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On his latest album, the celebrated pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill leads his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, a considerably smaller offshoot of the similarly named big band that he created in the early 2000s. But despite its subtle affinity with aspects of Cuban music, anyone taking a spin with the new … dreaming in lions … — his debut for the Blue Note label — might wonder how “Afro-Latin” it really is.
Stupefyingly complex percussion interludes? Screaming trumpet solos? Rhythms that propel your feet before you realize this is happening? You won’t find such elements in this elegant and eclectic album, which packs a dizzying range of colors and structures into 14 relatively compact, mostly solo-free pieces. Taken together, these tracks — which make up two ballet suites commissioned by the Malpaso Dance Company of Havana — conduct joyful, ear-opening incursions into territory not usually associated with O’Farrill’s name.
So despite the name of the ensemble, is this really an “Afro-Latin jazz” album? “Oh, not at all,” O’Farrill says. “I mean, everything I do has that edge to it, because I grew up in that environment.” (A photo on his website shows a pre-teen O’Farrill standing by the piano as his father — the legendary composer-arranger and Latin jazz pioneer Chico O’Farrill — works on a composition.) “But this is much more through-composed, with different textures, experimental thinking.” In fact, the album’s aversion to pre-imposed boundaries recalls the non-Latin works that his Cuban-born father wrote for conventional big bands and even symphonic orchestra.
The album’s title work draws its inspiration from the Ernest Hemingway classic The Old Man and the Sea. “But the ballet is not narrative,” O’Farrill says. “It was never meant to be exactly like the story, with the old man catching the big fish and all. It’s really more evocative of the book’s themes, which are about feelings of isolation and alienation.” The album cover — which shows O’Farrill standing still but surrounded by multiple-exposure photos of dancers in motion — captures the aesthetic he wanted to convey with the music. “I wrote the piece with the idea that you can be surrounded and yet very much alone.”
O’Farrill’s career has given him plenty of experience with that mindset. “Honestly, I don’t know where I fit in,” he explains. “I’ve always felt, ‘Well, I’m not Latino enough for the Mambo Kings. I’m not really black and I’m not really white.’ So I’ve always kind of felt that otherness. I got in under the guise of the sombrero, and if the sombrero was my way in, I was going to wear the loudest sombrero I could find. But you know, my father wrote 10 albums for Count Basie. At the end of the day, we are jazzers — even though I also really embrace the Afro-Latino roots that I have. That music is such a powerful part of my soul.
“So sometimes I do feel alienated from, you know, the middle of the road. I think my father had the same issue. He was classically trained and could write jazz albums — and was known as ‘the Latin person.’”
O’Farrill’s roots brought him into contact with Malpaso Dance (for whom he has now scored three ballets) as well as Ballet Hispanico, based in New York. These commissions, in turn, have had an outsized impact on his creative process as a whole. “There was a point in my life where all I wanted was to write music,” he says. “But after I started working with dance companies and choreography, I almost can’t imagine writing music without seeing a structure, an architecture.
“It’s really changed the way that I think of music in general,” he adds, with palpable wonder. “When I write large-scale works, I see them now; I see them almost as cathedral-like structures. It’s completely revolutionized who I am.” - Neil Tesser
Featured photo by Jen Rosenstein.