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.