Larry Blumenfeld: Dreaming Big

May 6th 2008 12:05 pm

Copyright © 2008 Larry Blumenfeld

By Larry Blumenfeld

For years, Arturo O’Farrill says, his wife would ask as he left for work, “Is this a ‘Gon-ki gon-ki gon-ki’ gig? ” Meant as an inside joke — they’re both musicians — the question couched a simple truth: Much of what passes for Latin jazz is caricature, exemplified by a single watered-down rhythmic phrase to approximate a vast sea of musical culture.

“A lot of times, frankly, the answer used to be ‘yes,'” said the47-year-old Mr. O’Farrill recently, sitting on a sofa near his piano in his Park Slope, Brooklyn, home. If those days are long gone, it’s the result of the circuitous path Mr. O’Farrill has followed toward his rightful inheritance, and to the particular sense of mission he feels now more strongly than ever.

When Mr. O’Farrill brought his 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra to Manhattan’s Symphony Space for three nights in March, he led it through an expansive set of pieces whose composers hail from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru and Argentina, among other points. This was anything but a narrow conception; it was a statement of purpose for a five-year-old band that is, in some ways, starting anew.

Those March concerts closed the orchestra’s first season at its new home, just seven blocks north of the Upper West Side apartment in which Mr. O’Farrill, the son of a legendary Cuban composer and bandleader, Chico O’Farrill, grew up, and a short subway ride uptown from Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was housed for its first five years. If the tenure at Lincoln Center established the need for and contours of a canon of seminal Afro Latin jazz pieces, this last program hinted that the orchestra’s future is in large part devoted to stretching that repertoire and its implications.

“Latin jazz is a misnomer,” Mr. O’Farrill said. “It doesn’t exist. It’s part of the same tree as jazz. Jazz and Latin are intertwined in ways that nobody has yet to even understand. In the music drawn from Latin roots we can find keys to both jazz’s past and its future.”

Jazz itself won recognition and funding from American mainstream cultural institutions only within the past two decades. But as new jazz programs at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian and elsewhere began to pop up, the lineage and influence of Latin jazz often drew only passing mention. Most jazz musicians, listeners and critics in the U.S. recognize basic signposts to the intersections of Latin music and American jazz: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s work with the Cuban bandleader Frank “Machito” Grillo and with percussionist Chano Pozo in the 1940s; Louis Armstrong’s 1930 recording of the Cuban song “El Manisero”; Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s even earlier assertion that jazz had to have a “Spanish tinge” to be authentic. Still, Latin culture has widely been regarded as an exotic “other,” despite its elemental value to so much American music.

If the U.S. was not quick to accept Latin jazz as its own, neither was a young Arturo O’Farrill. “When I first began to play music, I rejected my father and my inherited culture,” he says. “I was into John Coltrane’s music. I was hanging around Manhattan’s downtown loft scene, as far from my father’s scene as possible. I didn’t want to play no clavé,” he said of the elemental five-beat pattern of Afro-Cuban music. Mr. O’Farrill frequented the musicians’ lofts of Manhattan’s East Village back then. His first significant professional job was in the big band led by avant-garde composer Carla Bley. “But a magical thing happened when my father got elderly and he needed help. I got past all the resistance and the fear, and I heard the music as if it was new to me.”

Chico O’Farrill died in 2001 at age 79. Toward the end of his life, with his son’s help, his music was played at Lincoln Center, his arrangements published and distributed. But others spurred the younger Mr. O’Farrill’s embrace of his roots. Andy Gonzalez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent and a standard-bearing bassist, is the pulse and the anchor for an astounding number of Latin recordings during the past 25 years, and a close friend and colleague to Mr. O’Farrill. He pushed Mr. O’Farrill to do some remedial work.

“I remember Andy telling me that it was OK to play clavé, that it was part of me,” said Mr. O’Farrill. “And he urged me to check out the long line of great Cuban pianists who have established a great tradition, my father among them. I realized that the music we call ‘Latin’ is unbelievably important, unbelievably beautiful, and unbelievably hard to play — and as worthy of attention as any genre. In fact, in some ways it’s more so because it is a music that harkens closer to Africa than anything else in the current jazz pantheon. And people who do it well should be commended for being truly multilingual in their approach to music.”

