Pianist-composer-bandleader Arturo O’Farrill turned 60 yesterday. For the occasion, I’ve put together an omnibus post containing — in order of presentation — Downbeat feature articles from 2017 and 2014, an edited Blindfold Test from 2016, and an unedited conversation between Arturo and Eddie Palmieri (with some input from Brian Lynch) in 2003 conversation at Birdland that became a Downbeat article.
Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdes-Familia Project (DownBeat Article) – (2017):
At its core, the new Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdés collaboration, Familia: Tribute to Bebo and Chico (Motéma), is a meditation on the eternal subject of patriarchy, the complex relations of fathers, sons and daughters. The title references Bebo Valdés (1918-2013) and Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001), both seminal figures in the evolution and global dissemination of Cuban music, whose respective musical legacies receive a sprawling interpretation from their eminent pianist-composer-bandleader sons, themselves separated by a generation. Their talented grandchildren—New Yorkers Adam (23) and Zack O’Farrill (26) on trumpet and drums, and Habaneros Jessie (31) and Leyanis Valdés (36) on drums and piano—refract ancestral spirits through a decidedly 21st century prism.
Speaking at his Brooklyn studio, O’Farrill traced the gestation moment to 2002, when Chucho Valdés invited him to perform at Havana’s Plaza Jazz Festival. “I was ambivalent about going,” O’Farrill said. “I was traumatized by the idea of betraying my father, who was bitter about the revolution for many years, but softened late in life. He rejected an opportunity to return to Cuba when Miami’s Cuban-American community stated it would boycott him. That tore him up. I wondered what could possibly be so special about your land of birth that would cause you such agony.”
After receiving Valdés’ invitation, O’Farrill received no initial confirmation of venue or accommodations, and wrote the festival organizer that he wouldn’t make the trip. The organizer responded, “Please come—we have a special surprise for you.” O’Farrill continued: “I get to Cuba, and men with suits and a badge meet me at the airport. I’m thinking: maybe I’m going to die; these guys are either CIA or Cuban secret police.”
Instead, they brought O’Farrill to “a beautiful building, all stone and chrome and wood, called ‘Palacio O’Farrill.’” Outside, a line of people awaited his arrival. “The director of this hotel, which they said was an old O’Farrill house, opened the car door and said, “Welcome home, Mr. O’Farrill.’ I started crying. As I’ve spent more time in Cuba, I’ve realized how much the sounds and sights my father grew up with, his cultural roots, shaped his aesthetic. I developed a powerful obsession to perform my father’s music in his native land.”
Now 57, O’Farrill arrived in New York in 1965, when his parents relocated from Mexico City, where his father—who spent 1948 to 1952 in the Apple—had moved from Havana in 1957. In 1997, after a protracted Oedipal journey that that saw him shun and then embrace his father’s distinguished corpus, O’Farrill launched a 14-year Sunday night sinecure at Birdland helming the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill. O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, featured on the first disk of Familia, has occupied the slot since 2011.
In September 2014, Valdés came to town for a Jazz at Lincoln Center collaboration with Pedrito Martinez and Wynton Marsalis titled “Ochas,” an eight-part suite dedicated to eight Yoruban orishas. O’Farrill dropped in on a rehearsal. “We were hanging out, and then went to lunch,” O’Farrill recalled. “We talked about how lovely it would be to work together, to do something that extended the idea of family and legacy and our fathers and our kids. Later, I’d see Chucho at one thing or another, and we’d remind each other of the idea, until we started talking concretely about the music and the concept—we’d write a piece together, I’d write a few pieces, we’d do a piece by Chucho, re-record a piece by Bebo and by Chico, and then turn over the baton to the young people.”
Towards that end, O’Farrill and Valdés spent several days at Valdés’ Miami home, brainstorming repertoire and co-writing the album’s opening track, “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” a Haitano merengue upon which both pianists stretch out. “We sat at two pianos, and played, and talked, and played; sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee; talked and played some more,” O’Farrill said. “Although Chucho is a commanding presence, he’s soft-spoken. He chooses his words carefully. But at the piano he becomes gregarious, carousing and absolutely accessible. A lot of sentimental, major, diatonic, happy sounding music came out of that meeting. It’s all about family, and you can’t avoid it. But it’s not like me at all—every cell of my being fights sentimentality and feel-goodness.”
A member of the musicians union at 14, O’Farrill was still a teenager when his father first hired him for jingle sessions. First-hand observation of Chico O’Farrill’s scores taught him to arrange and compose; tough love from bandmates and the ministrations of Andy Gonzalez, helped him evolve into a proficient practitioner of clave and Afro-Caribbean codes. Meanwhile, in parallel, O’Farrill was cultivating another, very different tonal personality, oriented toward embracing speculative musical environments. He attributes this mindset to examples set by Carla Bley, who he joined at 19 and remained with throughout the ’80s, and Charles Mingus, whose album Mingus Ah Um “changed me forever.”
“Mingus would take the existing ingredients of acceptable jazz composition, and deconstruct them and flip them around and toy with them and throw in this and that,” O’Farrill said. “That’s where I come from more than anything else. Carla taught me to stick to your guns no matter what. I love writing, but I love art more. My father was an innate and brilliant composer—writing was his end-all and be-all. But for me, it’s always about the greater challenge of using your craft to serve the art.”
That stated aesthetic pervades ALJO’s prior CD, Cuba: The Conversation Continues; on Familia, O’Farrill applies it effectively on “Three Revolutions.” The piece began as a response to the death of Fidel Castro while O’Farrill was in Havana to bury his father’s ashes, not long after the election of the 45th U.S. President. “It was a sad day in Havana,” O’Farrill said. “The Revolution is not going away, but even so, it felt like it was gone. And after the U.S. election, I felt the American Revolution died. The third revolution is the one we all still hope will come—a global realization that every human being will be accorded the same value as every other, that we’ll wake up to the reality that if one suffers, we all suffer.”
O’Farrill explicated: Valdés’ opening cadenza, “strong, romantic, passionate, quoting Rachmaninoff,” denotes “the power and grace of the Cuban Revolution.” His own cadenza is “enigmatic and modern and strange, and asks if we really had a revolution.” There follows a “minimalist section that indicates militaristic roboticness, very 16th-notey, very square, but with a non-metric melody that denotes a strong undertow of resistance against the metric rigidity.” Prefacing kinetic solos by the co-leaders is a “‘matrix’ section, where everything is blown out of the water and you hear these trails of sound, calling into question the question-mark—that there is no finality; we’re still looking for that third revolution.”
