ARTURO O’FARRILL AND THE AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA – asks “FOUR QUESTIONS” – Zoho Records
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
An avid supporter of all the arts, Arturo O’Farrill is the Professor of Global Jazz Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also on the faculty at The New School of The Manhattan School of Music, (where he received some of his formal music education). Born in Mexico, O’Farrill grew up in New York and began his professional career with the legendary Carla Bley Band. He was a mere nineteen-years-old. O’Farrill credits Carla Bley for teaching him about integrity and the importance of art. She drilled into the talented teenager that it was more important to perform and compose for the sake of art and not just for fame and money. The young pianist took that wise encouragement to heart.
As his reputation blossomed, he also worked with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Turre and Harry Belafonte. In 2007, Arturo O’Farrill founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA) as a non-profit organization dedicated to the performance, education and preservation of Afro Latin music. (http://www.afrolatinejazz.org)
They say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Arturo is the son of renowned jazz trumpeter, bandleader and arranger, Chico O’ Farrill. His father was originally from Havana, Cuba. Arturo’s mother was a Mexican vocalist. Consequently, their house was always ripe with music. In 1965, they relocated to the United States. At age six, young Arturo was less than enthusiastic about taking piano lessons. However, he came to love the instrument and was greatly influenced by Bud Powell and Chick Corea. Although he studied and played a number of genres with various bands, in the 1990s Arturo returned to his Latin roots. In 1995 he became Music Director of his famous father’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra.
When Wynton Marsalis asked Arturo to pull together and lead an Afro-Cuban Jazz Band to perform at the Lincoln Center, that’s when O’Farrill formed the Afro Latin jazz Orchestra (ALJO). The rest is history.
“Baby Jack” is the first track on the Afro-Latin, Jazz Orchestra’s current album. The Brass section blares! Arturo O’Farrill’s piano enters the picture like a referee, stepping in between the dueling horns and bringing a melody that moves like an ascending staircase. We are lifted up. When the sexy saxophone comes into the picture, (featuring David DeJesus) the mood changes to pensive and seductive. This arrangement is both enchanting and captivating. Track #2 is titled “Jazz Twins” and is dedicated to Arnold and Donald Stanley from Los Angeles; two close knit staples of the jazz community. But it’s the third tune and the title tune, “Four Questions” that combines O’Farrill and his 18-piece orchestra with the spoken word and the revolutionary spirit of Dr. Cornell West. Together, they usher in a jolt of truth that demands that we, as a concerned people, come face-to-face with the social and political horrors of this time in world history. Like many true artists, Arturo O’ Farrill seeks to incorporate honesty and political awareness into his musical conversation. He uses his full orchestra, with a choir of voices, to express these unique arrangements.
The “Four Questions” that Dr. Cornell West addresses on this album were actually posed by the great African American civil rights activist and journalist, W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Dr. West based his book, “Black Prophetic Fire” on these very important “Four Questions.”
1) What does integrity do in the face of adversity and oppression?
2) What does honesty do in the face of lies and deception?
3) What does decency do in the face of insult?
4) How does virtue meet brute force?
Amidst dramatic horns and orchestral contrary motion, a rhythmic groove is established to support the Dr. West eloquent oratory. He speaks about everybody being for sale. But where is integrity? “It’s in your struggle,” he says. “It’s in the music.”
To address the second question, he reminds us that we live in an age of criminality. Crimes rage on Wall Street, but they don’t go to jail. We have a corrupted system of incarceration.
“Are we willing to tell the truth; to unveil honesty?” he asks.
The dynamic arrangements of Arturo O’Farrill accentuate the Dr. West verbal diatribe. His music brings beauty to an ugly truth. The drums embrace cultures and blend into the presentation like the cultures within our own country. Music and art call attention to the tribe of humanity that populates Earth. This is sixteen minutes and fourteen seconds of historic realization.
Dr. West asks us: “How do you preserve the humanity of the others who are dehumanizing you? How do you preserve your spirit? Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” the learned man asserts.
Arturo O’Farrill’s music crosses cultures, blends borders and scratches against our brains like the spoken words of Dr. West. In harmony, they speak to us. Demand to be heard. This piece ends with an old, gospel spiritual song, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the horns ask us. Arturo Asks us. Dr. Cornel West asks us. The piano asks us. The orchestra whispers and weeps.
This is a project of pleasure and pain, like life itself. I will be surprised if this doesn’t join the list of Grammy Awards that Arturo O’Farrill has already won. At the 2008, 51st Grammy Award Ceremony, he won Best Latin Jazz Album for his “Song for Chico.”
In 2014, Arturo O’Farrill and the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album titled, “Final Night at Birdland.” In 2015, he released “The Offense of the Drum” and Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra won a Grammy Award for Best Latin jazz Album. In August of 2015, Arturo and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues”, which was recorded in Havana 48 hours after President Obama announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba. This album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble in 2016. Meantime, his “Afro Latin Jazz Suite” won the 2015 Best Instrumental Composition Award. Again, in 2017, he won for Best Instrumental Composition for “Three Revolutions.”
Perhaps Arturo O’Farrill best summed-up his music and his artistic direction with this quote:
“I made one rule for myself, and I really try to live it: Play music you love, with people you love, for people you love. If I can’t be that kind of musician, I’ll drive a cab.”