"Dance music is very powerful because it unites the brain with the body," says Arturo O'Farrill, Music Director and pianist for Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "It really does. When it's well-crafted, dance music, in a very clever way, is the most consistent response to the dichotomy of mind and body. So when you listen to Latin music‹Latin jazz especially‹it's a real synthesis of so many worlds: Africa, Europe, and Spain, as well as of intellect, body, mind, and spirit. It's a synthesis of so many elements that it expresses that part of us which is so deeply human. We need to let go. Latin music is a really good conduit for us to engage our feet without losing our minds."
In October, O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra got the entire country moving on PBS's Live From Lincoln Center. The occasion was the national broadcast of the Grand Opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, which is the world's first performing arts center designed for jazz. Coming up, the band will perform in the same venue with Graciela, Herman Olivera, and Claudia Acuña.
O'Farrill, winner of the Latin Jazz USA Outstanding Achievement Award for 2003, was born in Mexico and grew up in New York City. Educated at the Manhattan School of Music, Brooklyn College Conservatory, and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, he played piano with the Carla Bley Big Band from 1979 to 1983. He then went on to develop as a solo performer with a wide spectrum of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, Freddy Cole, The Fort Apache Band, Lester Bowie, Harry Belafonte, and Wynton Marsalis.
In 1995 O'Farrill agreed to direct the band that preserved much of his father's music, Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which has been in residence at Birdland, New York's famed nightclub, for the past six years. From 1995 to 2001 O'Farrill was also a special guest soloist at several subsequent landmark Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts.
Then, in 2002, he and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis created the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "It showed a lot about Wynton and his openness and the scope of his imagination," O'Farrill declares. The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is a sister ensemble to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and is handpicked to represent the music of the Afro-Caribbean genre. "It's really as inclusive and wide-ranging in its scope as anything we have in contemporary jazz," the conductor says. "A lot of people think of Latin jazz as a subset of jazz, but it really isn't. Latin jazz is a sister, a sort of sibling. They grew up in different continents, but they follow a very similar timeline. So the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has as huge a repertoire, in its specificity, as any modern day jazz orchestra."
What is it about Latin music that seems to touch the souls of people all over the world? "Consistently, to my surprise, I find corners of the globe where this music is loved and played. It's really special," O'Farrill says. "In my correspondence, I've received queries from China and Africa and Israel‹people wanting to know more about this music, more about how to play it, more about how to perceive it, how to place it in their understanding of things. It's really amazing to me. I think it's because it has such a lovely synthesis of so many world cultures. It's Arabic, Spanish, Moorish, it has elements of that and flamenco. Latin music is such a great meeting ground."
Cuba‹specifically Santiago, according to O'Farrill‹is the fertile soil of that meeting ground. "One reason," he explains, "was the African expression in Cuba. There were generations and generations of slaves that took root in Santiago. It was a place where the music of Europe was intermingling heavily with the music of Africa. I have found in my travels to Cuba that there is a very easy relationship between black and white. It's a magical relationship, and I say 'magical' with a great deal of reticence because there is nothing magic about racism, but there's a love and intermingling and mutual respect between races that I've rarely found anywhere else. Consequently, I think the influence is much freer. I think that if you go to Cuba you'll see unbelievable love, music, and trying in the face of extraordinary struggles."
Cuba is also where O'Farrill's father, Chico, grew up. "My father was a brilliant composer," he recalls. "He was a brilliant orchestrator. He was at the crux of the integration of a lot of styles. Phil Schaap, Curator for Jazz at Lincoln Center, put it best at Chico's memorial. He said that Mario Bauza introduced us to Latin jazz but that Chico gave us its greatest expression. Chico gave us its intellect. He was often called the 'Duke Ellington of Latin jazz' but he's really the 'Chico O'Farrill of Latin Jazz.' I'm very proud of him, very proud to be his son." Today, O'Farrill continues his father's legacy, as he leads the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra around the globe. Their current tour is aptly called, Mambo Madness.
In October the ensemble performed for the first time in China at the Shanghai Concert Hall. Upcoming tour dates in the U.S. include January 22 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta; January 28-29 at Frederick P. Rose Hall; March 25 at the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts in East Lansing, Michigan; April 9 at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; April 22 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark; and April 23, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
"This is our inaugural foray into the world of touring," O'Farrill says, sounding very much like the ambassador of the Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban big band jazz tradition that he is. "The tour is a way of introducing audiences around the world to what is our classical genre, what we would consider our classic Latin jazz selections. In this sense we are very proud because it's highly danceable, highly listenable. It's a real meeting of the mind and body. It's a great experience as a concert setting and as a way to experience the total power that Latin music can be."
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director, Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center. A version of this article previously appeared in his "Jazz at Lincoln Center-Live!" column at www.allaboutjazz.com.