Arturo O’Farrill: The Trio as Jazz Orchestra

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Arturo O’Farrill said his latest album “is about all of our legacies. This music is really from Mother Africa.”

(Photo: John Abbott)

The cover of Arturo O’Farrill’s new trio album, Legacies (Blue Note), shows a 12-year-old O’Farrill sitting on his father’s knee. His legendary father, bandleader Chico O’Farrill (1921–2001), liked to spend hours listening to music of all sorts, often with his son by his side. This is how the younger O’Farrill absorbed his cultural inheritance — one vinyl spin at a time.

“This record is very much about the legacy of music that my father has given to me and that I’ve given to my offspring [trumpter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Zack O’Farrill],” said Arturo in a remote chat with DownBeat from his studio in Los Angeles. “But it is about all of our legacies. This music is really from Mother Africa.”

Born in Mexico and raised in the U.S., Arturo’s musical line taps deeply into the African heritage of the Americas: His Havana-born father played a key role in the creation of Afro-Cuban jazz, not just as one of its earliest composers, but as one of its most prolific collaborators. Through Chico’s arrangements for high-profile jazz innovators like Machito, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the elder O’Farrill asserted an enduring influence on the genre.

In the mid-1990s, Arturo began his own ascent as a Latin jazz master with the formation of the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, serving as the group’s pianist and music director. When his father passed in 2001, Arturo took over as bandleader, later renaming the organization The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. As the creative force behind this ensemble, Arturo would go on to win multiple Grammys in various Latin jazz categories over the ensuing years.

He had formative musical experiences with other bandleaders as well, most notably Carla Bley. In 1979, she tapped the teenaged pianist to join the Carla Bley Band — a tour de force of musical imagination — where he stayed until the mid-1980s.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am to have had my first experience in music be under Carla Bley,” Arturo said. “The genius of that American artist is beyond compare.”

In a move that seems equal parts salutory and reflexive, Arturo added compositions by these important mentors to the repertoire of the new album: his father’s “Pure Emotion,” its endearing melody catalyzing an unconstrained exposition for solo piano under Arturo’s touch, and Bley’s “Utviklingssang,” a somber introspection rendered almost cheery by the trio’s focused energy.

“Each piece [on the album] was a piece that I’ve been playing my whole life,” he said. “What people don’t understand is, I’m known as the Afro-Latin jazz big band person, but every single day, the Steinway beckons me. I go over to the Steinway, I do my scales, my double thirds, my arpeggios. And then I’ll improvise on the standards that I’ve been playing my whole life. For me, this is where I come from.”

Even so, the way Arturo hears a standard is not the way that anyone else does. He admits that, like Bley and his father, he never understood “how to stay in one lane.” The delightful result of this waywardness is an inordinate amount of freedom in the trio’s understanding of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” for instance, and a tilt toward omnidirectional piano improvisation on Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” These two opening tracks establish the ear’s expectation for the rest of the album.

“[Musicians like] Chico Farrell, Duke Ellington, Mozart, Prince, Carla Bley, Randy Weston — the thing they teach us is that there are only three really important ingredients for a musician,” he explains. “They are curiosity, to do the things that you want to do, not bound by awards or recognition. And integrity, to have the heart to follow through, no matter what. And finally, accuracy. The skill set with which you work. Obviously, you’re not born being able to play the piano. That’s why I practice every day.”

Standards-based practice is just a starting point, however, and Arturo handily sidesteps the pitfalls of the traditionalist’s stance — namely, imitation, stagnation, derivative thinking.

“The seeds of modernism are there. Some of the stuff on this record is really forward-looking,” he said. “There’s a lot of Cecil Taylor in me, a lot of Herbie Nichols. These are modernists. So I’m interpreting ‘Darn That Dream’ with just a slight edge, if you will.”

This edge derives in no small measure from Arturo’s singular approach to improvisation. With most players, you hear the shadow of the melody when they extemporize. With O’Farrill, you hear the shadow of the orchestra.

“I tend to think orchestrationally,” he responded when queried on this observation. “Also, I tend to view harmony more as a relationship of intervals than tonal centers. A lot of the things that I do orchestrationally have their own tonal gravity. So, I don’t necessarily play changes, and I don’t write changes in my music anymore. I write groupings, clusters and tonal centers, and I let the improvisers figure their way around it.”

The remaining trio members facing this conceptual challenge on Legacies — Arturo’s son Zack, an enormously gifted drummer and percussionist, and bassist Liany Mateo, a recent member of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra — provide just the right amount of ballast for Arturo’s improvisational aeronautics. They also exemplify another aspect of Arturo’s forward-looking musical perspective: inclusivity.

“I want the orchestra to look like the world that receives its music,” he said, by way of example. “So we have yearly auditions now, and that’s a bold-faced attempt to diversify our ranks. I want way more women and people of color. And we need it to be intergenerational. I’m looking for that next generation of musicians who are going to make me look bad. And Liany is perfect.”

Arturo’s effort to integrate his bands reflects positively on his academic work at UCLA, where he serves as professor of global jazz studies and associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion. There, he finds that today’s students are free-thinking, often eschewing many of the previous century’s notions of jazz — and this development doesn’t bother him.

“Yeah, there’s a sense of continuity by studying the [jazz] canon,” he said. “But when I play Chico O’Farrill’s music, I’m not interested in replicating it. I’m interested in learning from that mind. Think of Duke Ellington, not as a a founding father, but as a progressive visionary.”

Like his musical predecessors, Arturo’s own progressive visions promise to have far-reaching impact — even beyond his teaching and band leading. Most excitingly, he reports, within the next few years the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, an educational non-profit that he started 15 years ago, will have a new 16,000-square-foot home in the heart of El Barrio in East Harlem called The Afro Latin Music and Arts Center.

“We’ll have a 300-seat theater, teaching rooms, a community space and a café in a neighborhood that so richly adorned the world with the genius of Tito Puente,” he said.

Arturo admits, with some wonderment, that this kind of social advocacy is a far cry from his initial goal as a young pianist, which was simply “to play as good as Herbie Hancock.” He thrills to this career turn.

“Jazz is an ongoing conversation between Europe, Africa, the indigenous people, the Americas, the South Asian world, the Asian world. And in this era of isolationism, hatred and fear, we need this music more than ever,” he said. “I’m working tirelessly towards that. In this corner of El Barrio, at least, there will be a sanctuary for people to gather and celebrate an ongoing conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion.” DB



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