COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill

COVID Conversations is a series that  looks back through my talks with musicians since we first got locked down and moves forward as long as we’re stuck where we are.

At the Passover Seder I attended last month, the Four Questions came and went without the usual fanfare. Zoom meetings can be like that. Yet that first question—Why is this night different than all other nights?—struck me with fresh, COVID-era implication.

All questions are newly timely right now.

The title track of Arturo O’Farrill’s new release, “Four Questions” are drawn from the W. E. B. Du Bois’s book, “The Souls of Black Folk”:

What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

O’Farrill was moved to consider these questions by the author, activist and theologian Dr. Cornel West, via West’s 2014 speech  to a packed house at Seattle’s Town Hall a few days before his 10/13 arrest at the “Moral Monday” Civil Disobedience Actions in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. O’Farrill met West at another protest against police brutality, and again at a symposium where they both spoke. The two got to talking—about shared commitments to social justice and swinging rhythms. O’Farrill ended up composing a piece, which had its premiere performance at The Apollo Theater in 2016, for which his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was joined by Dr. Cornel West as a guest soloist, conductor, and percussionist. As recorded, “Four Questions,” the centerpiece of an album devoted exclusively to O’Farrill’s compositions,  is dense and intense, by turns angry and celebratory; it’s about ancestry, shared inheritances and a common sense of purpose.

O’Farrill typically splits his time between New York City, where he leads the nonprofit organization he founded, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and Los Angeles, where directs a program in Global Jazz Studies for UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Now, he’s holed up in L.A. for the foreseeable future. We talked about his collaboration with West, and about what this extended moment means. Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill”

Radicalized, Part One: Resist Trump—Inaugurate Something Better With Me, Arturo O'Farrill & Many Great Musicians at Symphony Space on Jan. 19!

photo by David Garten
photo by David Garten

When pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill (pictured above) asked me to help mount an event at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Jan. 19—the night before the presidential inauguration—to express resistance to all that the coming Trump administration represents, and to help build community along those lines I said yes first and asked questions later.
Musicians Against Fascism“—the banner here is “No, We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America!”—will feature a dazzling lineup of artists, along with O’Farrill: I’m told the list thus far includes: Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp, Jen Shyu, Claudia Acuña, Fabian Almazan, Lakecia Benjamin, Stephan Crump, Peter Evans, Mary Halvorson, Amirtha Kidambi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Roy Nathanson and the jazz passengers, Arturo O’Farrill,  Somi, The Westerlies. More surprises to come, I’m sure.
I’ll be up there, helping direct traffic as well as trying to inspire positive action and incite resistance against the many ways in which a Trump presidency threatens all that I write about and believe in—honesty, decency, humanity, responsibility, democracy, and, yes, artistry of the type that will be on display.
I will not watch what goes on in Washington, DC on Jan. 20, when Donald Trump lays his hand (which may or may no be unnaturally small) on a Bible. Much that is unnatural and unholy should flow from that moment.
Jan. 19 is OUR inauguration. Each of us can determine what we will individually inaugurate—what we will swear to uphold and protect, and how.
Let’s gather to begin building community and a common sense of resistance and commitment.
And if that F-word scares you, it should. This is a benefit for, and, well, I thought twice about that word, too. But what’s promised by this new administration—what’s already in process befits the term. And it should scare you.
Spread the word. Show up.
Tickets: $30.00 (For those who cannot afford a ticket, 15 minutes prior to the concert, any unsold tickets will be made available on a pay-what-you-can basis.)

Obama In Cuba

New York Times front-page photo credited to Stephen Crowley/NYTimes

It’s hard to believe that President Obama touched down in Havana yesterday—the first sitting president to set foot in Cuba since 1928, when Calvin Coolidge sailed into Havana aboard the U.S.S. Texas, parking the World War I-era battleship at the exact spot where the U.S.S. Maine was sunk during the Spanish-American war 30 years before.
Based on Stephen Crowley’s photo on the front page of the New York Times, it was raining.
And the context for Obama’s historic three-day trip, which extends an effort, begun in late 2014, to write a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations, is far from perfectly sunny: The Times headline next to that photo reads “As Obama Arrives, Cuba Tightens Its Grip on Dissent,” and describes how, hours before Air Force One landed at José Martí International Airport, dozens of arrests were made at the weekly march of Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group. (Elizardo Sanchez, who runs the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, is quoted as stating that the arrests took place “in the moment that Obama was flying in the air to Cuba.”
The process of normalizing relations won’t be easy and is full of contradictions. Yet it’s not disingenuous, may in fact be ingenious, and is simply necessary. Only recalcitrant Republicans can derail it at this point.
That photo above, with Obama holding his umbrella high in his right hand, waving his left, and stepping lightly, others falling in behind, reminded me (and I’m sure anyone who spends time in New Orleans) of a second-line parade.
And it should. Let’s cut the body politic, in the form of a cruel and now pointless embargo, loose. Let’s celebrate the soul that has always connected people to other people across the mere 90 miles that separate Cuba from the U.S.
A truly normalized relationship between the U.S. and Cuba holds promise to relieve great suffering in Cuba and lift many lives. It also holds the potential for great profit for U.S. companies. It can help reshape the political landscape of our hemisphere.
Yet for me, the most tantalizing aspects of the whole thing are cultural: Connecting again an essential link, musically and otherwise, that could never be fully broken but was unnaturally estranged. Continue reading “Obama In Cuba”