ALJO captures the elegant essence of“Ecuacion,” a 1982 composition on which Bebo Valdés juxtaposed the language of bebop with his own definitive conception of mambo big band writing. O’Farrill first performed it in 2005 when Bebo performed “Suite Cubana” with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center, which Wynton Marsalis invited O’Farrill to form in 2002. The program notes for Bebo De Cuba (Calle 54) quote Valdés that he wrote it during an evening of conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in Stockholm, where Valdés settled and formed a new family in 1963, three years after defecting from Cuba. “I decided to write Dizzy something on the spot with diminished fifths, which I played for him on the piano,” Valdés wrote.
Both pianists improvise floridly on Hilario Duran’s arrangement of Chucho Valdés’ “Tema De Bebo,” which Valdés often performs with his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers, and on “Pianitis,” which Machito commissioned from Chico circa 1979. The idiomatic grace and lucidity of O’Farrill’s solo on the former piece denotes his intimacy with the classical Cuban piano style, as does his nuanced solo flight on his father’s “Pure Emotion.” “I adored Bebo,” said O’Farrill, who played the “Latin piano” tracks on the 2010 animated film Chico and Rita, in which the male lead is loosely based on Bebo Valdés in Batista’s Cuba. “The value system of writing in the mambo big band doesn’t exist any more. The Thad Jones-Bob Brookmeyer-Jim McNeely resonance on all of us who write and arrange for big bands has resulted in different textures. Rightly so. Things change. But Bebo did that so beautifully, so lush and fat and gorgeous, so lovely to behold. It’s timeless.”
“Bebo was one of the most personal musicians ever,” Chucho Valdés wrote via email. “He was equally proficient writing and arranging for big band, string orchestras and small groups.” Valdés added that his father imparted comprehensive home-schooling in the codes of jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music. “He told me to have an academic background, to study pure classical, to learn each genre correctly in its specialty, without jumping. We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned by epoch ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal. He taught me to be an individual musician, and I have taught these things to my children. This recording clearly proves that they have found their own way.”
Jessie Valdés upholds Chucho’s encomium on “Recuerdo” (“Memory”), a flowing Jazz Latin piece dedicated to Bebo Valdés that he propels with painterly, subtly percolating beats, and features Leyanis Valdés’ flowing, harmonically informed, high-chops solo—the fruit fell close to the family tree. “We’d see my father studying all day, and he ordered me to study every night,” Jessie recently told a Cuban journalist. “He’d listen to the music of Oscar Peterson and my grandfather. One time he went on a trip and brought back for me a very small set of drums, and said he’d place my drums by those of Enrique Plá. Leyanis and I are proud to be his children. Our goal is to respect his musical patterns, to follow the tradition that he and Bebo have charted in terms of good music and composition as we compose our own music.”
A similar predisposition to pay respect to elders through individualistic expression infuses the contributions of the O’Farrill siblings, both semi-regular ALJO participants . “We could probably sing back entire suites of our grandfather, as much from hearing it a ton and playing it a bunch as from overt, deliberate study,” Zack O’Farrill said. “But our father always supported us in playing our own music that has very little to do with what he does or what our grandfather did.”
Zack’s contribution, “Gonki, Gonki” a Jazz Latin line fueled by his complex clave permutations and elevated by inflamed solos from young Cuban trumpeters Kali Rodríguez-Peña and Jesus Ricardo Anduz, sardonically references his mother’s descriptor for the run-of-the-mill salsa gigs Arturo O’Farrill still was playing when Zack was a child. “Neither of us rebelled against his music the way my father rebelled against Latin music growing up,” he said. “He’s invited us to join what he does in a very equal way, and he’s also introduced us to things his dad couldn’t introduce him to—free jazz, straight-ahead jazz, Rock, Pop and R&B.”
“As much as we play with him, he’s our father first, bandleader second,” said Adam O’Farrill, who titled “Run and Jump,” to which he contributes a powerful trumpet solo, to reference the videogames he and his brother played with their father while growing up. “Stylistically, it’s a huge departure from the rest of the album,” O’Farrill said. “It’s not in any sort of Afro-Cuban tradition. But it is about fatherhood and fun, and the kind of relationship you can form with your parents.”
In a sense, the O’Farrill brothers’ contributions mirror their father’s mandate that ALJO not replicate canonic repertoire like a “museum band.” “For one thing, the technical refinements in the way pianos and trumpets and saxophones are made gives them a very different sound,” Arturo O’Farrill said. “Also, in the 1950s, when a lot of this music was originally played, songo and timba and other incredible rhythms hadn’t been invented. So in playing this music, we’re honoring the spirit and the tradition it was created in, but we’re very capable of adding to that conversation.
“When you go to Cuba, you understand that we still haven’t solved the riddle that Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá were beginning to unravel—the thing that binds us together. It’s not just artistic. It’s spiritual. Cuba and America are so powerfully part of one another; you have the messiest divorces with the people you love most. So when I look to my future, I have to look to my father’s native land. Something in that soil informed my father’s entire being as a musician. Something in that land speaks to me, speaks to my training, speaks to my furtherance and my history and my trajectory.”
Sidebar: Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill and Dionisio Ramón Emilio “Bebo” Valdés Amaro:
“For me, Chico O’Farrill is the best arranger in the history of music,” Chucho Valdes said last May. He spoke in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note after a set by his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers that ended with “Tema Para Bebo,” a song he composed just after the death of his father, Bebo Valdés, on March 22, 2013, at the age of 94. Pere and fils Valdés shared an October 9th birthday; Chucho reported at the time that his father sang him the memorable refrain in a dream.
Bebo Valdés was born in the village of Quivican to a cigar factory worker. His grandfather was a slave. He left for Havana at 17 to study at Conservatorio Municipal, where he remained until 1943. During these years he befriended the iconic bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, with whom he recorded the 2005 CD El Arte Del Sabor. By 1941, when Chucho was born, Bebo was playing regularly in Havana’s dance clubs; from 1943 to 1947 he was a staff arranger at the progressive radio station Mil Diez. In 1947, he left Havana for Haiti, and spent the ensuing year with bandleader Isaac Saleh, during which he keyed into traditional drumming and song. He returned in 1948 for an engagement with vocalist Rita Montaner, and became house pianist at the Tropicana Club with Armando Romeu until 1957. In 1952, he participated in Cuba’s first descarga (jam session) recording; he also introduced the batanga, a dance style that incorporated the sacred two-headed batá drum into the percussive base. In 1958, he played piano on Nat “King” Cole’s Cole Espagnol recordings, and contributed four arrangements.
