love my father's music. They sometimes call Chico O'Farrill the Duke Ellington of Latin music. I think that's almost like a sideways compliment. Because we [the Latin music community] don't have to have a Duke Ellington or any corollary jazz artist in our tradition. We have our own jazz greats," he says. His father "was really a unique and singular voice in the world of Latin jazz, if we must separate the two. He deserves his own cannon, his own orchestra and his own history. One of the things that I sought to do was to protect that legacy and to make sure the music of Chico O'Farrill and Chico O'Farrill-inspired composers is protected.
"On the other hand, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is supposed to reflect the larger interpretation of the whole of Afro-big band tradition. To that end, we do a lot of other music. We perform everything from real technical dance music to cutting-edge work by brand new composers ... We don't sound like a museum orchestra. We've made a real commitment to the incredible swing and rhythmic propulsion of our greatest orchestras. [It is] a modern orchestra in that it appropriates all the equipment and language we need to fully express and experience the music that we call jazz. The Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra is an amazing orchestra in its own right. But we don't really get to play much outside of Birdland. Whereas the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra gets to do a lot, lot less playing, but a lot more traveling and a lot more expanding of the repertoire."
O'Farrill was educated at the Manhattan School of Music, Brooklyn College Conservatory, and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Growing up in New York City (he was born in Mexico), he had the typical piano influences common to young aspiring musicians: Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, among many others. He also likes classical pianist Arturo Benedetti Michalangeli.
Arturo O'Farrill (seated at piano) with the Afrio Latin Jazz Orchestra
"I can also think about the artistic integrity of a master like Jimi Hendrix. I can honestly say that on some level, Jimi Hendrix has impacted my life and my music as much as McCoy Tyner. I think those things are important. In other words, people who made bigger impressions on me as artists, than particularly as technicians.
"I think you can't separate craft from art," he says. "People who stand up for what they believe; people who change, or at least try. I think the hardest thing in he world is to create art and not to replicate. People who follow their voice. My father was one. He could've replicated and played safe with commission money. Instead he followed his voice. He followed the inside of his heart. What his heart told him to do, he wrote. Consequently, he has some great masterpieces."
But the music of his father didn't register with the young pianist right away.
"I kind of rejected my upbringing and my background and thought of Latin music and traditional jazz as very corny," he says. "I grew up playing traditional jazz, but certainly not Latin. I think it had to do with a misunderstanding I had. Sometimes I attribute it to just growing up and rejecting your father and mother's values, which we all do. Kids do that. I think it's very important that they do. Whether you had a good upbringing or a bad upbringing is secondary to the fact that you rebel. Everybody rebels ... When I was a kid I was a Bud Powell clone."