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Jazz is inherently revolutionary, steeped in African-American struggle and nurtured by inclusivity. Pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill has long upheld this sacred pillar, crafting a career that has fostered diversity and social commitment through music while challenging the status quo. Four Questions, O’Farrill’s latest release with his 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, is his first album of all originals. The bandleader seizes the moment with unyielding conviction during a time in which solutions to racial inequality are as essential as the healthcare workers fighting a global pandemic. O’Farrill draws inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’ book The Souls of Black Folks, which touches on universal issues of integrity in the face of oppression and which frame and propel the album’s eight tracks.
The title track, a more than 16-minute tour de force, features activist/philosopher Dr. Cornel West expounding on Du Bois’ conundrums in a spoken-word riff fueled by his own book Black Prophetic Fire. O’Farrill’s assertive orchestra galvanizes behind him, catapulting the urgency of his words with scorching big band intensity. Opener “Baby Jack” rides an undercurrent of hope swept up in a roller coaster of layered complexity. At first swinging and whimsical, the piece turns somber, casting an inward look that ascends into a liberating flight goaded by ruminating bass lines, suspenseful brass and nimble piano crescendos. Evolving from a circular piano passage, it segues into vibrant textures that oscillate between swirling, cacophonous meanderings and punctuating pockets of polished orchestral bursts. Half way through, O’Farrill applies avant-garde strokes; at once cohesive and disjointed, they offer a reflection of the ebb and flow of the human condition. Vocals are central throughout. On “Elijah – 1 Kings 19:-13,” a sorrowful horn intro climaxes into a beautifully cascading chorus, while sopranos Aubrey Johnson and Edda Fransdottir’s solos on “A Still, Small Voice” offer a compelling end to an album that resonates with a shared sense of purpose. — Lissette Corsa LISTEN OR BUY: