Arturo O'Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra Live in Saratoga Springs, NY

R.J. DeLuke By

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The tempos shift, melodic lines change, tension is built up in released, not according to one map, but many.
Arturo O'Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Spa Little Theater
Saratoga Springs, New York
May 30, 2009

An array of Latin influences in music was presented by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by pianist/composer/arranger Arturo O'Farrill, on May 30 at the Spa Little Theater in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Some Latin bands pretty much stay in the same vein. O'Farrill has his group—which won a Grammy this year for its latest recording—mining from multiple sources. They play hot jazz with exciting rhythms and shifting harmonies, and they can play thoughtful and emotional music as well.

The concert was the last in a series presented by Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the venue that has hosted a major jazz festival since 1978, created by George Wein and for several years now operated as Freihofer's Jazz Festival.

The recent Grammy win was for Song for Chico (Zoho Music, 2008), the category of Best Latin Jazz Album. But O'Farrill himself eschews the title "Latin Jazz," pointing out that Latin influences were present at the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans and therefore were part of the fabric in the origination of the music, and not brought in in the 1940s as outside elements.

His band seems to exemplify that aspect. Although their music is strong in its Latino feel, with congas, bongos and other percussion of that idiom, the band covers a lot of ground. The tempos shift, melodic lines change, tension is built up and released, not according to one map, but many. It's a superb group of musicians, and O'Farrill has them firing on all cylinders, leading with his heavy-handed, yet first-rate piano skills.

The night's work started fiercely, with just O'Farrill and the rhythm section in a burning opening to Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia." Hot tenor sax by Ivan Renta entered, and soon the band burst in and was off and running. Not just for that number, but pretty much for the entire night. John Walsh's trumpet soared to the instrument's highest notes, fueling the fire.

All the musicians played with exuberance, led by a fearless leader who would bound from the piano bench at times to stand in front and conduct, cuing the sections during certain parts. Notable among them was veteran Bobby Porcelli on alto sax, who has extensive bop chops and played with plenty of heart.

The music came from Argentina and from tango master Astor Piazzola as well as from Cuba and Brazil. At times, the band had a rich, orchestral sound and at others was like a team of horses with O'Farrill holding the reins.

The arrangement of Ellington-Tizol's "Caravan" had some funky rhythms and percussive work by the horns; then saxophonists, trumpets and trombones soloed back and fourth, trading 16s.

They played Chico O'Farrell's (Arturo's famous father) "Afro Cuban Jazz Suite," which started out like it could be background music to an old western (back when the once-popular genre was scored by composers), then charged out of the gate like a racehorse, Porcelli blowing a frantic solo. The themes mellowed before again coalescing into a full-out Latin-influenced romp. Then the music morphed into straight-ahead jazz, bebop to a 4/4 beat, before coming to a stunning close. A nice tasting of jazz through the years.

The band is going into the studio in July to record some exciting music that no one else is playing, says O'Farrill. Hang on to your hats. And get ready to move your feet!

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