A Few Minutes With… Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O'Farrill (photo by John Abbott)

Arturo O'Farrill (photo by John Abbott)

Interview by J Hunter

See below for info on how you can win a pair of free tix to Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC this weekend…

They say genius skips a generation. They say a lot of things, though, and most of them are wrong. They’re sure wrong in the case of Arturo O’Farrill. His father was Chico O’Farrill, somebody who truly deserves the term “late, great” in front of his name: Founder of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, composer of jazz that’s both Latin and otherwise (as well as some beautiful music outside the genre), and arranger for icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer and Gato Barbieri.

That’s a pretty hearty resume to live up to, but Arturo O’Farrill has definitely made the grade. Aside from taking over leadership of his father’s orchestra (which has been in residence at Birdland since the 1990s), O’Farrill’s own Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has been putting serious spice into Jazz @ Lincoln Center since 2002; their first disc “Una Noche Inolvidable” was nominated for a Grammy in 2006, and ALJO was back at the Grammys two years later, this time to pick up a statue for “Song for Chico.”

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O’Farrill isn’t solely defined by ALJO, though. A monster pianist, O’Farrill’s made an impressive set of solo performances, mixing configurations and idioms with ease as he’s created music that reaches the heart, the soul, and the moo; he’s literally gone the solo route with his latest effort “The Noguchi Sessions.” Recently O’Farrill produced the Adam Kronelow Trio’s debut disc “Youngblood,” which I reviewed in the last episode of “Jazz 2K.”

This weekend O’Farrill brings ALJO to Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, and he was good enough to speak with me about that, and a few other things under the sun (and, as you might expect, I’m definitely down with his comments about “dead music”):

Q: One of the favorite sub-memes about jazz is that the “big band” is a thing of the past. And yet, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is one of several NYC-based large-ensemble groups that aren’t just surviving – they’re thriving! Do you think that comes down to the music these bands generate, to the quality of the players in the bands, or a little of both?

A: A little of both, but definitely, replication of dead music is not where it’s at. Finding new directions is the only game. We are a real big band, not a pickup band for this gig or that recording. In some form or another, we’ve made a commitment to each other and to this music. Surely, that’s one of the reasons we survive.

Q: Big units have been a big thing in your life: Besides ALJO, you worked for Carla Bley and Dizzy Gillespie, who’ve both made their mark on the genre, and of course there’s your work with your father’s group. What are your thoughts on where “big band” was, and where it is now?

A: At the time when these heroes were first making their mark, they were fully committed to being creative. It’s more important to make new music than to play the “Jazz Is Dead” game that so many other jazz bands do. I’m convinced the future is in accepting the true roots of jazz, which are Pan-American and African, and engaging instrumentation, orchestration and all the flavors of these influences.

Q: Your new disc “The Noguchi Sessions” goes the other way from ALJO – it’s a solo date. What inspired you take this direction for your latest project?

A: I’ve always been an instrumentalist, and my commitment to the big band genre is one of artistic responsibility. But I’m at the point in my life when I want to have fun, too. I have a unique voice as a pianist, and a lot of people don’t know that.

Q: One disc of yours that really intrigued me was 2010’s “The Auction Project,” which had some amazing Celtic music throughout the date. How did that recording come about, and how did your longtime fans react to the Celtic elements?

A: I don’t think that it is so contrary to what I’ve done that any of my listeners would find exception to the project; I am, after all, partly Irish. I love to stretch out. The new face of jazz, the one that will keep it alive, is not commercial or institutional. It is created by people who define themselves by possibilities, not by what jazz isn’t.

Q: You’ve been recording with Zoho Records, who I think is the pre-eminent label for Latin jazz. What’s it been like working with them?

A: Zoho provides an invaluable service. Thank God for the decline and death of the big labels. Zoho allows artists like me – who can’t be pegged into narrow classifications like “Latin jazz” – to do their own crazy thing.

Q: Having stated that Latin is Zoho’s best thing, then they put out “Youngblood” by the Adam Kronelow Trio, who plays this devastating trad-cum-avant jazz that’s got more in common with the Bad Plus than anything else. How did they come to the label?

A: Zoho is run by a very smart and open individual who cares about great music. He doesn’t care how much it sells; he recoups his investment, but is really in it for the music. What a refreshing change. I brought Adam to Zoho, and immediately upon hearing the record, Zoho couldn’t wait to put it out.

Q: You produced “Youngblood,” which is one of my favorites of 2012. What was it like working with Adam, both as a producer and a fellow piano player? (In my review, I said it made sense that he covers “Brilliant Corners” because there’s a ton of Monk in his approach.)

A: I like Adam’s playing, and it was easy to work with him. There are things that are similar about our playing, and also things that are very different. Pianists appreciate other pianists because we know how difficult the instrument can be. Plus, I like working very much with the other musicians in his trio.

Q: What can the crowds at SPAC expect from ALJO this weekend? Do you have new material, or is it going to be music from “40 Acres and a Burro” and “Song for Chico”?

A: We always have new material. They can expect crazy, mind-bending, genre-blending, kickass music for the mind, for the heart, the soul and the feet. Of course, we’ll play some of our repertoire from the CDs, but we always seek to stretch ourselves and our listeners. Basically, we respect our audience and understand that they don’t listen to music as wallpaper.

Q: What piano players (past and present) knock you out when you hear them?

A: Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Randy Weston, Herbie Nichols, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Henry Butler, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri and all the other obvious ones.

Q: What’s the one thing on your iPod that would really shock people if they knew you were listening to it?

A: Wu-Tang Clan.

Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes over the main amphitheater stage during Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs. They’re scheduled to step into the spotlight at 4:20pm on Sunday (July 1).

BUT WAIT… Have we got a deal for you! We’re giving away a pair of FREE TWO-DAY LAWN PASSES to the festival to two lucky Nippertown readers! To enter the contest, just go here… Good luck!

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