Song for Chico
Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra
The jazz world’s obsessive focus on historical figures creates an awkward position for contemporary artists. The public seeks familiar repertoire based on jazz standards, and as a result, releases from past jazz innovators outsell and overshadow new works from current musicians. In an effort to meet public expectations, new artists often create albums full of standards instead of original compositions. This emphasis on established compositions displays an artist’s technical control over the style, but their conceptual growth remains minimal. Musicians that disregard the expectation to play standards develop albums full of new works. These endeavors send musicians on a trip towards a larger statement, but they alienate most jazz listeners. Either strategies creates an extreme disconnect between artistic success and the public; musicians need to innovate while maintaining a link to the music’s history. Many paths exist, but the priority needs to be clarity and strength of vision – listeners need to see a clear lineage between new works and tradition. Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra create a bold statement on Song for Chico that both honors Latin Jazz tradition while moving into new frontiers.
Exposing New Voices
Several tracks represent the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra’s desire to expose new voices. Rubato melodies bathed in rich harmonies open O’Farrill’s “Such Love,” until bassist Ruben Rodriguez establishes an up-tempo cha cha cha bass line. Trumpeter Jim Seeley jumps right into a subtly assertive improvisation as the band builds into the melody behind him. The rhythm section works into a driving son montuno for trombonist Luis Bonilla’s solo, who combines a powerful mix of virtuosity and melodic ingenuity. After a return to the melody, the band creates short solo spaces for timbalero Jimmy Delgado who fills each opportunity with a personal spin on tradition. Dafnis Prieto contributes the album’s most ambitious composition, “Song For Chico,” which starts by altering instrumental roles before exploring rhythmic twists in the melody. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli improvises boldly over a ferocious pedal tone before the rhythm section explodes into a minor montuno. After a thick layer of background lines, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez makes a strong statement over a series of chord changes. Drummer Vince Cherico fills tastefully between band hits, leading into a spiritual end as Porcelli performs an unaccompanied solo. Seeley’s “Starry Nights” serves as a bass feature for Rodriguez, who tastefully presents the melody. Rodriguez transitions quickly into an improvisation full of melodic invention, creative use of range, and thematic development. The wind players provide a brief interlude, leading into a short statement from O’Farrill, followed by a sax soli. As the Orchestra explores original compositions, they bring their informed musicality into a new realm and push the genre into the future.
Revisiting Latin Jazz Standards
The group revisits two Latin Jazz standards, using interesting modern arrangements to look at the past. The classic syncopated bass line opens Tito Puente’s “Picadillo,” until O’Farrill, and eventually the wind players, reveal the melody. O’Farrill moves directly into a solo that smartly intertwines melodic phrases and montuno pieces. Tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera creates a rhythmically inventive solo over a charged rhythm section until Michael Rodriguez interjects a strong does of character into his muted trumpet solo. Between each of these solos, the full wind section provides mambos that both recall Puente’s original recordings and update them with creative twists. The rhythm section introduces a sparse groove over an Afro rhythm, which serves as a foundation for trombonist Reynaldo Jorge and trumpeter Rodriguez to play the memorable melody on “Caravan.” As the vamp continues, Rodriguez, Jorge, and saxophonist Ivan Renta trade eight measure solos, ending in an exciting collective improvisation. A short statement by O’Farrill leads into creative variations on the melody and a return to the screaming sound of the full winds playing the bridge. Each song respects the genre’s past while using a modern perspective to view the material.
A Strong Lineage
Two selections establish the band’s lineage back to the work of Chico O’Farrill. The saxophone section holds a strong guajeo while the brass handles the melody on “Cuban Blues.” The song builds into a frenzy through variations on the melody, interplay between the sections, and dynamic contrast. The lack of improvisation focuses the spotlight upon Chico O’Farrill’s writing, which shines brilliantly with traditional rhythm, contrapuntal lines, and creative development. The Orchestra consolidates into a quartet for a thoughtful ballad arrangement of “The Journey.” Seeley delicately interprets the melody over an unobtrusively supportive rhythm section background. As Seeley moves into the bridge, O’Farrill adds more interactive melodies, helping the rhythm section build into a strong dynamic contrast. The performance focuses solely upon the composition, but Seeley creates a strong personal statement through his careful development of the melody. These two pieces serve as powerful tributes to Chico O’Farrill and connect the orchestra to the foundations of the style that he developed.
A Strong Artistic Expression
Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra express a strong artistic integrity by exploring new compositions and clearly connecting to Latin Jazz history on Song for Chico. The clear command of the big band idiom displays a vast historical knowledge of the best bands from Duke Ellington’s groups to the Machito Orchestra. Their arrangements of Latin Jazz standards both pay tribute to the original works and put a decidedly contemporary slant on the pieces. While the father-son connection between Arturo and Chico O’Farrill provides meaning to the orchestra’s interpretations of Chico’s work, his role as a major voice in big band composition links the band directly to an innovator. The original contributions from orchestra members Arturo and Seeley, as well as the commission from Prieto, show the group making strides in new directions. Without a doubt, this ensemble both respects the past while exploring the future. Outstanding performances from orchestra members reveal the musicians’ investment in Latin Jazz and their strong desire to express themselves. The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra finds a perfect balance between history and innovation on Song for Chico that show the world that the best way to honor the past is to carry it into the future.