Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Epic Majestic Grandeur at the Apollo Saturday Night

“I’ve played for Presidents and heads of state,” pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill told the audience at his show uptown last night, “But headlining the Apollo on a Saturday night is the greatest honor of all.” In a torrential, towering performance of new material and reinvented classics, O’Farrill summoned the ghosts out of the rafters of the legendary Harlem jazz shrine and conjured up new ones in a blaze and rumble of sound true to his band’s name. The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra pulse and roar along on African beats, through melodies that transcend the typical Spanish Caribbean repertoire, a cast of some of New York’s best jazz players delivering the thundering majesty of a symphony orchestra. That’s their main gig; their other one, when they’re not winning Grammies or playing for Presidents, is supplying the New York public school system with instruments so that kids can grow up playing this music. How cool is that?

This concert had two centerpieces, O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Suite as well as the Afro Cuban Jazz Suite written by his dad Chico O’Farrill, a paradigm-shifting composer and bandleader from another era. With its gale-force swells, pregnant pauses and momentous force, the new one often referenced the old one, but overall was a lot more robust. The old one started out as a schmaltzy ballad but soon took on variations that revealed the intro as a not-so-subtle parody of north-of-the-border blandness, through permutations that ranged from the baroque to the absolutely noir, to close the concert on a surprisingly subdued note.
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Another centerpiece – this one the marauding, intense title track from the band’s forthcoming album The Offense of the Drum – began as a sarcastic faux military march and shifted artfully into a triumphant salsa jazz theme. No matter how much the powers that be try to contain the clave, it always wins. O’Farrill wrote it as an exploration of how the drum has been used throughout history as a weapon in the arsenals of both the oppressors and the freedom fighters – and in current New York history, to call attention to how drum circles in public places have been outlawed.

Otherwise, the blaze of the brass and the unexpected and very rewardingly ever-present, fat pulse of Gregg August’s bass fueled a mix of material that edged toward the noir. The orchestra reinvented Pablo Mayor’s Mercado en Domingo as a torrid cumbia, as psychedelic as anything you could imagine. The opening number, O’Farrill’s Vaca Frita, echoed Gil Evans with its dips from angst-ridden sunset burn to elegantly moody trumpet and alto sax solos over a spare, somber backdrop from just the rhythm section. Ageless piano sage Randy Weston led the band through a richly dynamic take of his African Sunrise, holding it down with the stygian lowest registers of the piano while guest Lewis Nash drove it with a clenched-teeth intensity from behind the drum kit, guest tenor saxophonist Billy Harper livening it with several expansive but steel-focused solos. The four-piece percussion section rose and fell from thunderous to suspenseful. And Chris “Chilo” Cajigas delivered a brilliantly excoriating, historically rich hip-hop lyric tracing hundreds of years of Latin American immigration, endless exploitation yet ultimately a distinctly Nuyorican-flavored triumph over all of it, set to the darkly jubilant backdrop of Jason Lindner’s They Came.

The only drawback was the addition of a guest turntablist on a handful of numbers, which created the kind of effect you get where one radio broadcast is competing with another. In this case, it was the jazz station plagued with interference from the hip-hop station just up the dial. This band swings like crazy, and the poor guy wasn’t able to keep up. Things like this happen when a nonmusician gets thrown up onstage with players of this caliber. Hip-hop and reggaeton have given the world thousands of brilliant lyricists, but, aside from maybe Yasiin Bey, not a single noteworthy musician.

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May 11, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

June 15, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment