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A Blissful Return For Arturo O’Farrill’s Paradigm-Shifting Afro-:Latin Jazz at Birdland

The live music meme in New York this summer is bliss. At his relentlessly entertaining show Sunday night at Birdland with his Afro-Latin Jazz Octet, pianist Arturo O’Farrill spoke to the “infinite loop” between musicians and audience, and how crucial that dynamic is for a performer The club wasn’t quite sold out, probably due to the impending storm outside, but you should have heard the thunderous standing ovation at the end of the show. That infinite loop resonated just as powerfully on both ends.

It helps that O’Farrill is a personable guy and loves to engage the crowd, but in a subtly erudite way. Since the 90s, he’s pushed the envelope about as far as anyone can go with what could loosely be called latin jazz, and he dares the listener to think along with him. And the band seemed as amped as he was to interact with everybody who’d come out.

Much as O’Farrill’s music is colorful and picturesque, there’s always a balance between unbridled passion and a zen-like discipline: nobody in this group overplays. At just about any concert, it’s almost inevitable that somebody gets carried away. Not this crew.

They opened with a broodingly Ellingtonian cha-cha and closed with a more exuberant salsa-jazz tune. Right off the bat, O’Farrill was busting loose: he gets all kinds of props as a composer, but we forget what a brilliant pianist he is. Lickety-split spiral staircase elegance, meticulously articulated yet spine-tingling cascades, moonlight sonatas that flashed by in seconds flat, DAMN. He didn’t confine all that to his opening solo, either.

Trumpeter Jim Seeley and trombonist Mariel Bildstein chose their spots, throughout a lot of deceptively sophisticated counterpoint. Whether everybody in the band is consciously aware of it or not, they’re all ultimately part of the rhythm section.

Bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez ranged from undulating grooves, to hazy uneasy, to a ridiculously comedic exchange with the bandleader late in the set. Drummer Vince Cherico is the secret timbalero in this project, particularly with his hypnotic rimshots, woodblock and bell. Conguero Keisel Jimenez had fun taking a turn on the mic for a singalong, clapalong take of the old salsa classic Manteca. His fellow percussionist Carlos Maldonado fueled several upward trajectories with his boomy cajon while tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta ranged from incisive to balmy to taking a carefree turn on flute.

And the compositions were as wide-ranging as anyone could hope for. There was the shapeshifting, chuffing La Llorona, from one of many of O’Farrill’s ballet suites, scheduled for release on album this winter (if there isn’t lockdowner interference). He drew some laughs when he introduced a restless, lustrous jazz waltz arrangement of the old Scottish air She Moves Through the Fair as a shout-out to his heritage (check the last name for validation).

He explained the matter-of-factly crescendoing Compa’Doug as a portrait of two guys out at night raising hell, although the group took their time with the song’s careful, saturnine development before a rather sober evening rolled into the wee hours. El Sur, a Gabriel Alegria tune, wound out expansively from a Peruvian festejo beat to a hypnotically circular, almost qawwali-ish 6/8 groove with punchy incisions from the horns. And O’Farrill warned that his tune Tanguanco – a mashup of tango and a slinky Cuban rhythm – was dangerously sexy, the percussion section anchoring it with a turbulent undercurrent.

O’Farrill and the octet continue their renewed weekly residency at Birdland every Sunday night at 7 PM; cover s $20.

One of the World’s Mightiest Latin Jazz Orchestras Gets Back to Business at Birdland

When a bunch of oligarchs and their puppets in politics tried to take over the world in 2020, musicians were left out in the cold. In the liner notes to his new album Virtual Birdland, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, longtime leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes care to mention how people who play music for a living are no less essential than any other workers. Empowered by that knowledge, he kept the band going through a long series of webcasts, possibly the most labor-intensive of all the innumerable online collaborations of the past sixteen months or so. The great news is that the big band’s home base, Birdland, is open again, and the group have resumed the Sunday night residency they were banished from in March of last year. Showtime these days is 7 PM. If you feel like celebrating, it couldn’t hurt to reserve a spot now since these shows are very likely to sell out. Cover is $20; your best deal is a seat at the bar.

Considering that individual parts on the record – streaming at Spotify – were recorded remotely in innumerable different sonic environments, the fact that it sounds as contiguous as it does reflects the herculean work of the engineers involved.

Big trombone fanfares interweave with lushly swirling reeds over a bubbling Punjabi-inflected groove in the cuisine-inspired opening number, Gulab Jamon. O’Farrill takes a cascading, brightly neoromantic solo with Bam Bam Rodriguez’s bass growling minimalistically behind him while the rhythm straightens into an emphatic clave. Tenor saxophonist Jasper Dutz summons a return to a web of triumphant counterpoint and a devious false ending.

Guest Malika Zarra sings her composition Pouvoir, a slinky, brassy Moroccan-flavored tune with solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and conguero Keisel Jimenez. This band have always slayed with Arabic and Jewish themes, underscored by their version of trombonist Rafi Malkiel’s brooding Desert, its uneasily undulating chromatics giving way to a serpentine solo by the composer and then a muted, soulful one from lead trumpeter Seneca Black.

