Not Their Fathers' Afro Latin Jazz: Yosvany Terry & Arturo O'Farrill

Arturo O'Farrill (left, Courtesy Afro Jazz Alliance), and Yosvany Terry (photo by Victor Strannik) via Wikicommons
Arturo O'Farrill (left, Courtesy Afro Jazz Alliance) & Yosvany Terry (Victor Strannik via Wikicommons)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The most exciting storyline right now in New York City jazz and the most invigorating music  most often comes from players with Afro Latin roots. That fact, and the specifics of these musical projects, says much about a broadened landscape for what used to be called (but thankfully no longer can) “Latin jazz,”  its elemental value to whatever we call “jazz,” and to the cultural melting pot that is New York. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, my review piece discusses new CDs from alto saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry (who also plays a mean chekeré) and pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill, whose Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is my favorite large ensemble in this city. In my 900 or so words, I couldn’t possibly do justice to the fine details of each recording—the breadth of the compositions, created by composers with roots throughout this hemisphere, on O’Farrill’s “The Offense of the Drum,” for instance, or the all-star pedigrees of the players in Terry’s Ye-Dé-Gbe group on his “New Throned King” that lend wonderful cohesion to his blend of arará ritual (from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey) and modern jazz improvisation.

Terry has digested the full range of alto-sax jazz language; his horn sounds with an elegant force and forms an unusual complement to the sung chants from Pedrito Martinez, who is both a master of Afro Cuban folkloric vocal tradition and, to me, one of the world’s great voices in any idiom. He’s also a master percussionist who here functions as part of trio of masters (with Román Díaz, whose brilliance I know well, and Sandy Pérez, who I hadn’t heard before. Listening to Terry’s new CD was a revelation for me, for both the further ascent it represents in terms of his talent and for its reflection of his deepened investigation into arará, a tradition that is not so well known in the U.S. Catching the CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard was an even more stirring experience, with dancer Francisco Barroso, in traditional costumes, bringing home the fact that this music is meant for dance, and has a functional value. In Terry’s hands, modern jazz is a ritual music, and traditions like arará invite sophisticated innovation.

O’Farrill’s CD is an outgrowth of his orchestra’s concert season, which is the best if not the only place to hear newly commissioned works from Afro Latin composers for big band. Good as O’Farrill’s title composition for this CD is, there’s an even better one O’Farrill presented recently during an Apollo Theater concert called “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite”: Through trumpet fanfares and other details, O’Farrill made reference to “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark work by his father, the late Chico O’Farrill, within a piece that exploded a previous generation’s aesthetic in something beyond genres borders.
You can find my review of these two new CDs here, or simply continue reading:
June 24, 2014
Cubans with a New York Twist
This isn’t your father’s Cuban jazz
To close a May concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Arturo O’Farrill led his orchestra through “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark work by his father, the late composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. That suite, first recorded in 1950, imagined anew innate connections between American and Cuban idioms and among folkloric, jazz and classical forms.
If the rest of the Apollo Theater concert built on that legacy, it did so with a wide-ranging ambition Chico O’Farrill could scarcely have imagined. At some points a turntablist, DJ Logic, stood beside the percussionists, lending textures and rhythms by manipulating LPs. Throughout, the music was grounded as much in styles native to Peru and Colombia, and in the adventurous attitudes of musicians such as pianist and composer Carla Bley, one of Mr. O’Farrill’s earliest mentors, as in his direct inheritance. This was distinctly not his father’s Afro Latin jazz.
Elsewhere in Harlem and later in May, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry performed at Minton’s alongside his brother, bassist Yunior Terry, in a sextet led by their father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry. The Terry brothers, too, were born into heady Cuban tradition. Don Pancho is the violinist and founding director of the Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, a Cuban charanga band, and master of the chekeré, a beaded gourd used for percussion. At Minton’s, the sextet performed a mixture of traditional charanga repertoire and more forward-leaning music Yosvany composed for his working quintet.
Musicians with roots in Cuba who now live in New York—having absorbed influences and made associations that span borders and genres—bring new sonic possibilities and fresh perspectives to their heritages. In turn, they invigorate New York’s scene. Two recent CDs—”The Offense of the Drum” (Motéma), from Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, and Yosvany Terry’s “New Throned King” (5Passion)—embody such promise through distinctly different approaches.
Mr. O’Farrill, 54, was born in Mexico and grew up in Manhattan. As part of his nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance since 2007, the orchestra has developed an expansive aesthetic that plays out through commissioned pieces for concert seasons. “The world of Latin jazz has exploded,” he said recently at his Brooklyn home. “My father did what he did in his era because that was the world he knew. In my world, there’s Peru and Colombia and Ecuador and Venezuela and more—plus, of course, Cuba. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve explored these connections for all their beauty, power and range.”
Mr. O’Farrill’s CD opens with “Cuarto de Colores,” a celebration of Colombian harp composed by Edmar Castañeda, who plays that instrument with remarkable command. Among its most stirring pieces are Pablo Mayor’s “Mercado en Domingo,” based in the Colombian marching-band tradition; “Gnossienne 3 (Tientos),” for which Spanish arranger Miguel Blanco invested French composer Erik Satie’s music with the pained vocals and curled melismas of flamenco; and “The Offense of the Drum,” an ambitious O’Farrill composition incorporating Japanese taiko drums. That such range forms a coherent musical whole lends credence to his mission.
Mr. Terry, 43, is an especially dynamic presence in New York. In addition to his quintet, he recently formed Bohemian Trio, with a cellist and pianist, and composed the score for “Makandal,” an opera conceived and written by Carl Hancock Rux, scheduled for its Harlem Stage premiere in November. In performance, Mr. Terry often picks up the chekeré his father taught him to play. His new CD explores a tradition more closely related to his mother’s lineage: arará culture, drawn from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey. The group he assembles here, Ye-Dé-Gbé, includes Cuban musicians well versed in arará, such as percussionists Román Díaz, Pedrito Martinez and Sandy Pérez, and players with no prior exposure, such as drummer Justin Brown. Though layered with jazz improvisation and, in some spots, electronics, the music’s core is formed by arará chants and drumming, undisturbed. “I could have composed something simply based on that legacy,” Mr. Terry said. “But I left this material the way it was, to interact with everything else.” This music remains functional: a recent Manhattan album-release performance included a costumed dancer, Francisco Barroso.
These two new recordings pursue very different ends yet share some qualities. Each meaningfully incorporates DJ culture—on Mr. O’Farrill’s CD, through DJ Logic’s turntables; on Mr. Terry’s album, via Haitian DJ Val Jeanty, whose constructed soundscapes include recorded samples of ceremonies. Each features spoken-word poetry: During “They Came,” on Mr. O’Farrill’s CD, Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas explores Puerto Rican identity in the U.S.; on Mr. Terry’s CD, Ishmael Reed celebrates women warriors from Dahomey. On each recording, eras and borders collapse within a track or even a passage—as when Mr. O’Farrill’s piano playing moves from ragtime to Cuban montuno to something akin to free-jazz, and when Mr. Terry’s playing evokes Ornette Coleman’s extrapolated blues atop ritual-based handclaps and chants.
The cross-cultural truth behind Afro Latin jazz is not news. What sounds fresh in Mr. O’Farrill’s version is the breadth of geography it may now embrace. Arará tradition is ancient, yet Mr. Terry expresses it in novel and urgent ways. Both recordings can change anyone’s landscape.

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