In 1959, Valdés began using Chucho occasionally in his orchestra, Sabor de Cuba. They next played together on the 1993 CD, Bebo Rides Again (Messidor), convened at Paquito D’Rivera’s instigation, which, along with D’Rivera’s Cuba Jazz: 90 Miles To Cuba (TropiJazz-1996), brought Bebo back to international consciousness. Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary Calle 54 documented their next encounter; a subsequent documentary, Old Man Bebo, earned its director first prize for Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. During his gloriously productive final decade, Valdés had a hit with the Cuba-meets-flamenco date album Lagrimas Negras with singer Diego El Cigala, creating a high standard that he matched on Suite Cubana and Live at the Village Vanguard.
The son of an Irish-born lawyer and a Cuban mother, O’Farrill—born in Havana in 1921—was slated to follow in his father’s footsteps, but caught the jazz bug as a teenager in a Georgia boarding school and devoted himself to music. He began to arrange for Armando Romeu’s orchestra at the Tropicana cabaret in 1942. In 1947, he organized an ahead-of-the-curve unit called Los Beboppers. A year later, he relocated to New York, where he caught the ear of Benny Goodman, who recorded “Undercurrent Blues.” In quick order, he composed “Cuban Episode” for Stan Kenton, “Afro-Cuban Suite” for Machito with Charlie Parker, “Manteca Suite” for Dizzy Gillespie, and a series of 10″ leader LPs for Norman Granz. These recordings established O’Farrill as the first composer-arranger to blend the vocabularies of modern jazz, 20th century European music, and Afro-Cuban idioms.
They also made him a lodestar figure in Cuba, as implied by Chucho’s recollection: “I learned a lot from the rhythmic structures in Chico’s arrangements that the Tropicana Club Orchestra had, while his recordings with Peruchín, Richard Egües, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines are master classes. Chico’s Cha Cha Cha is my favorite.”
During his final 46 years in NYC, O’Farrill functioned successfully as a journeyman arranger, while generating a masterpiece 1967 album Nine Flags (Impulse!), comprised of his originals; 11 albums between 1965 and 1970 with the Count Basie Orchestra; and Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods with Gillespie in 1975. After two decades of radio silence, he recorded the Todd Barkan-produced “comeback” albums Pure Emotion, The Heart Of A Legend and Carambola with the reconstituted Chico O’Farrill Orchestra.
Arturo O’Farrill & ALJO, DownBeat Article (2014):
Since 1997, with occasional interruptions, Arturo O’Farrill has spent Sunday evenings directing big bands at Birdland—14 years with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill, his father; three years with its legatee, his own Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. On the 900th or so such occasion in early June, not long after the release of ALJO’s third CD, The Offense of the Drum (Motéma), O’Farrill opened the show with “Vaca Frita,” a swing-to-mambo original infused with Gil Evans-esque brass, then Chico O’Farrill’s “Trumpet Fantasy,” which juxtaposed rumba-driven call-and-response sections with subtle restatements from the Canción section of Chico’s “Afro-Cuban Suite.”
O’Farrill rose from the piano bench, stated titles and personnel, and introduced “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” which he composed. “I do everything backwards,” he announced. “When I teach jazz history classes, I start with Cecil Taylor, then we go to Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Mingus, we keep searching, and finally end with Scott Joplin. The beginnings of Jazz and Latin come from the same root.”
As on the version that appears on The Offense of The Drum, O’Farrill’s florid introduction evoked Rachmaninoff more than Taylor, but everything else was as stated. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli uncorked a soulful a cappella Charlie Parker refraction. An Ellingtonian passage followed, springboarding Seeley into a “West End Blues”-“St. James Infirmary” medley. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall’s unaccompanied passage channeled early ‘70s Mingusian Hamiett Bluiett, foreshadowing several call-and-response passages on which the sections, blowing reconfigured Mingus themes (think “Boogie Stop Shuffle” meets “Tijuana Moods”), alternated with bassist Carlo DeRosa, in “Haitian Fight Song” mode. Suddenly, the refrain of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” emerged. The band dropped out for O’Farrill to render a brief falling-down-the-stairs passage. When they reentered, the rhythmic template switched from funk to salsa. Trumpeter John Powell rode the wave, then passed the baton to Seneca Black and Adam O’Farrill—Arturo’s son—for a climactic two-trumpet passage.
By now, patrons packed the room; the applause was raucous. O’Farrill waited. “We’ve decided that Latin Jazz is not defined by Cuban and Puerto Rican music,” he declared, then offered “Mercado en Domingo,” a highlight of the new CD. Composed by Colombian pianist Pablo Mayor, it contained janky trumpet lines, tangoish sax unisons, Rafi Malkiel’s alligatory trombone solo and Seeley’s piercing declamation, all goosed by a porro streetbeat, which would sound apropos in a New Orleans second line. Next was O’Farrill’s “Freilach a Nacht,” a klezmer-ish minor blues propelled by a crackling merengue perhaps one degree of separation removed from a polka. On the set-closer, a Ray Santos mambo dedicated to Mario Bauzá, ALJO idiomatically channeled the soulful Afro-Cuban essence of its namesake.
Within this kinetic six-tune episode, O’Farrill encapsulated the overlapping streams that define his musical production since 2002, when Wynton Marsalis invited him to form the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center. His mandate was to assemble an exhaustive book of “Mambo King” era repertoire associated with his father, Machito, Bauzá, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and other Afro-Caribbean heroes, and to perform it authentically, with an attitude firmly planted in the here-and-now. After JALC severed ties in 2005, O’Farrill regrouped, substituting “Latin” for “Cuban” in the band’s title. In 2007, supported by a 501(c)(3) non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, he launched an annual concert season at Symphony Space, an Upper West Side theater, which includes an annual musica nuevo concert devoted to commissioned works—The Offense of The Drum culls nine of them—reflecting Pan-American and Afro-diasporic perspectives.
A few days later, in the courtyard of Harlem School of the Arts, where ALJA has its offices, O’Farrill, 54, discussed the roots and branches of his hemispheric sensibility. He recalled the in-studio response of Donald Harrison—on-site to perform the Mardi Gras Indian flagwaver “Iko, Iko,” which ends the album—to a playback of “Mercado en Domingo.” “Donald started laughing quietly,” O’Farrill said. “He understood the idea I’m selling—that the same music he grew up with in the streets of New Orleans was happening in the streets of Bogotá or Lima or, for that matter, any major metropolis in South America where brass bands played African rhythms. We’re playing each other’s music, but from different entry points.”
These connective portals reveal themselves in various guises in the otherwise disparate pieces that comprise The Offense Of The Drum. Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castañeda solos over a melange of Colombian, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms on his glistening “Cuarto de Colores.” Spanish alto saxophonist-vocalist Antonio Lizana infuses flamenco soul into Eric Satie’s “Gnossiene 3 (Tientos),” which he arranged. The hip-hop cadences of Nuyorican poet Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas’ recitation-chant of “They Came,” arranged by Jason Lindner, intersect with D.J. Logic’s turntable sound-painting and an admixture of reggaeton and bomba beats.
