Here’s the latest in my ongoing, occasional “Stuff Someone Said” series—the last one was on Henry Threadgill.
Arturo O’Farrill‘s office in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, not far from his home, has barely enough room for his baby grand piano and a small desk. We found space enough and time to speak for two hours recently, the bulk of which will appear as a long piece in the May digital issue of Jazziz magazine.
O’Farrill’s new recording with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motéma Music), features guest artists from Cuba, Colombia, and Spain, reflecting an expansive aesthetic that has played out through commissioned pieces for the orchestra’s concert seasons at Manhattan’s Symphony Space. On May 10 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, O’Farrill’s orchestra will perform both the “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark 1949 composition by his late father, the composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. On the same bill, he’ll premiere an original composition grounded as much in Peruvian and Colombian styles and in the adventurous attitude of one of his earliest mentors, Carla Bley, as in his inherited legacy. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA), the nonprofit organization he founded in 2007, contnues to evolve: It received a two-year, $450,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Freedom of Expression Program.
We talked about all those developments and the vision guiding it all. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.About big-band jazz:
I don’t think people understand how important big-band music is to jazz. First, a lot of young musicians cut their teeth in these bands. Nearly everybody who is anybody who is renowned has passed through or worked with or written for a large ensemble. Second, it’s the best composing palette we have. There’s a very specific type of orchestration, which was of course very different in the hands of Thad Jones than in Chico O’Farrill’s. For me, the classic big band is an important entity to protect. That’s precisely why I created the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. The purpose of the organization has grown exponentially, but originally it was to create a support network for an 18-piece big band, which these days is pretty much an unsupportable animal given the economics. We like to say we support the unsupportable.
On the relationship between the musicians and cultures of Cuba and the U.S.:
Cuban musicians and American jazz musicians grew up in separate environments. At one point Dizzy [Gillespie] recognized himself in Chano [Pozo]. Chano recognized himself in Dizzy. And they were about to really explore that connection in greater depth when a huge debacle called the Cuban revolution came and a separation of political ideology divided us. That divide was also cultural. The fact that we have been kept apart for so long has created this unhealthy distancing. Jazz musicians think Afro Cuban musicians are so deep, and say, “Man, we can’t find the downbeat.” And Cuban musicians look at jazz musicians like idol worshippers. It’s completely unhealthy. Both sides fear and venerate each other. It’s like a fucked-up marriage.
And the traditions are not really that different. It’s just a different placement of that kernel of swing. The kernel of swing is the tiniest element of displacement of rhythm. Taken on a pulse-by-pulse basis, it becomes swing as you’d express from a ride cymbal in jazz. Extended over larger phrases it becomes, say, Cuban timba. But at the end of the day, it’s African. And what I hear when I hear real African music from, say, Ivory Coast or West Africa, is an incredibly different flow that we in the United States don’t quite understand. It’s a different relationship with time. It has to do with a million things probably, but I think it has a lot to do with an understanding of the day-to-day rhythms of village life. If you go to Cuba, it’s unmistakably an African society. That was always true. My father understood that. Even in Batista era, there was no escaping the day-to-day rhythms of Africa. New Orleans is part of America, but it’s not, and it has a lot to do with that same idea.
On the big picture for jazz:
Jazz is pan-American. That idea is threatening to people who’d simply like you to buy their product. Jazz is not my product. Latin jazz is not my product. When you think your message is too correct or complete you lose or coopt the idea that these things belong to everyone. Also, I don’t want to have the last word. I don’t want to be the voice of authority on jazz. It’s just too big and amazing. It’s infinite. If you define yourself by what you are and what you are not, you’re an idiot. But if you define yourself by what you can become—my god—the universe opens up to you.
photo courtesy of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance