Arturo O'Farrill: Upholding the Latin Tinge

R.J. DeLuke By

Sign in to view read count
Arturo O'FarrillArturo O'Farrill, an extraordinary pianist, admits he came out of the bebop school of playing, a Bud Powell disciple, and his strong chops would attest to that. He didn't pursue the music of his father—the great Chico O'Farrill—in his younger days, but he came upon it as he studied the music. He came to not only appreciate it, but his excellent bands embody it.

He's led two Latin big bands, one celebrating his father's music (the Chico O'Farrill Alfredo De La Fé) and the other—the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra—examining more broad influences. The latter's Una Noche Inolvidable (An Unforgettable Night), (Palmetto Records, 2005) was nominated for a 2006 Grammy and its Song for Chico (Zoho Music, 2008) won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album.

The Latin roots and influences O'Farrill so diligently and eloquently reflects today didn't come about via some "discovery" in the 1940s, he avows. Sure, when Dizzy Gillespie encountered the captivating rhythms of Cuba in that golden age of jazz, he began to highlight them, especially after hiring percussionist Chano Pozo. The rhythms spread rapidly, as Dizzy was a major figure whom people religiously followed. But O'Farrill notes that the influences were there at the beginning of jazz and are a part of its essential fabric.

"The roots of Latin and jazz are the same," says O'Farrill. "New Orleans at the turn of the century was a very Caribbean city with a lot of trade and commerce with Mexico and Cuba. Many of the musicians that came back and forth between Cuba and New Orleans and much of the Caribbean brought with them some of the rhythms that infected and inflected a lot of what we call jazz. I don't think the implications of those Latin and Caribbean rhythms have yet been appreciated or understood by the general jazz public. At least on the critical or historical level.

Arturo O'Farrill "The truth of the matter is that Jelly Roll Morton said that without the Spanish tinge, it isn't jazz. He understood the rhythms we associate with jazz are as much Cuban and African-American as they are from New Orleans. In some ways, I think the listener understands that, almost more than the jazz critic, the jazz musician and the jazz historian; all of which have a vested interest in keeping the story the way they want to maintain their supremacy in the issue.

"But I think the true jazz listener, the true jazz lover, understands the rhythms are infectious because they are part and parcel of the root of jazz. The true jazz listener understand that you can't sit still listening to that music. And it doesn't detract from the idea that it is jazz. In fact, it enhances it ... Why is it so infectious? Because it is jazz. It is not Latin jazz. It is jazz. It is part of the root, the foundation. Any jazz listener, and jazz fan, will recognize the truth right away.

"Some of the great, great jazz musicians understood this—Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, it goes on and on and on. Rhythms of the Caribbean are inter-fused with everything we call jazz. It's only jazz historians, jazz educators, jazz institutions that insist on slicing a little piece of pie, a little tiny morsel, and calling it Latin jazz. It's in their interest to maintain this facade. Because then they can control it. I know it sounds very dark," says O'Farrill, who then switches gears to lighten things, noting that music and feeling and art is what's important. The remarks are not made in a bitter fashion, but rather explanatory. In fact, he's affable and genial. But he speaks his mind.

O'Farrill deals with the whole breadth of jazz in his projects, whether with small or large groups. But he's a keeper of the Latin flame, for sure.

A recent live performance of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra showed it as all-inclusive. Different styles of music had their moments in various numbers. Different Latin rhythms. Straight bebop. Wild and mild. And there was humor as well. It's an exciting aggregation but, even on the heels of its Grammy win, the best may be yet to come.

Arturo O'Farrill "We're getting ready to go into the studio in July and record some amazing new music that nobody else is playing, nobody else can play unless you have that kind of openness," says O'Farrill. "We're going to be recording music from Peru, Argentina, Colombia. Music that is really cutting edge. Exciting and infectious. You'll listen to this record and you'll want to get up and dance and you'll want to sit down and listen."

It was in the 1990s that O'Farrill was playing with the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra when New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center was in its infancy. O'Farrill wondered aloud if Wynton Marsalis could find a way to give the Latin big band tradition a home base.

"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 / Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra 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."

"In my late 20s, I started understanding how graceful, elegant and really complex Latin music is. It was an epiphany for me. I credit Andy Gonzalez, Pablo Vasquez and my father, and people who opened up that world to me. They played me a lot of music and talked to me about ... the uniting of mind and passion. Those two things are not separate.

"There's a beautiful grandeur in music that comes from a very simple, but not simplistic, approach to rhythm. Very difficult music to play well. If you write out the rhythms to this music—exactly—and hand them to a professional percussionist, they'll play rhythms but they won't swing. If you give them to guys that really do this, it's marvelous. That always intrigues me, the idea that in the hands of one person, the rhythm can groove like crazy. But that same rhythm played exactly correctly, in the hands of another person, can sound stiff as a board."

O'Farrill played piano with the Carla Bley Big Band from 1979 through 1983. He also performed with a variety of others, including Gillespie, Steve Turre, Freddy Cole, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Lester Bowie and Harry Belafonte.

About Arturo O'Farrill
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.