By Suzanne Lorge | Published August 2020
With Four Questions, Arturo O’Farrill proves prescient. On his first album of all self-composed pieces, the Grammy-winning pianist shoulders what he calls his “sacred obligation” to counter injustice. The exhilarating Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, O’Farrill’s big-band vehicle, delivers both the pith and the punch of his message.
“Baby Jack” introduces O’Farrill’s talent for corralling unleashed syncopation and quixotic harmonies into sweeping orchestral statements; he uses a groundswell of horns to connote the power of exultancy (“Jazz Twins”) and an aggressive, piano-led pulse to signal unrelenting determination (“Clump, Unclump”). And his grand chorale work, “A Still, Small Voice,” pairs simple vocal lines with intricate, rhythmical ensemble sections. That’s the pith. The punch comes in the form of spoken-word performances by Dr. Cornel West, whose 2014 speech about facing down racial oppression provided the album’s theme. On the title track, against O’Farrill’s percussive score, West invokes ideas that W.E.B. DuBois put forth in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folks. “How does virtue meet brute force?” he asks. “What does courage do in the face of violence?”
Powerful as these musical and rhetorical statements are, it would be a lesser album if O’Farrill and West left it there. They didn’t. As the trumpets render a cathartic, dirge-paced outro on the title track, West issues a final, heart-rending blow: “Despair never has the last word. The caravan of love goes on.”
Four Questions: Baby Jack; Jazz Twins; Four Questions; Clump, Unclump; Elijah–1 Kings 19:13; Amidst The Fire And Whirlwind; Cacophonous; A Still, Small Voice. (62:15)
Personnel: Arturo O’Farrill, Alison Deane, piano; Bobby Porcelli, Ivan Renta, Jeremy Powell, Larry Bustamante, David DeJesus, Peter Brainin, Jason Marshall, saxophone; Bryan Davis, Seneca Black, Adam O’Farrill, John Bailey, David Smith, Jim Seeley, Jonathan Powell, trumpet; Rafi Malkiel, Tokunori Kajiwara, Earl McIntyre, Frank Cohen, trombone, tuba; Gregg August, Ricardo Rodriguez, bass; Tony Rosa, Carly Maldonado, Roland Guerrero, Joe Gonzalez, percussion; Vince Cherico, drums; Dr. Cornel West, Aubrey Johnson, Edda Fransdottir, vocals; Sharon Moe, French horn; DJ Logic, turntables.