Pianist Arturo O'Farrill describes the music on Risa Negra as "Latin/jazz/funk/classical." By "accepted" standards, that means it won't fit into established musical pigeonholes; the Latin, funk, and jazz contingents won't go for it because of the classical angle, and the classical contingent won't go for it because ... well, there's something other than classical music involved. And that's why Risa is so terrific: instead of appealing to one audience, O'Farrill and his partners build a lush, rich meeting place where all these elements coalesce into a smart, complex, and (yes!) sexy musical hybrid.
"One Adam 12 Mambo" opens the way most of the pieces on Risa do, with O'Farrill in the clearin this case, playing dissonant chords and seemingly disconnected runs in the style of Thelonious Monk. Then O'Farrill starts working over a jumping mambo figure, and the rest of the band pops up with a blasting Latin tune chock-full of complex movements and driving percussion. Altoist David Bixler tears it up while drummer Vince Cherico and percussionist Roland Guerrero mix it up, and O'Farrill counters busily over all of them. Then O'Farrill takes his turn in the spotlight with an exciting, passionate solo. He's feeling it and so is the band, as the energy and fun never fade.
O'Farrill says trumpeter and frequent collaborator Jim Seeley "keeps me grounded" and the same thing can be said of how Seeley's playing affects this set. His lines are bright, unmated and unerringly focused, demanding attention every time; his blowing solo on Bixler's "Goat Check" seems to inspire the altoist to get nasty, and the rhythm section to get even nastier. Seeley sums up the frustration inherent in "No Way Off" (O'Farrill's "tribute" to being trapped on a world cruise); and Seeley's own "Ceviche" stays open and inviting in the face of the piece's own complexities. Bixler's exploratory "The Darkness Is My Closest Friend" lets the whole band get dark and dramatic, while O'Farrill's angry "Blue State Blues"written after the 2004 electiontraverses dark territory, too, with major help from Ivan Renta's titanic tenor sax.
The classical element lies mainly in "Tabla Rasa," a mesmerizing two-movement suite commissioned by The Philadelphia Project. The first movement, "El Salon Cubano," evokes the days when jazz and Latin music lived side by side in turn-of-the-century Cuba, while "Tintal Tintal Deo" shows how all the aspects of jazz have roots that go through the hand drum, anchored by Indian tabla master Badal Roy. Though "Tabla" can be labyrinthine, moving through this maze is utterly fascinating. And O'Farrill's complex writing style is hereditary, because the intense "Crazy Chicken" was composed by 14-year-old Adam O'Farrillwho also plays a mean trumpetand his changes are almost as intricate as his father's.
The liner notes bear a warning from O'Farrill: "If you want categorized jazz, bypass this product!" While that advice might stave off buyer disappointment, Risa Negra should be heard by all comers, if only to see how fantastic inclusive jazz can be.
Track Listing: One Ada 12 Mambo; Goat Check; Blue State Blues; The Darkness Is My Closest Friend; No
Way Off; Crazy Chicken; Tabla Rasa : El Salon Cubano; Tabla Rasa: Tintal Tintal Deo, Ceviche; Alisonia.
Personnel: Arturo O'Farrill: piano, Fender Rhodes piano; Jim Seeley: trumpet; David Bixler: alto sax; Boris Koslov: acoustic and electric bass (1-5, 9, 10); Vince Cherico: drums (1-5, 7-10); Roland Guerrero: percussion; Ivan Renta: tenor sax (3, 6); Ricky Rodriguez: acoustic bass (3, 6-8); Alison Deane: piano (5, 7, 8); Badal Roy: tablas (8); Cecelia Tenconi: flute (7, 8); Heather Bixler: violin (8); Adam O'Farrill: trumpet (6); Zachary O'Farrill: drums (6).
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