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It may take years before music scholars can fully access how the pandemic that began in 2020 turned a vibrant music scene on its head. Among the most prominent footnotes, however, will undoubtedly be the example of how pianist, composer and arranger Arturo O’Farrill turned adversity into opportunity. On this 10-track program, O’Farrill uses digital technology to tap the talents of 38 members of his big band and guest artists from around the world. Without missing a beat, the large ensemble blows with aplomb through a program of traditional Latin jazz gems and adroitly crafted fusions of disparate music idioms.
The spirit of O’Farrill’s late father, renowned Cuban composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill, always plays a role in Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra programs. “En la Oscuridad” (“In the Darkness”) reprises Chico’s arrangement on this gorgeous bolero (ballad) that features tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta. The ultimate blast from the mambo past is Tito Puente’s “Para los Rumberos,” with six ALJO members soloing on this long-form take.
The balance of the program plunges audaciously into an eclectic mélange of global styles. “Pouvoir,” based on a sacred Moroccan dance, saunters lightly to a 6/8 pulse, buoyed by the flirtatious vocal in French of Malika Zarra. “Ana Mashoof” is a restful ballad composed by Kuwaiti musician Ghazi Faisal al-Mulaifi, who is featured on voice and guitar with rhythmic backing by the Middle Eastern percussion ensemble Boom Diwan. The hypnotic “Desert” celebrates Middle Eastern modes and features the composer, Jerusalem-born Rafi Malkiel, on an entrancing euphonium solo.
Two Brazil-derived pieces, “Samba for Carmen,” featuring its composer, Paquito D’Rivera, on alto sax, and “Alafia,” a percussion-driven work that evokes the spirit of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religious tradition, round out the set. O’Farrill has done it again — using the Afro-Cuban rhythms generated by the ALJO as a starting point, he brings global styles into perfect harmony. — Mark Holston