Initially, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra fulfilled a lofty corrective ambition in terms of Lincoln Center’s mission, and it grew out of a specific practical need. Mr. O’Farrill recalls being impressed by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s championing of jazz repertory at Lincoln Center. In the mid-1990s, he approached Mr. Marsalis with the idea of creating a repertory group specifically for Latin jazz.

“There was a benefit performance pairing Wynton’s orchestra with Tito Puente’s,” he says. “Wynton had me lead a rehearsal of the Latin numbers. I wanted them to play a Cuban phrase, but they just could not articulate it authentically. They would ‘jazz’ it up. They could not Afro-Cubanize it. Wynton had this faraway look in his eye. I think that’s when he realized that it takes a specialized group of musicians. It’s a different approach — artistically, mentally and emotionally. It’s a different approach in terms of your embouchure and your tonguing.” Not long after, according to Mr. O’Farrill, Mr. Marsalis told him: “I’m going to do your idea, put a Latin group together. And I want you to lead it.”

Much like the organization’s flagship orchestra led by Mr. Marsalis, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra led by Mr. O’Farrill was a working band meant to reinforce and extend historical repertory: Where Mr. Marsalis championed the jazz of Ellington and Armstrong, Mr. O’Farrill showcased the classic mambo of Machito and Puente, as well as more ambitious orchestral suites written by his father.

But after five years, the orchestra and Lincoln Center have parted ways. Mr. O’Farrill will always feel a sense of pride and appreciation toward Mr. Marsalis and Lincoln Center, he said, but ultimately he sought better promotion and greater freedom. Mr. O’Farrill’s orchestra was paid per performance, rather than on salary, and he wanted to tour more often than he felt he could under the terms of his agreement with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Perhaps most of all, he wanted a stronger focus on education. “Ultimately, as in the larger American culture, the Latin group became nothing more than a stepchild,” he said.

So Mr. O’Farrill established his own nonprofit organization, The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, to govern the orchestra’s activities and to map out a more broadly conceived future. Last year, he met Symphony Space’s artistic director, Isaiah Sheffer, when both were being honored by their alma mater, Brooklyn College. Mr. Sheffer invited the orchestra into its new home. The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra rents Symphony Space for its concerts, at a favorable rate. This past fall, under the direction of Erica von Kleist, an alto saxophonist in the orchestra, the alliance began an ambitious education program in association with the Brooklyn Bridge Academy, an alternative public high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.; at a recent Symphony Space concert, members of this inaugural class augmented the orchestra’s rhythm section for one brief tune.

Mr. O’Farrill wishes to educate on another level as well. “The word ‘jazz’ is simply that — a word,” he wrote in the liner notes to Song for Chico (Zoho Records), the orchestra’s powerful new CD. “But the cultural tide that resulted from European harmony, instrumentation, and from colliding with the rich African musical traditions, call and response, polyrhythms, and vocal-inflected performance took place wherever African slaves and their white captors interacted.”

In conversation in Brooklyn, Mr. O’Farrill extended the thought: “Wherever that experiment took place, there is jazz. And to deny it is to limit yourself to an extraordinarily small view of what jazz could be. But as a statement on the cultural transformation that took place in the New World, it’s bigger than any one of us can imagine.”

The season-closing concert expressed that sentiment through new works by worthy if somewhat unheralded composers. Guillermo Klein’s “El Minotauro” further developed the tango-based inventiveness of his 11-piece band, Los Gauchos. Michael Webster’s “Bomba” was named for the Puerto Rican folkloric rhythm at its core. Paul Shapiro’s “One World” mined a longstanding bond between American Jewish and Afro-Latin cultures. Fernando Otero’s “Milongo 10,” a highlight of the evening, drew the orchestra gracefully into avant-garde abstraction. And Mr. O’Farrill’s “Tabla Rasa” reached furthest of all, employing the jazz-savvy tabla drum player Badal Roy to marry classical Indian rhythmic patterns with mambo beats. Though not seamless, the union made a compelling and surprisingly swinging musical case.

With his orchestra and his new organization, Mr. O’Farrill extends a broad legacy by dreaming big.

Larry Blumenfeld is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, where this piece originally appeared.

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