The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) with Arturo O'Farrill had a bang-up season last year: a debut CD, a first-time residency in Shanghai last October, a street naming in Manhattan in honor of O'Farrill's legendary father, and, of course, the ensemble's first full season in Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall.
"Going to China and playing for a Chinese audience was a huge, huge honor," extols O'Farrill of the Shanghai dates last fall. "We had no idea if the Chinese audiences were going to embrace this music or even tolerate it. But, quite to the contrary, they loved it! We had incredible responses. There were people cheering, clapping, even dancing, and, from what I've been told, Chinese audiences are very conservative. For us to get that kind of response‹that's what its all about: crossing all kinds of oceans and barriers and geographies and touching people where their hearts and heads and bodies are. That was a huge highlight of my life.
"Another highlight for the entire band," he continues, "was the opening of Frederick P. Rose Hall, where we got to inaugurate The Allen Room in front of a national audience. I felt the power and the grace of that moment."
Grand Opening Day was October 18, 2004 and the evening's performances in all three working rooms (The Allen Room as well as Rose Theater and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola) were broadcast live on PBS nationwide.
As Jazz at Lincoln Center revs up for its second year in Frederick P. Rose Hall (a season entitled Jazz from Coast to Coast) O'Farrill's ensemble has already given its first performance of the season, Jazz Con Salsa, in Rose Theater. Future appearances in that venue include a celebration of great bass players on January 27-28, 2006, called Bajo!‹The Great Latin Tradition of the Latin Bass.
"The bass in Latin is a central instrument," explains O'Farrill, "much as it is in jazz, but in a different way. Bass in Latin music is called the tumbao and it doesn't really walk, it does a much more synocopated, repetitive pattern that is absolutely central to the music. Tumbao is a very interesting word because it is part African, part Spanish and it really means 'swing.' Its just a different kind of swing. One of the great masters of Latin bass is Israel 'Cachao' Lopez. So we're really celebrating the life of Cachao and the influence he is leaving on the great bass players of our day, including our own Ruben Rodriguez and one of the great bass players of all-time, Andy Gonzalez. All these folks are really a legacy of Cachao's. We've also invited Charnett Moffett to give us his take on Latin jazz basses. It will be a great night."
Later in the season, on April 21-22, 2006, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra will team up with Ballet Hispanico for two special evenings in Rose Theater. "A highlight of what I do is to integrate the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with Ballet Hispanico," says O'Farrill. "Ballet Hispanico represents everything on the dance side that the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra represents on the music side. It's a dance company that is dedicated to the highest quality of classical ballet, modern dance, and flamenco. It's a multi-faceted and brilliant dance company that encompasses the history of contemporary dance from an Hispanic viewpoint, which is really what we're all about in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. It's such a natural fit for the two to join forces. I think it's historically important."
Of course, another big part of what the ALJO does is tour. "We have dates booked in Japan and Mexico and throughout the United States," says the band leader. "I think the life of the Orchestra is vibrant and continuing to grow. We're looking forward to spreading the good news about Latin jazz. I feel a little bit like a mambo evangelist," O'Farrill says with a laugh.
"Everybody in the band gets along very well," he continues. "We're a big family. It's still new to us. We haven't become road-hardened. We choose to spend our time off together when we're touring. We have a lot of laughs. We really watch out for one another out there."
That energy and excitement is captured in the Orchestra's live performances, including its debut CD, Una Noche Inolvidable, which was recorded live for Palmetto Records on January 28, 2005, in a Rose Theater concert that featured vocalists Herman Olivera and Claudia Acuña. "That concert was a perfect vehicle for our first experience in Rose Theater," O'Farrill noted soon afterwards. "The 'golden sound' and the natural warmth in the theater's acoustics generated the beauty of the pure sound of percussion, trumpets, saxes, and vocals intermingling in a big, brassy explosion of pure timba or groove." It was truly, as the title translates, "An Unforgettable Night."
The CD, of course, captures O'Farrill's dual roles as leader of the ALJO as well as a monster piano player in his own right.
"A piano is an organic being," he muses. "It's made out of metal and wood and felt but it's a very temperamental instrument. Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Richard Johnson, and myself were asked to go to the Steinway factory in Queens and handpick the instruments that are in Frederick P. Rose Hall. Strangely enough, we almost all unanimously picked the same instruments. Steinway is about as amazing as it gets. The one that resides in Rose Theater was far and above and beyond the favorite choice of all of ours. It's just an amazing piano."
Una Noche Inolvidable was released exactly five months after it was recorded and on the day after that, June 29, 2005, a street corner on New York's Upper West Side was named after O'Farrill's father, the famous composer, arranger, and bandleader Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill who wrote music for Count Basie.
"It shows that with the help of people like Wynton Marsalis, New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, and others, the flame, the tradition of Afro-Latin music, is not going to die," says O'Farrill, referring to the ceremony, which took place at West 88th Street and West End Avenue. "People are becoming more and more aware of it."
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director-Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.