The oppressive, martial sound of Japanese taiko drums, set ironically against a fugal form and a bolero cadence, opens the title track, which O’Farrill wrote in response to the gradual suppression of public drum circles in New York City during the mayoral administrations of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. During the second half, liberation beats fuel the orchestra’s rowdy splashes of color.
“Everything Arturo writes is really from the drums, although he writes around melody and conceptual things as well,” ALJO drummer Vince Cherico said. “When we’re learning something in rehearsals, he’ll stop the horns and have the rhythm section—or maybe the conguero or me on drums—play the patterns over and over until it sinks in. He says, ‘This is what you have to play the notes on top of.’”
Vijay Iyer’s brief piano concerto, “The Mad Hatter,” conceived in tribute to O’Farrill’s anything-goes persona, explores, Iyer stated, “compatibilities between Carnatic rhythmic ideas I was thinking about and certain rhythms in clave.” “I see it as similar to Satie and Phillip Glass in the way Vijay explores the idea of unfolding within a context of stasis,” O’Farrill remarks. “It also intrigued me that he would have the audacity to fuck with clave, because he clearly doesn’t come from that world.”
Some band members found “The Mad Hatter” “threatening,” O’Farrill reported. One questioned the necessity of playing the first section in its ascribed 21/8 time signature, to which O’Farrill riposted, “Because we can’t play ‘Oye Como Va’ forever.” The next day the malcontent cell-phoned, “The bridge is a mess, there’s an overturned tractor-trailer, and I’m trying to get to New York.’” O’Farrill answered, “Brother, life isn’t always 4/4—is it?”
“To me, that was a perfect object lesson,” he continued. “If you define your music by constructs that are already in place, you’re a fool. Now, I love 4/4. At my core, I’m a jazz pianist. I may have this big vision of what jazz could become, but my entry point into that conversation was bursting into tears when I first heard Herbie Hancock on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’ I wanted to play like Herbie more than anything in the world, because if you could float rhythmically over that bed of swing, like him, you were a complete human being with mastery over time and space. But people don’t understand that when Herbie started playing his shit, someone said, ‘You don’t sound like Red Garland.’”
Already a “mid-level” practitioner of Mozart sonatas and Chopin preludes when he experienced his Hancock epiphany, O’Farrill, then 12, was just beginning to experiment with jazz and improvisational music. By 14, when he joined Local 802, he was playing with experienced New York vets like trumpeter Manny Duran and trombonist-drummer Artie Simmons. “I didn’t know much about harmony or stylistic nuance in jazz, but I had really good keyboard skills, which always seems to impress people,” O’Farrill commented.
You can infer the level of O’Farrill’s teenage skill-set from his father’s contemporaneous piano concerto, “Pianitis,” which Arturo performed during the ‘80s with Machito. “Arturo is scary-virtuoso,” said Iyer. “He has amazing power. He can cut through the ensemble effortlessly, with all those drummers, he has great rhythm, and he’s extremely expressive, very colorful—just a joy to listen to.”
Over the course of three decades, O’Farrill evolved from efflorescent performer to the impresario-maestro of his maturity. Born in Mexico City, where his Havana-born father and Mexican-descended mother moved after the Communist Party consolidated power in Cuba, and a New Yorker since age 5, he experienced “tremendous ambivalence” about his cultural roots. “I thought the music of Chico, Machito and Tito Puente was secondary to jazz in importance and intellectual ability,” he said. “Growing up, the only Hispanics I knew were the school custodian and the basketball star. When I found out that Herbie had come from Bud Powell, I became a Bud Powell freak.” Even so, while immersing himself in bebop and free jazz, O’Farrill began playing on his father’s jingle dates, beginning with a Bumble Bee tuna commercial.
“I knew what a montuno was, but I didn’t understand how to make it work in the clave,” he recalled of that session. “Sal Cuevas was playing bass, and told me that I had to study and get my shit together.” O’Farrill purchased Papo Lucca records, learned the mechanics, but resisted the subtleties. He dropped out of Music and Art High School, worked as a bicycle messenger, and led a peer-grouper sextet called the Untouchables, which in 1978 took a gig upstate “at a hole-in-the-wall bar, playing for beers.” The proprietor notified Carla Bley, who lived down the road. She stopped by, liked what she heard, and soon thereafter hired O’Farrill to play a Carnegie Hall concert, initiating a four-year association.
“I’m much more Carla’s child—or Charles Mingus’ child—than Chico O’Farrill’s child,” O’Farrill said of his aesthetics regarding musical narrative. “Composition was my father’s end-all and be-all. He held jazz on a pedestal. Carla taught me that the notes are secondary to what you want to communicate; it’s not the vehicle, but where the person who’s driving wants to go.”
As the ‘80s progressed, O’Farrill freelanced, worked more frequently on his father’s commercial and creative projects, earned a degree in Classical Performance at Manhattan School of Music, and did extensive fieldwork in the Latin piano tradition with bassist-scholar Andy Gonzalez. “Andy told me that I needed to embrace where I come from, to understand how beautiful it is,” O’Farrill said. “Almost immediately I realized that Latin piano was as sophisticated—maybe even more so—and as difficult to cop as anything Herbie was doing.”
These looking-backward investigations coincided with O’Farrill’s burgeoning appreciation of the depth and quality of Chico O’Farrill’s corpus. “In my twenties, a friend had me listen to ‘Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,’” O’Farrill recounted. “He asked, ‘Have you really heard this?’ I went, ‘Yeah…not really…no.’” He blames the Oedipus Complex. “Whatever legendary musician he was, my father was also prone to the foibles and frailties of fatherhood,” he said. Youthful resentments dissipated during the ‘90s, as père O’Farrill, who died in 2001, experienced an end-of-career renaissance, spurred by the the recordings Pure Emotion, Heart Of A Legend and Carambola, which Arturo music-directed. “I learned how to arrange by looking at my father’s scores. I learned how to compose by listening to my father’s compositions. I learned about voicings and counterpoint. I also learned that my voice was very different than his. It wasn’t just about mimicking, saying, ‘This is a good way to do it.’ It was also about, ‘No, I reject this.’”
“I sensed that Arturo felt very much in Chico’s shadow and fervently desired to establish his own identity,” said Todd Barkan, who produced Chico O’Farrill’s final recordings, as well as The Offense of The Drum and, indeed, Arturo’s 1999 leader debut Bloodline. “But I never saw him be anything less than totally deferential and acquiescent to Chico’s wishes. In his soft-spoken, almost passive way, Chico was an incredibly strict disciplinarian, but he never outwardly expressed his emotions, unlike Arturo, who had to be challenged to control his temper. Arturo has a lot to be proud of in how he’s served his father’s vision and legacy.”
