Arturo O’Farrill Takes a Stand with His Band
Yesterday afternoon at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, the question was how well the Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra would hold up in daylight. The big band’s Sunday night residency at Birdland is legendary, but musicians are nocturnal creatures, and major problems with the sound here delayed the summer series’ opening concert by over an hour last week. As it turned out, the band played like it was midnight in Manhattan. Getting the sound right for a seventeen-piece monstrosity like these guys is hard work, and ironically, the only member who wasn’t always audible was O’Farrill himself, maybe because he was playing electric piano this time out: he’s a hard hitter, a tremendously interesting player, and other than on a couple of mysterioso intros, it was hard to hear him, especially when the band was cooking.
O’Farrill is also a very bright guy. Between songs, he mused out loud about how lucky he was to grow up the son of the great composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill. Introducing a 1972 triptych written by his father for the Clark Terry Big Band, who premiered it at Montreux before Dizzy Gillespie got his hands on it, he marveled at how “impressive” he thought it was at the time, as a child – and how impressive it still is. Shifting from a swaying, catchy, minor-key proto-lowrider groove, to a lushly intense, tightly clustering, bluesy anthem, to slinky clave with dizzying counterpoint between the horns and then back to a variation on the opening theme, it’s a showstopper, and the whole band reveled in it, especially the trumpets. O’Farrill’s vocal mic was fading in and out, so it was hard to keep track of who was playing what, even though he took care to introduce pretty much everybody who took a solo. To his credit, the best song of the afternoon was his own, a shout-out to Sonia Sotomayor – one of the few voices of reason on the Supreme Court – titled A Wise Latina. Shifting from brightly incisive, pulsingly optimistic brass charts to a more somber yet equally majestic theme that took on a tricky polyrhythic edge as it picked up steam, it was the most modern piece on the bill. The band showcased their excellent conguero and bongo player on an unexpectedly moody, even skeletal version of Caravan; after a couple of more traditional salsa jazz vamps, they closed in a blaze of brass fury with an irresistibly swinging version of Obsesion. O’Farrill and the orchestra’s next NYC gig is on July 21 at 9:30 at Prospect Park Bandshell, and it’s free.
The bandleader saved his most important message for the end of the show. As he explained briefly but eloquently, this Sunday starting at noon along Central Park North, there’s a protest against the New York Police Department’s increasingly embattled stop-and-frisk tactics. The controversial and blatantly racist program – whose targets are 90% young black and latino men – is as unpopular within the NYPD as it is throughout the neighborhoods whose residents are subjected to it (and then virtually always released afterward: fewer than ten percent of stop-and-frisks result in arrests, and even in those cases hardly ever anything more menacing than weed possession). However, the policy gives cops on duty an easy way to reach the illegal quotas of arrests forced on them by police brass and implicitly endorsed by the Bloomberg adminstration. The more citizens who show up to speak out and represent against this reprehensible program – and many of the protestors will be cops themselves – the more the corporate media will take notice, the more elected officials will do the same, and the closer we’ll get to abolishing it forever.
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