Arturo O'Farrill: Upholding the Latin Tinge
Arturo 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 fatherthe great Chico O'Farrillin 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 Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra) and the otherthe Afro Latin Jazz Orchestraexamining 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.
"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 thisJelly 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.
"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.