“Chico’s health was failing, so I was thrust into taking over the functions he’d done so well—standing in front of the guys, conducting them and emceeing,” O’Farrill said. “I had to stop being a pianist. He could barely walk, and I worried that he was frail and elderly and might keel over. It’s good that he’s getting his due, but he’s also ambivalent about the attention. At the same time, I had to pursue responsibilities I wasn’t really sure I was prepared for.”
After Wynton Marsalis played “Trumpet Fantasy” with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 1996, Arturo approached him for advice. “It interested me that he assembled this orchestra that was building a canon of American jazz, and I asked him—or maybe his assistant—for thoughts on how we could develop a relationship with an institution that might help us create a similar repertory orchestra,” O’Farrill recalled. “A few years later we were playing at a Christmas tree lighting, and Wynton said, out of the blue, ‘I really like your idea, and I want to give you a home at Jazz at Lincoln Center.’”
O’Farrill retains bittersweet feelings about the association, which JALC severed a year after entering its high-maintenance quarters at Columbus Circle. But he prefers to see the break as a blessing in disguise, by which ALJO was afforded the opportunity, as Barkan puts it, “to venture into the world on its own and be its own person.”
“That Wynton would fully open up his platform to us was extraordinarily moving to me,” O’Farrill said. “I learned a lot of lessons from him. He never told us what to do, how to do it, or controlled what we brought to his stage. At the end, I asked him point-blank if we did something wrong. He answered that we represented the House of Swing with great respectability, but that JALC was under great financial duress and would no longer be able to house us.”
One point of common ground is a mutual commitment to grass roots educational initiatives. Another is a decidedly non-preservationist approach to performing the “classic” repertoire that forms the core of each orchestra’s mission, with insistence on technical excellence in matters of instrumentalism, composition and arrangement as a default basis of operations, as is apparent in ALJO’S flawless navigation of the diverse environments of The Offense Of The Drum and 40 Acres and a Burro [Zoho], from 2011. The latter date includes sparkling performances of an Afro-Peruvian original by Gabriel Alegría, two programmatic pieces by O’Farrill, and creative-yet-idiomatic charts—each by a separate arranger—of Pan-American repertoire spanning Argentinian tango (Astor Piazzolla), Brazilian choro (Pixiguinha), Brazilian rhapsody (Hermeto Pascoal), Cuban danzón (Chico O’Farrill), Nuyorican salsa (Oscar Hernandez), and Afro-Caribbean-inflected bebop (Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia”).
Both institutions also operate on the principle that to bring forth new work is as important as the mandate to preserve. “We honor the spirit and tradition that this music was created in, but never try to replicate or play like a museum band,” O’Farrill said. “We are capable of adding to that conversation. For one thing, technical refinements make the instruments sound different than 50 or 60 years ago. Afro-Cuban rhythms like songo hadn’t been invented when much of this music was first played.
“My model since the Lincoln Center days is to look for musicians who are multi-layered, multi-cultured, flexible stylistically and artistically, who understand clave but can also read in 21/8. I like to put a younger musician next to a veteran and hope each will influence the other’s thinking.”
In his wholehearted embrace of the music of the Americas, O’Farrill draws not only on extensive travels through South and Central America and bandstand interaction with musicians from those cultures, but frequent visits to Cuba since 2002.
“The only thing that could make my father cry during his last years was remembrances of his youth,” O’Farrill said. “He rejected an opportunity to return because he received hate mail from Miami’s Cuban-American community. It tore him up. I wondered what could be so special about your birthplace that would cause you such agony in your later years. I learned that the sounds and sights of Cuba indelibly shaped his aesthetic and cultural roots, his sense of harmonic counterpoint and Afro-folkloric counterpoint. The more time I spend in Cuba, the more I realize it’s the land I come from, and also that Cuba is part of Latin America in very concrete ways.”
O’Farrill cited his next recording, a project called “The Conversation Continued,” for which ALJA has commissioned young composers in the United States and in Cuba to imagine what might have happened had the U.S. not imposed an embargo. The program will comprise next season’s Nuevo Musica concert at Symphony Space, joining separate programs curated by Lionel Loueke, exploring the direct African influence in jazz, and by Antonio Sanchez, exploring Mexican jazz and Mexico’s influence in jazz.
Of Mexican descent on his mother’s side, O’Farrill states he can’t “identify more as a Cuban than as a Mexican.” He adds, “I’ve gone back periodically on a regular basis, and all my aunts and most of my family that I know are in Mexico. But at the end of the day, I feel not so much Mexican or Cuban, but I feel Pueblo. I relate to the pace of South American-Latin American life. I like the noise of children in the streets, and dogs running around, and colors and bright sounds, and food smells, and people practicing on terraces. When I first returned to Cuba, I remember walking down the street and thinking, ‘This feels like home.’ I’ve had that feeling in Mexico. I’ve also had that feeling in Lima, and in Cali, and in Santiago.”
More than anything, though, O’Farrill’s need to create on the edge, in an experimental, cross-disciplinary context, emanates from his New York origins. “Everything I do—being a bicycle messenger as a teenager, running a non-profit now, my musical projects—I take great chances,” he said. “What makes it exciting is that it could crash and burn.”
Arturo O’Farrill Blindfold Test (2016):
After earning a “Best Instrumental Composition” at the 2016 Grammys for “The Afro-Latin Jazz Suite” (from Cuba: The Conversation Continues [Motéma]), the 55-year-old pianist-composer-arranger Arturo O’Farrill now holds three such awards for his musical production with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. This was O’Farrill’s first DownBeat Blindfold Test.
Pepe Rivero Big Band
“Gandinga, Mondongo and Epistrophy with Sandunga” (Monk and the Cuban Big Band, Universal, 2013) (Reinier Elizarde “El Negron”, bass (solo); Rivero, piano (solo); Georvis Pico, drums; Raul Gil Antillanos, Manuel Machado, Javier Arevalo, trumpets; Julio Montalvo, Julien Ferrer Riol, Dennis Cuni, trombones; Juan Ramon Callejas, Ernesto Millan, alto saxophone; Bobby Martinez, Segundo Mijarez, tenor saxophone; Rafa Serrano, baritone saxophone)
That’s “Sandunga,” the famous Frank Emilio composition. Is it a Cuban big band? Now it’s “Epistrophy.” The bassist is old school, almost Cachao-like in his solo style, not virtuosic, play-a-lot-of-notes nonsense, but connected to the tumbao. Is it the pianist’s record? Definitely not Chucho. The playing is modern and lean, not histrionic. Elio Villafranca? Was this recorded in Cuba? Here? Overseas?—like the WDR Big Band? Pickup orchestra or real orchestra? Beautiful arrangement, with lots of 16th note syncopations, very difficult to play. Right off the bat I thought a Cuban wrote it—the trumpets, trombones and saxophones are interspersed with high precision, the timba and sound of the swing are authentic, plus, let’s face it, not many jazz musicians know what “Sandunga” is. 4½ stars.