"Oye Cuba! A Journey Home," Documents Arturo O'Farrill's Personal Search and His Grand Vision Through Film

photo by Damaso Reyes

I’ll never forget the trip I took to Havana in 2010 with Arturo O’Farrill and his family, chronicled in a Village Voice cover story. At the start, I was focused on a very personal quest. As I wrote:

The dream was simple, really. Through the support of his Alliance organization, Arturo wanted to bring the orchestra he leads in his father’s name back to Cuba, which Chico left for good in 1959. He had toyed with the idea for some time, but it became a firm goal, a mission, in 2002, after his own first visit to Cuba. “I’m going to do this,” he’d told me toward the end of that trip. “And even though Chico never made it back to the island physically, his music will be played there. I feel like he’ll be there with us. The people will embrace his music. And somehow, to some degree, all will seem right with the universe to me for just a split-second.”

Yet by the end of trip O’Farrill’s focus, and mine, grew grander:

“I’ve been thinking long and hard about this,” Arturo said. “The reason I went was not to canonize my father. I did want to hear his music in Cuba and to see my mother there. But there’s another thing: I want jazz to stop dying this awful death, this strangulation. I think the future of this music has to do with the acceptance of a larger picture of it, which has always been the deeper truth anyway.”

Fresh off his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s second Grammy win, O’Farrill prepares for a landmark cross-cultural concert at Manhattan’s Symphony Space May 1 and 2, and readies his next CD, recorded in Cuba last year. Both are titled “The Conversation Continued,” which, O’Farrill told me, was inspired by the ending of my Voice piece:

“That final Sunday night in Havana, after the premiere of his new piece, the Mella’s massive brown curtain drew slowly shut, until finally only Arturo was visible. He was speechless. He simply waved. The curtain closed. The door had been thrown open, the larger conversation to come.”

Little did we know how the context for all this would change.
During that 2010 Cuba trip, director and producer Diane Sylvester had her cameras focused in the same direction as my pen. Like me, she’s stayed on O’Farrill’s story. Her remarkable film, Oye Cuba! A Journey Home,” six years in the making, is nearing completion. It traces both an intimate personal tale and a transformation of culture, attitude and politics that has far-reaching implications—that continuing conversation.
I can’t wait to see the scenes she’ll screen at a celebration and fundraiser on March 23rd at Drom, 85 Avenue A, in Manhattan’s East Village. O’Farrill will also make play a rare solo-piano set at the event.
VIP Benefit Reception at 8pm & Concert 9pm | $150
Purchase VIP Reception Tickets here.
General Admission Concert & Screening 9pm | $50/ $25-Student & Senior
Purchase General Admission Tickets here.
“I was first moved by Arturo’s story and that of his father,” Sylvester told me, “and what seemed like such a tragic loss on their part in terms of their ability to connect with their own history. What Arturo ended up championing and creating was an incredible movement; he was among the leaders of artists who pushed to move history and policy.”
In a way, the arc of Sylvester’s project has mirrored O’Farrill’s work of late. Continue reading “"Oye Cuba! A Journey Home," Documents Arturo O'Farrill's Personal Search and His Grand Vision Through Film”

Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Orchestra Wins Grammy With Gorgeous Collage

Rolling Stone’s website gives the only complete list of Grammy Award winners I can find. Once there, you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to get to the listing for Best Latin Jazz Album, won this year by Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra‘s The Offense of the Drum (Motéma).
A few years back, you could have scrolled all you wanted without finding that listing at all. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) had eliminated the category from the annual awards. I wrote a piece in the Village Voice on that controversy, in which NARAS president Neil Portnow complained that, with so many awards categories, the Grammys had “become a collage.” (NARAS reinstated that award, after forceful outcry from several musicians, including O’Farrill and drummer Bobby Sanabria.)
As I wrote in about O’Farrill’s album in a  recent Wall Street Journal piece:

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.

Maybe collages aren’t such a bad thing.
Photo courtesy of Afro Latin Jazz Alliance

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:
Continue reading “Not Their Fathers' Afro Latin Jazz: Yosvany Terry & Arturo O'Farrill”

Stuff Arturo O'Farrill Said

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. Continue reading “Stuff Arturo O'Farrill Said”