Arturo O’Farrill Makes Blue Note Debut With The Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble for ‘…dreaming in lions…’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Composer, band leader, and pianist Arturo O’Farrill, most notably associated with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, is making his Blue Note debut with a slimmed-down ten-piece edition of the larger unit, dubbed The Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble. The lower-case title stems in part from the Ernest Hemingway novel The Old Man and the Sea and “Despedida,” a meditation on farewells – two of the multi-movement suites that O’Farrill has conceived in collaboration with the Cuban Malpaso Dance Company and its Artistic Director Osnel Delgado. Working with a dance company is not new to O’Farrill who has worked with Alvin Ailey, Ballet Hispanico, and the Evidence Dance Company. As such, the music is cinematic, sweeping, colorful, and highly textured. 

Aboard are of course his two sons (who also play in his quintet) trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Zack O’Farrill along with three percussionists – Vince Cherico, Carlos “Carly” Maldonado, and Victor Pablo Garcia Gaetan. Rounding out the tentet are bassist Jose “Bam” Rodriguez Platiau, trombonist and euphonist Rafi Malkiel, flutist/saxophonist Alejandro Aviles and guitarist Travis Reuter. Arturo is at the piano except for the solo track, which closes the …dreaming in lions suite…., played by his classically trained pianist wife, Alison Deane.

The album begins with the five-movement suite “Despidida,” performances that O’Farrill and Malpaso have given around the world in accordance with the dancers. It’s about farewells, fitting in these pandemic times. The opener, “Del Mar” begins with a series of piano notes or clusters that evoke the sound of church bells or tolling bells before the horns enter in military march like cadences which given the title may suggest scattering ashes at sea. (Hemingway wrote “As the Bell Tolls” too but lest we regress). Nonetheless, the music builds from solemn to celebratory. We hear Aviles, Adam O’Farrill, and Malkiel, creating this flurry of activity through their inspired horn playing in the second movement “Intruso,” creating astounding imagery when paired with Arturo’s crashing, dissonant piano. Tones and rhythms change quickly, transporting us to the bird-like flute sounds merging with Adam’s trumpet in the darkly hued “Beauty Cocoon.” The bubbling, percolating percussion in each piece amplifies the colorful textures. “Ensayo Silencio” (Trying to Quiet) is another lively piece full of percussion and start-stop rhythms while “La Llorona,” the standard gets the graceful, swaying treatment as horns swell amidst the steady, danceable rumba rhythms. Arturo mixes his acoustic and electric keys throughout to infuse changing patterns to the music claiming that he no longer uses chord symbols but what he calls clusters, where it is up to the soloists to find working intervallic relationships, more commonly referred to as intervals. 

The bulk of the album is that “dreaming in lions” suite in nine movements. As mentioned, taken from the Hemingway novel, the protagonist, a Cuban fisherman, is deep in solitude on the ocean when he dreams of lions roaming an African beach coast. So, this is O’Farrill ‘hearing’ the dream. Hence “in lions” rather than “of lions,” connoting that all musicians can participate in the dream. As the composer envisions it, it’s about being caught in the stillness of the moment while teeming life swirls around you. In that sense it is sacred and spiritual. The title track begins with light piano and the pairing of bass and flute as the horns build suspense in this dramatic piece that like most of the others, is far from predictable, some of it echoing twentieth century classical music. “Scalular” has the frenzied kind of mode as “Intruso,” with Aviles in a careening flight, but comes to a slow, grinding halt while “How I Love” begins in ostinato before the flute carries the wistful melody as Arturo comps on the Rhodes, Reuter riffs on his guitar to Aviles’ flight on alto, and the percussion churns. “The Deep” is a brooding piece with Arturo on the Rhodes, punctuated with Adam’s trumpet calls over an undercurrent of horns. The guitar and soprano sax weave in and out playfully while Malkiel’s euphonium holds down the bottom.

“War Bird Man” has Deane joining her husband on piano as the melancholy tune features a deliberate. pensive Aviles on soprano. The splashes of horns and thumping, pattering percussion carry the boisterous “Struggles and Strugglets” while “I Wish We Was” is gorgeously elegiac. “Blood in the Water” is appropriately frantic in tone with Arturo racing up and down the ivories as the horn backdrop is cacophonous, beautifully setting up Deane’s solo piano close, the final scene in the ballet that finds the fisherman alone as the company looks at him. He dances as if at peace. One can almost visualize the curtain falling to a hushed, awed audience.

This deeply conceived work is highly textured, complex, dramatic and often riveting music that reveals the breadth of Arturo O’Farrill’s artistry, standing well apart from his brilliant work with the Afro-Latin Orchestra. Both are excellent but this stands apart as his imaginative creative foray. 

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