Whenever an obstacle presents itselfeven one as devastating and disruptive as a global pandemicit's a sure bet that musicians will find a way around it, a way to keep making music even in the most grievous circumstances. Jazz musicians have been especially creative during the Covid-19 scourge, using social media, the internet and any other means at their disposal to share their music with the world. True, the paychecks aren't as large or as regular as once they were, but love and dedication can make up for a lot of shortcomingsthe sort of love and dedication that produces recordings such as Virtual Birdland, wherein the members of pianist Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra were able to come together solely in spirit, assembling instead in groups of one in living rooms, bedrooms, and even closets to help make the dream of creating bright and pleasing music a reality.
What has emerged from their diligence is an album whose earnestness and elation are palpable, and whose group dynamic is seamless, a testament to the superior musicianship of O'Farrill and his colleagues. It's an album that also touches a lot of bases, from Cuba to Morocco and beyond, embracing Brazilian and even Kuwaiti themes while employing Afro-Cuban rhythms, the samba, rhumba, bomba jazz and American swing to press home its point. Those emphatic rhythms, in fact, keep the enterprise safely afloat when its lyricism and consonance are less than persuasive, which is sometimes the case. Even when braving such adverse conditions, it's notable that the group intensity never slackens.
To enhance its assets, the orchestra welcomes a number of talented guests, one of whom, Paquito D'Rivera, wrote the exhilarating "Samba for Carmen," on which his alto saxophone takes pride of place, as a tribute to the late great vocalist, Carmen McRae. That's an unequivocal highlight, as is Letieres Leite's powerful Afro-Brazilian bossa, "Alafia," which follows. Tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta is showcased on the enchanting ballad, "En la Oscuridad," which precedes Papo Vasquez' colorful "Cimarron" and the sultry finale, Tito Puente's well-traveled "Para Los Rumberos." O'Farrill's assertive "Gulab Jamon" opens the session, followed by Morroco-born Malika Zarra's North Africa-inspired "Pouvoir," Rafi Malkiel's undulating "Desert," American pianist Larry Willis' stylistically prismatic "Nightfall" and Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi's gentle Middle Eastern anthem, "Ana Mashoof" (on which he sings and plays guitar).
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