“Moore” (XXI Century, 5Passion, 2011) (Rubalcaba, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)
Aruán Ortiz? David Virelles? Fringey stuff, fresh and new. I admire it. I have no clue. You can’t play with that much freedom unless you’re really listening. This person is not a replicator, is playing intuitively, in touch with the ebb-and-flow second by second, creating a holistic experience, very in tune with themselves as a human being. It’s extremely well-played, but not facility for facility’s sake. 5 stars. Gonzalo has redefined everything he does, which is extraordinarily courageous when you have huge success early on in the game.
“Passepied” (Aria, Impulse!, 2015) (Fortner, piano; Tivon Pennicott, soprano saxophone; Aidan Carroll, bass; Joe Dyson, drums)
It’s pleasurable and nice to listen to, but didn’t challenge me in terms of chords or syncopation. Not that things have to be challenging; it’s stupid to make that an aesthetic reason to listen to something. Good composition; I liked the ending. The piece sounds young and studied. It didn’t sound easy to play. The pianist is very accomplished, a lot of contrapuntal skill. 3½ stars.
“Jambo” (Rhizome, ArtistShare/Blue Note, 2014) (Almazan, piano; string quartet [Sara Caswell, 1st violin, Tomoko Omura, 2nd violin; Karen Waltuch, viola; Noah Hoffeld, cello]; Linda Oh, bass; Henry Cole, drums; Yosvany Terry, chekeré; Mauricio Herrera, batá)
Histrionic. But there’s a tumbador in there. String writing, contemporary language, Cuban-based with a conga part, an awareness of Afro-folkloric layering. When it dips into the harmonic world, the chromaticism is almost Romantic, but there are flourishes, clusters and very avant-garde writing. It’s interesting that the piano is mixed down and the drums are loud—the artist wants the composition to be center. I’ll assume the pianist went to ISO or whichever conservatory, but the cognizant use of rhythm shows he’s spent time playing rhythm-based music, and has a large repertoire of contemporary-sounding sounds, techniques and voicings. 5 stars.
Pedro Giraudo Big Band
“Push Gift” (Cuentos, Zoho, 2015) (Giraudo, bass; John Ellis, tenor saxophone solo; Alejandro Aviles, Todd Bashore, Luke Batson, Ellis, Carl Maraghi, saxes and winds; Jonathan Powell, Miki Hirose, Mat Jodrell, flugelhorn, Josh Deutsch, trumpets; Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie, Mark Miller, Nate Mayland, trombones; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Jess Jurkovic, piano; Franco Pinna, drums, Paulo Stagnaro, cajon)
There’s something very Argentinian about this, and Spanish at the same time. It starts out with the cajon, a very site-specific rhythm, then a beautiful, classically written fugue in the introduction. The voicings are well-done. Not a lot of chance-taking or strange harmony—no avant-garde-isms. Straight-ahead, lyrical music. I’d say Guillermo Klein or Emilio Solla. Neither? It has Guillermo’s vibe. I’ve played with the sax player, who plays beautifully, but I’m blanking on the name. 5 stars.
“Perla Marina/Longina” (Trio Time, Menduvia, 2013) (Paredes, piano)
Lovely playing, elegant and simple, but I have issues with the constant arpeggiation in the left hand. Every other chord is rolled. For a minute, I thought of Tete Montoliu. I find that sometimes we pianists, instead of really playing, arpeggiate every chord in the left hand—maybe it’s an affectation or reflex. 4 stars.
“The Chant” (Road to Udaipur, Zoho, 2015) (Gomez, piano; Areismar Alex Ayala, bass; Bruce Cox, drums; Felipe Lamoglia, tenor saxophone; Roberto Pitre Vázquez, flute; Fabio Tagliaferri, viola; Walmir Gil, flugelhorn)
Alfredo Rodriguez? This is very Cuban, despite the odd meter. Very modern. [clusters] That’s great. Sometimes Cuban music is divided into Afro-folkloric seriousness or heavy-duty hyper-virtuosity. It’s elegantly played, and the rhythm section is good. It’s fun, tongue-in-cheek, clever, and in command of its elements. 4 stars.
“Light Echo/Dolores” (Children of the Light, Mack Avenue, 2015) (Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)
Is it an older record? The sound is very compressed. I know the pianist—the language and the approach to improvisation—but I’m not placing it. The pianist is not out to prove a technical issue. It’s entry-point improvisation, where you start an idea and it flowers into fruition. A lot of integrity. 4 stars. Danilo works out his ideas through his fingers, not just playing what he knows. They don’t sound like they do when they’re playing Wayne Shorter!
Emilio Solla y la Inestable de Brooklyn
“Raro” (Second Half. ) (Solla, piano; Pablo Aslan, bass; Eric Doob, drums; John Ellis, Tim Armacost, saxophone and winds; Alex Norris, trumpet; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Meg Okura, violin; Victor Prieto, accordion)
Pablo Ziegler? Pablo Aslan? I’ve heard this; I don’t remember the record. Ah, Emilio Solla, Y La Inestable de Brooklyn. This was up for the Grammy the year we won it, and it’s extraordinary. This is Emilio at his best. Like a lot of his writing, it has a cinematic edge, with a narrative arc and characters in the music. Emilio has a large story to tell; nothing he writes is simple. When you can be a storyteller as a composer and improvising artist, that’s pretty huge. 5 stars.
Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):
TP: We’re at Birdland, and all together for the Downbeat conversation. I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie. I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music. And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years. And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears. It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano. It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation. It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.
PALMIERI: Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz. That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. We did three CDs, “Palmas,” “Arete” and “El Vortex.” That was the move. We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz. What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra. Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra. That’s where you have “El Rumbero Del Piano.” After “El Rumbero Del Piano,” which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did “Masterpiece.” But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned. Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig. He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone. That’s where it started. Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta. We did the first album, LA PERFECTA, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received. Then on the second CD for Concord, RITMO CALIENTE, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.
TP: You wrote new music as well. Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion? Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?
PALMIERI: Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there. The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting. That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on RITMO CALIENTE.
TP: You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom. This is dance-driven music. But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more. I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage. Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?
O’FARRILL: It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left. That’s one of the problems. In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls. Also, I think this is true. People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.
O’FARRILL: They’re not taught to dance. The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance. So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs. We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art. I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!
