The Four Questions addressed by composer / pianist Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra on its latest album were first posed in 1903 by W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Souls of Black Folk and are answered herein by the esteemed educator / historian / social activist Dr. Cornel West. For the record, the questions are "what does integrity do in the face of adversity and oppression, what does honesty do in the face of lies and deception, what does decency do in the face of insult," and "how does virtue meet brute force."
In case you are wondering what that has to do with jazz, it should be noted that "Four Questions," even though rather long at more than sixteen minutes, is only one among eight tracks on the album, and the Jazz Orchestra lives up to its name on the others. All of the compositions and arrangements are O'Farrill's, and they are equitably balanced between Afro and Latin. The last four, collectively titled A Still, Small Voice, encompass O'Farrill's response to the financial crisis of 2008. "It is the idea that we all have an inner voice," O'Farrill writes, "some call it conscience, others call it divine guidance, that tells us the difference between right and wrong." O'Farrill's other compositions are thematic as well: "Baby Jack," commissioned in 2012 by friend Mary McCormick to herald the birth of her grandson; "Jazz Twins," written for friends Arnold and Donald Stanley; and "Clump, Unclump," about "the relentless law of gathering and scattering, the coming together and the falling asunder." Seductive? For the most part, closer to thought-provoking.
As to Dr. West, suffice to say his impassioned oratory is an acquired taste. Rather than adopting the stance of an academic, he assumes the persona of preacher, shouting his powerful message above the din of the orchestra and interspersing it with jazz references and contemporary narrative to help keep it colloquial. After some introductory asides he does answer DuBois' four questions, although the listener must pay close attention to comprehend their meaning. The ensemble wails behind him, moving easily from Afro to Latin and back again to accommodate the swings in intensity and tenor. When all is said and done, Dr. West and the orchestra get the job done. Elsewhere, the bill of fare is rather more uneven, with moments of tastefulness and charm offset by others that are less than engaging. A part of this has to do with the thematic nature of the enterprise, which at times seems to have been designed to enlighten rather than entertain.
As such, this is music that may more readily lend itself to a concert setting rather than a studio. One can almost envision the cheers and applause that would surely accompany Dr. West's fiery exhortations. The same holds true for O'Farrill's themes, earnest in their intent but not always persuasive in their execution. There's no doubting O'Farrill's sincerity, nor his talent. The impression here, however, is that he has abridged that talent in the service of principle. While that's not a bad thing, it does serve to diminish the album's jazz quotient. Yes, there are some congenial harmonies, a handful of trim solos, and the rhythm section is capable, but the over-all sense is that this is an undoubtedly earnest and altogether presentable endeavor that lands slightly short of laudable. Its message, however, is timely and imperative.
Baby Jack; Jazz Twins; Four Questions; Clump, Unclump; A Still, Small Voice: Elijah – 1 Kings 19:13; Amidst the Fire and the Whirlwind; Cacophonus; A Still, Small Voice.
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