Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Iconic New York Jazz Cats Take Lots of Chances; One of Them Risks a Bed-Stuy Gig

Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.

Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.

The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.

As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.

From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.

The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?

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December 15, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

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.

July 13, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, 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