TP: When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!
O’FARRILL: You can’t listen to those records without moving.
PALMIERI: Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers. To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense. And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.
TP: It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo. A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers. What were the first principles for your compositions? Rhythmic? Harmonic? A combination of both?
PALMIERI: At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s. It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them. At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds. How they were able to get you! I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there. Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite. There were reasons. There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax. That’s what made it interesting for me.
O’FARRILL: That’s an interesting word — “tension.” When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.
TP: And intellectually challenging.
O’FARRILL: Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension. The dancing. The groove. There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove. I mean, the groove is the factor, too.
PALMIERI: Thank you.
TP: Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.
PALMIERI: Oh, yeah. As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto. For two years. Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in. But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later. In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui. In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban. The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening. So I was able to capture that also. After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years. By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.
TP: So you had a long apprenticeship. Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere. You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.
PALMIERI: Oh yeah. And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…
O’FARRILL: I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians. You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is. To get that concept, you have to play it. I’m the kind of person who learns by doing. I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it. I have to do. So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.
TP: What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?
O’FARRILL: Conga. That’s it.
TP: And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?
O’FARRILL: It’s difficult on my hands. As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.
TP: You’d better pick up some sticks.
O’FARRILL: Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers. But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section. A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing. But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding. And as a player, you begin to pick up on things. You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo. It’s very important stuff.
TP: Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root. Arturo is a very florid player. You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…
O’FARRILL: I have to say that’s true. But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.” And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition. For a minute there, I had his groove. It felt so good! Florid, whatever. But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.
TP: Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.
TP: And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later. You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.
PALMIERI: Yes, I never comprehended it. Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing. That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader. What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance? But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.
O’FARRILL: See, I came from a different background. It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing. My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that. You know how kids are. You reject what your father does. So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played. It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.
TP: What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had. What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music? Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?
O’FARRILL: It’s very different. There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it. You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity. First of all, it’s a different technique. Your hands have to move differently. It’s not florid. It’s not Bud Powell. It’s a different concept. And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense. Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.
TP: Elaborate on that.
O’FARRILL: Well, Rene Hernandez. Peruchin. That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes. You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch. And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school. Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand. So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that. And I had to grow up. I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music. Because it’s who I am.
PALMIERI: And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico. And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes. When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that. Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras. So then, it was quite difficult for me. And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things. Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…
TP: You had to play loud.
PALMIERI: That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in. So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style. It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.
TP: Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well? Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.
O’FARRILL: Ideally, you want to blur that line. You don’t want to have that big a changeover. What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play. As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.” It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.” Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers! So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me. But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake. I don’t think you can make it. I think it really has to come from your soul. So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.
TP: Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing. Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?
PALMIERI: What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant. For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.” For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that. That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing. Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play. I still keep working on it and keep developing it.
O’FARRILL: Eddie plays with a lot of texture. Eddie plays with what I call sound waves. He plays with the texture of the piano. It is orchestral.
TP: I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do. Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”
PALMIERI: [LAUGHS] Right!
TP: So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing? What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?
PALMIERI: To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for. For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists. So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about. And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way. That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own. And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted. So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.
TP: Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?
PALMIERI: No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.
TP: How many compositions have you published over forty years?
PALMIERI: I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.
TP: And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?
PALMIERI: Well, there’s different books. I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book. Then we have the Latin Jazz. Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.
TP: So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.
PALMIERI: I’m bringing some of them back.
TP: Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana. In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months. So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz. And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire. So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play? How did he make his choices?
O’FARRILL: He chose pieces that were suggested to him. There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years. Chico has rewritten a lot of music. So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece. It’s smoking. But it has its roots there. I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948. Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s. Some of that stuff is classic.
TP: The things he did for Norman Granz?
O’FARRILL: “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple. It’s not cluttered. It’s linear. So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.
TP: Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience. You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers. Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s. Very different perspectives on similar roots.
O’FARRILL: Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too. My father didn’t play anything.
TP: He was a trumpet player.
O’FARRILL: Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up. A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives. Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform. Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!” For him, it was an easier way to be a musician. It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.
TP: Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it. I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!
PALMIERI: Right, Charlie. And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras. My brother was nine years older. We had no other brother, no other sister. It was just Charlie and I. So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano. He really went at it! That certainly came into me. I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road. My brother was quite an exceptional player. He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I. I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before. But Charlie had. So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.
TP: Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition. How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it. Is there anything you can say about that?
O’FARRILL: There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras. People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it. I just believe that musicians are organic. They bring to the music a whole nother vibe. There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat! But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important. Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed? Hell, no.
TP: Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?
O’FARRILL: It’s a daunting task. And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book! Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.
PALMIERI: Yes, I remember. We had the two orchestras, I think.
O’FARRILL: The two orchestras side-by-side. How do you choose? That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop. There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon. Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out. That’s more important than the position or the institution. And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines. That’s what it’s about.
PALMIERI: One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.
O’FARRILL: We played in Pori. They LOVE his music in Finland.
PALMIERI: And I certainly congratulate Arturo on his position with Lincoln Center…
O’FARRILL: I just want to say one more thing, because it’s important. Again, Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge institution, and it’s important to me personally that Latin music be taken seriously, that it be given the weight that it merits, that it be accorded the position it deserves. That’s all I’m trying to do.
TP: One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own. So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo. I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.
PALMIERI: For me, it’s on the rhythm section side. But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended. I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it. How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly. It’s a constant challenge.
TP: How has musicianship changed over the years?
PALMIERI: They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared. And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players. Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree. I have to say that. Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany. But now we have incredible soloists. You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra. I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.
TP: Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music. How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole? It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music. Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?
O’FARRILL: I think so. I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now. You really do have a wide variety of styles. You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena. That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large. I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz. And it’s still Latin. It still comes from our corner of the world. But it’s very much more open, very flexible.
The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz. I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz. I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians. Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music. They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz. I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.
TP: It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.
O’FARRILL: Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars. Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.
TP: Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands? You do have steady personnel. How do you see the musicianship?
PALMIERI: It’s tremendously rounded now. As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s. Now it’s Afro-World. And now it’s all over. The talent just keeps pouring in. On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel. So it’s not as varied as it was before. I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras. But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel. We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us. But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now. They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.
TP: In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it? Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?
PALMIERI: Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings. I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it. The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.
TP: Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work. You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad. All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.
PALMIERI: Right. But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra. When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.
TP: Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel. Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.
O’FARRILL: There’s no substitute for having a regular gig. Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players. They understand how to phrase. It’s very subtle, it’s very different. You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music. You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”
PALMIERI: That was his form of identification.
O’FARRILL: That’s a very Victor Paz thing. But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing. I am very lucky, very blessed. I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.