With its nocturnal, Dizzy Gillespie-style suspense and bluster, Larry Willis’ Nightfall makes a great segue, trumpeter Rachel Therrien and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta cutting loose hauntingly between the orchestra’s chromatic gusts. The bandleader spirals elegantly; Jimenez goes deep down the well as the storm hovers.

Guest guitarist Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi sings his methodical, bittersweet ballad Ana Mashoof, adding a starry solo in tandem with O’Farrill before Alejandro Aviles spins in on soprano sax. Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera soars and weaves through a tightly turbulent take of his Samba For Carmen, echoed by O’Farrill’s trumpeter son Adam.

Alafia, by Letieres Leite – the Brazilian Arturo O’Farrill – gets a jubilant, percussion-fueled workout, part elegantly orchestral candomble theme, part feral frevo brass-band romp with a tantalizingly brief, smoky Larry Bustamante baritone sax solo.

O’Farrill first performed Rafael Solano’s En La Oscuridad with his big band legend father Chico O’Farrill alongside the great tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera, so playing this suave, balmy ballad again with Renta, a Rivera protege, brings the song full circle.

They close the album with a couple of salutes to transgression, something the world is rising to embrace like never before. The epic take of Papo Vazquez’s relentlessly anthemic Cimarron first features calm triumph from trombonist Abdulrahman Amer, Aviles turning up the heat on alto, then percussionist Carly Maldonado fueling a charge out. The final number is a towering, cinematic take of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos: Renta, Malkiel, Maldonado, Jimenez and drummer Vince Cherico all get to cut loose. How beautiful it is that we can hear musicians of this caliber take material like this to the next level onstage again.

And if you’re around the East Village on the 29th, O’Farrill is leading a much smaller group at St. Marks Park at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. at half past noon.

Fiercely Relevant, Epic Grandeur From Pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Mighty Big Band

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill has made a career out of writing witheringly insightful, relevant, politically fearlesss jazz. His brilliantly symphonic 2014 album The Offense of the Drum, with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra addressed issues spanning from the blight of gentrification, to the arrest quotas the New York City police were using at the time to target innocent people of color, to the the slavers in the British colonies who outlawed music in an attempt to keep kidnapped Africans in submission. At a moment where band performances are illegal in New York, there’s never been a more appropriate time for a new record from this mighty crew. Their latest one, Four Questions – streaming at Spotify – Is O’Farrill’s most musically ambitious and classically-oriented album in a career full of taking chances.

The centerpiece is the title suite, featuring firebrand theorist, author and hip-hop artist Cornel West. The stairstepping brass intro is a lot closer to John Zorn than, say, Machito; the bluster and slink afterward alludes to the Middle East, among many shifting idioms, with triumphant call-and-response riffage throughout the ensemble. This isn’t just a backing track for West’s characteristically polymath broadside, which draws from W.E.B. DuBois’ thoughts on building community to combat repression from all sides. In sixteen minutes plus, West makes the connection between DuBois’ vision of a society based on compassion and Jane Austen’s concept of “constancy,” rails against Wall Street scammers who go unpunished and sends fervent shouts out to a long legacy of American artists of color whose work and philosophy in the face of murderous tyranny have never been more relevant than they are now. “Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” he reminds. Along the way, O’Farrill brings the music down to a streetcorner descarga, throws in a little jaunty ragtime, a rustic oldtime gospel trumpet interlude, and references from James P. Johnson to Geri Allen.

The album’s second suite is A Still, Small Voice, O’Farrill’s reflection on the 2008 financial collapse engineered by the Bush regime and Goldman Sachs to take the profits private and the losses public (and potentially cripple the incoming Obama administration). A forlorn trumpet solo opens the first movement, Elijah – 1 Kings 19:13. A choir of disembodied voices conducted by Jana Ballard coalesces, punctuated by orchestral swells, portentous percussion and a cantering qawaali-flavored rhythm.

Uneasy close harmonies from the choir fuel the fleeting second movement, Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind. The third, aptly titled Cacophonous has a rising, terrorized counterpoint anchored by the bandleader’s eerie boogie-woogie lefthand, interrupted by a suspiciously blithe soprano sax solo. The orchestra and choir work ethereal chromatic descents over a tense pulse in the concluding title movement, eventually ceding to a somberly catchy sway and a calm, gospel-infused outro. O’Farrill always likes to leave a window for hope to get in.

Not everything here is this heavy. The opening track, Baby Jack, is essentially a soprano sax concerto. It’s a playful, telling portrait of a very mercurial infant, complete with peevish trombones, moments of wonderous calm contrasting with unexpected, lush sagacity: this is one precocious child!

Jazz Twins has a sweeping, Darcy James Argue-ish bittersweetness and waves of counterpoint. O’Farrill takes a rippling solo, followed by gritty, clustering tenor sax and soaring trumpet over more of that Punjabi-inflected rhythm. And Clump, Unclump, a circling study in divergence, convergence and triumph over an evil system, manages to be both the album’s most avant garde and yet most traditionally postbop number.

Iconic New York Jazz Cats Take Lots of Chances; One of Them Risks a Bed-Stuy Gig

Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.

Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.

The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.

As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.

From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.

The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?