Brilliant, Intense Solo Improvisation from Arturo O’Farrill
On a cold, windy evening in October of last year, pianist Arturo O’Farrill went into the Noguchi Museum in Queens, where, amidst the sculptures, he was inspired to record an album of solo piano improvisations, “the scariest thing a pianist can do,” as he puts it. O’Farrill feels an outsider’s cameraderie with Isamu Noguchi’s work: the two artists have similarly polyglot backgrounds and affinities for destroying boundaries. To call this recording, titled The Noguchi Sessions, a vigorous blend of third-stream jazz with latin inflections, would be accurate in a very broad sense but does not remotely do it justice. To call it a major work, one of the most important and brilliant albums released this year runs the risk of overhyping it. Yet gravitas is one of O’Farrill’s defining traits, along with a polymath’s ravenousness for ideas. O’Farrill is a big-picture guy: time and time again, he gets it. Ernesto Lecuona wrote Siboney in memory of a people originally indigenous to Cuba: O’Farrill reaches into it deeply and pulls out a requiem. Yet O’Farrill’s take also eventually hits a triumphant swell, and goes out with a flourish: he wants these people to be remembered for their humanity. His take on Mingus’ Jelly Roll is a lot more wry than it is sly: Mingus knew the tragedy in Jelly Roll Morton’s life, and O’Farrill knows that too, his bitingly precise righthand runs adding irony over the ragtime exuberance. This humanity is perhaps most vivid here on the sardonic Alisonia, juxtaposing O’Farrill as manic bad cop versus his wife’s steady resilience. She’s portrayed as the calm center of the storm here, and she wins in the end: much as he blusters and muddies the waters (with a pummeling low lefthand drive here), she’s obviously the rock in his life. A take of Obsesion, the salsa jazz classic, is obsessive to the extreme, up so close and personal and frantic that it’s worrisome! And Mi Vida, dedicated to O’Farrill’s beloved aunt and uncle, portrays the couple very much together through thick and thin, even as a wary modal melody is introduced via the lefthand again – O’Farrill isn’t afraid to plunge into those depths, here or anywhere else.
It’s especially interesting to hear him play solo in light of his best-known work as leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. His approach is steady, businesslike, relentlessly intense, as it pretty much always it. He takes his time getting into the opening track, The Sun at Midnight, distantly Asian-tinged clusters evoking an in-the-moment theme; otherwise, the album is pretty straight-ahead. He doesn’t employ much rubato, instead finding the occasional opportunity to add space and distance. And when he hits a cadenza, or a rare, brutal explosion of raw noise, the effect packs a wallop. It’s exactly what you would expect from a first-rate big band guy: he picks his spots and makes them count. As usual, O’Farrill isn’t afraid to take a stand, represented here by The Delusion of the Greedy, juxtaposing squirrelly, mechanical, conspiratorially lockstep righthand runs against a serioso bluesiness that gains traction just as the 99% are gaining traction against the robber barons among us – whose days are numbered, as this piece makes ineluctably clear. His take on Oh Susannah reaches to reclaim the melody from its repugnant minstrel origins: unlike the Dave Brubeck version, O’Farrill interpolates snatches of the tune amidst variations that run from blithe to practically macabre. And In Whom, dedicated to O’Farrill’s talented drummer son Zachary, incorporates both distantly anxious, Debussy-tinged ripples as well as a wry bittersweetness that evokes Donald Fagen at his peak.
There’s also a matter-of-factly crescendoing improvisation on I Had a Secret Love; a nimbly spun version of Danny Boy that works its way out expansively and nostalgically, dedicated to the heroes of 9/11; and an alternately tender and energetic take of Randy Weston’s Little Niles. This is not light music by any stretch of the imagination: it’s something to go deeply into and spend some time with because it will move you profoundly if you let it. A lock for one of 2012’s best albums.
No comments yet.