TP: Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all? Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?
PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been to Africa. As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers. Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.
O’FARRILL: We went to South Africa. I’ve been there several times. The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…
TP: My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.
O’FARRILL: You better believe it! Talk about colonial imperialism! I was amazed. I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.
TP: Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?
PALMIERI: It was Cuban. But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African. But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba. That’s where I really centered my education on.
TP: How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?
PALMIERI: I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns. They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance. That’s where I come in.
TP: So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.
TP: Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life? Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?
O’FARRILL: He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba. Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music. I think it influenced him greatly. That kind of music gets in your blood. It kind of becomes a part of you. I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos. Man, I started bawling! I was weeping, man. Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys. That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations. It has to be folkloric. It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots. It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures. You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz. Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!
TP: But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.
O’FARRILL: I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable. Anybody can write these rhythms. It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.
TP: But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition? Were you writing it down or learning by doing?
PALMIERI: Well, naturally, by listening. That was the main direction. And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records. Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening! Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time. Conjunto meant without the saxophone. So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide. Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings. The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.
TP: Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience? As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.
PALMIERI: Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers. That’s something that gives you balance. It’s absolutely wonderful. But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts. On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling. But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.
O’FARRILL: You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid. To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!
TP: And you play for them a lot.
O’FARRILL: Oh, I do all the time. When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it. You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes. But that’s the real deal. That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.
TP: But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical. A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing. So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.
O’FARRILL: Yes. There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.” A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is. My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument. So what?” That’s a small part of it.
TP: Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?
PALMIERI: I haven’t been writing since the last CD. I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.” But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.
TP: Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?
PALMIERI: Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me. I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded. I have it at home. But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.
TP: Do you make use of the new technology?
PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been able to comprehend that. I leave it alone!
O’FARRILL: I can’t make heads or tails. I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper. I can’t cope with it at all.
TP: And how much composing and arranging do you do?
O’FARRILL: I do quite a bit. And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.
TP: Is it project-oriented for you?
O’FARRILL: It’s always project-oriented. For me, deadlines are crucial. I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever. So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming. My father was very much the same way. Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!
O’FARRILL: He would do it transcribed. The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way. It’s very different for me. But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.
TP: For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.
PALMIERI: The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it. For me, it’s the feel of the instrument. That’s why the keyboard was put on top. I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard. I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through. It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.
O’FARRILL: That’s rare.
PALMIERI: But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.
TP: So it’s to hear yourself. To hear yourself think.
O’FARRILL: The clarity.
PALMIERI: Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band. The rhythm section is quite heavy also. And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.
TP: Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands. There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra. Is the repertoire expanding for it?
O’FARRILL: The repertoire is expanding.
TP: And where are you getting repertoire?
O’FARRILL: Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.
TP: With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.
TP: How are you conceiving that? Where are you getting material from? How big is the book now?
O’FARRILL: Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources. For example, the Machito stuff I can’t find. It’s irreplaceable. The scores are gone. So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff. And there’s a lot of material that exists.
TP: How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician? It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.
O’FARRILL: It’s funny. I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues. There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies. I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you. But I care about the music. I have to do it. I CARE about this music. So I’ve been put in this position. I’m very happy to do it. It’s because this music is vital. It’s very important. But bandleading is difficult at times. It’s a very strange position. People don’t understand. You’re dealing with Lincoln Center, and they start a Latin Jazz Orchestra. That’s a huge deal. The name of Lincoln Center opens doors all over the world. When Wynton approached me to do this… It was born out of an idea that I had. Ten years ago I said to Wynton, “Man, we’ve got to have an orchestra that plays the canon,” and I guess it just sat in his brain for a while, but he came up to me a couple of years ago and said, “Let’s do it.” But it’s still a huge responsibility. Culturally, if this thing doesn’t take off in a major way, it’s going to be a huge faux pas for Lincoln Center. I feel like this music has to be performed.
TP: How big is the book for that orchestra?
O’FARRILL: It’s running 30-40 pieces.
TP: Done much touring with the band?
O’FARRILL: We’re going to do a tour in March. We just got signed to a new agency, and we’re going to be touring in March.
TP: But to return to the question, in what ways has being a bandleader influenced your musicianship and your vision of music and sense of possibility?
O’FARRILL: Certainly it’s expanded me as a musician. Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship. That takes a lot of skill. So all that has honed my musical skills. It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable. I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.
TP: So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.
O’FARRILL: Yes. And not as a pianist. As a musical concept. As a mind. As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.
TP: Eddie, forty years ago, playing gigs at the Palladium, with that whole cast of characters who populated it, would you have envisioned an institution like Lincoln Center establishing an Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra? What does it mean to you?
PALMIERI: I think it’s absolutely wonderful that we have the orchestra to represent this music at an institution like Lincoln Center with the blessing of a Wynton Marsalis. It presents a challenge for all the musicians in this orchestra, in writing for it, and to their preparation, their musicianship. So I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I never thought something like that would happen, and I’m elated that we have it.
TP: Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.
BRIAN: How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint. I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much. But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it. The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music. I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities. The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle. Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?
PALMIERI: Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry. Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.” Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.
BRIAN: You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.
PALMIERI: Right. What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra. That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional. But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.
BRIAN: Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz. If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities. Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?
O’FARRILL: I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City. It’s another branch of the roots. Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time. I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature. You’re right. The roots of improvisation are there for both musics. There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.
BRIAN: I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.” That America means just the residents of the United States of America.
O’FARRILL: That’s very narrow-minded.
BRIAN: Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out. The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.
O’FARRILL: I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music. Guess what? New Orleans is the Caribbean!
BRIAN: I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s. It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. All these things are very much together. So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.
TP: One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up. A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate. With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.
BRIAN: I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms than he did in 1970 or 1980.
O’FARRILL: Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.
BRIAN: Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing. Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around. A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is. And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.
O’FARRILL: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. What is jazz?
BRIAN: What is jazz. Or what is swing? I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.
O’FARRILL: Oh yeah. I have to agree with you there. Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music. Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.
BRIAN: And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together. I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.
O’FARRILL: Yeah. It might be a lost art today! I would add to what Brian was saying. I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy. Human beings love to categorize things. They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not. The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.
TP: What did your father think about it?
O’FARRILL: I don’t think he gave it much thought. I think he looked at life as a musical challenge. The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect. It’s basically an economic issue. To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics. I think my father didn’t care. He was just a consummate musician. He just wanted to write music. He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito. He just loved what he did. I don’t think he saw one or the other.
BRIAN: Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing. It’s about improvisation. It’s always about wanting to extend something. I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.
TP: We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.
BRIAN: Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz. A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music. The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.