Arturo O’Farrill’s ‘Four Questions’ Brings Together Art, Activism

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Arturo O’Farrill expands his pool of collaborators on Four Questions, the bandleader’s first album-length offering of original material.

(Photo: Laura Mariet)

Arturo O’Farrill is no stranger to making complex artistic statements or critiquing systemic social problems. Given the vast—but nuanced—nature of the topics O’Farrill has explored throughout his career, the pianist, composer and bandleader frequently enlists a wealth of performers as collaborators. The approach continues with Four Questions (Zoho).

While collaboration is a hallmark of jazz, O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra continually work to offer an expanse of musical, conceptual and political ideas. For the title track, Dr. Cornel West, the author and activist, contributes multifaceted questions first raised by iconic social critic W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. And across Four Questions, every aspect of partnership—from the inspiration behind the repertoire to everyone’s distinctive skills—coalesces in valuable, multilayered statements. It’s more than just a batch of appealing melodies.

Despite highlighting economic disenfranchisement, “A Still, Small Voice,” for example, delivers a message of supporting a collective over a chosen few through a heavily layered choral approach. Meanwhile, “Baby Jack” exudes the melodic conventions of Afro-Latin jazz, its ebb and flow of dynamic intensity and tonal approachability subtly reflecting the world’s current, delicate state.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How have your ideas about composing and its process changed after recording your first full album of originals?

I just realized that it’s incumbent upon me to write from my heart. I’m going to start really caring about what I say through the music. Caring that I’m careful to share my opportunities. And if it takes just my music to do so, that’s what I’ll do.

There’s also probably some great measure of fear on my part, to feature myself and my work on an album, because I don’t have the credentials some people have. And so, I’ve been reticent to feature my writing. However, I feel the time for fear is way past us. So, my comfort level? I don’t care. I’m going to put my name and my work forth. I’m going to own the work I’m putting out and not be afraid of how it’s perceived, whether it makes critics or readers polls—or if it’s loved or not.

Where do you draw the line between music as a medium of artistic pleasure and music as an agent of change?

I understand the need for there to be abstract moments of joy. When you’re looking at the construction of a beautiful solo, when you’re looking at a beautiful orchestration, when you’re looking at marvelous statements of technical skill and inspired grace. Still, I believe that those things are not devoid of a relationship to their narrative and their meaning. I love music that has no political intent whatsoever. That’s OK, because it is—in its own statement—a political statement. Just appealing to the abstract beauty of life tells us there’s something fundamentally wrong when not everybody can experience the basic aesthetic beauty.

What do you think is the best way for work like yours to reach and influence listeners?

It’s a little bit like asking, “How do you care for an audience or a listener who is not used to having such strong music in their face, and such strong imagery and such strong messaging?” And that’s a little bit tricky, because I’m not sure what’s more violent: a political-social discourse or live nationalism. I’m not sure what’s more violent: the in-your-face nature of what I try to do or corporate mediocrity. What’s more offensive?

Most of the blockbuster hits Hollywood regurgitates are based on formulaic iterations of violence: The planet’s being destroyed, there’s a league of superheroes—somehow they’re all American, somehow they’re mostly white, mostly male—and they save the world. And this theme gets played out over and over again.

Those expressions of power and Americanism don’t challenge the [individual] who’s new to political discourse. Yet, we want our jazz to be antiseptic, cold-filtered and pleasing to the taste. And it never was.

How do you perceive the role of your music with ALJO, when it’s placed in the context of ideas that Du Bois discusses?

When I look at [West] speaking truth about an observation [by Du Bois] that was made so long ago—but is more applicable than ever—it brings all kinds of electricity to me. And electricity, to me, is rhythmic. It’s harmonic, it’s dance, it’s orchestrational. In a way, I respond to Dr. West’s expansion on W.E.B. Du Bois’ work with a lot of activity—a lot of roar, a lot of percussion.

W.E.B. Du Bois expands on these things in such a graceful and elegant manner, even as we’re watching a tremendous inequality between Black America and white America. I also try to capture that. So, as I was writing Four Questions, I was deeply committed to both the presentation of it and the understanding of it. If anything, I tried to put on display the extraordinarily strong feelings I have. DB



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February 2023
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