Surprisingly this set marks the first time Arturo O'Farrill has recorded a set of solely his own compositions. It was worth the wait because this music, played by his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, really demonstrates the cinematic sweep and variety of his writing.
The set is constructed around two topical extended works. The first, "Four Questions," is based on four questions about the struggle for human rights and personal dignity first posed by African-American author W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Souls of Black Folk and then used as the basis for a speech by scholar and activist Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West gives the speech here in the musical cadences of a fire-breathing Southern preacher. He speaks of the fight to retain your humanity in the face of oppression and calls out the names of innumerable African-American and Latino cultural icons, like Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente. Behind him, the Orchestra creates a thunderous brew with blocks of horns constantly zigzagging over a rumbling Latin Jazz base, as O'Farrill threads through the storm with delicate but wide-ranging piano. As West expounds, the music goes through sections of deep funk grooves and Afro-Cuban workouts. Then O'Farrill goes into a stretched out section of stride piano as West shouts out the names of generations of great jazz pianists, from James P. Johnson and Fats Waller to Geri Allen and McCoy Tyner. The entire piece ends with Seneca Black's lone trumpet playing the hymn "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" as Dr. West recites the lyrics before listing a roll call of civil rights martyrs from Martin Luther King Jr. to Michael Brown.
The other extended work, "A Still, Small Voice," is O'Farrill's response to the financial meltdown on 2008. It draws its themes from the threads of ethics and morality common in all religions, but evidently not on Wall Street at the time. Here the orchestra is initially more sober and dramatic, relying on grunting brass movements and restless piano by Alison Deane. Ivan Renta lightens up the weighty feel with a liquid soprano sax solo on the "Cacophonus" section and the final movement, "A Still, Small Voice," beautifully melds together elegant Cuban rhythms, choral singing and the orchestra's sparks and shouts over a subtly funky groove. Squealing instrumental solos are supplied by Peter Brainin on tenor and John Bailey on trumpet. The cumulative effect is as uplifting and powerful as the best of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts.
These two imposing works are balanced by three shorter pieces on the CD. "Baby Jack," with its stuttering beats and mobile rhythm, has the big, roaring sound of a swaggering Latin jazz orchestra while "Jazz Twins" contains a gentle, swaying flow. Renta's soprano sax and David Smith's trumpet intertwine and dance before a conga and drum break pours on the heat and leads to a dazzling bout of piano by the leader. "Clump/Unclump" is a whirl of short phrases formed out of clipped beats and notes with the quirky sensibility of a certain bandleader O'Farrill used to work for, Carla Bley. The phrases are spun into complex but attractive orchestral lines that are indicative of O'Farrill's arranging skill. Black and Renta burrow eloquently through it all in their solos.
This album shows that Arturo O'Farrill deserves to be considered among the first rank of modern jazz composers and arrangers. He proves adept at creating ferocious big band charts, choral music and spoken word backdrops with style and imagination. His writing contains a lot of moving parts but he is very skillful at mixing together contrasting melodies and rhythms. This is a strong statement on our crazy present day world and a reflection of both O'Farrill's writing mastery and the power of his orchestra.
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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