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Final Night at Birdland-- Arturo O'Farrill and The Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra

The Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Chico's pianist son Arturo, began a regular Monday night residency at Birdland in New York in 1997. Despite Chico's death in 2001, and Arturo founding his own Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in 2002, these Monday night sessions continued on for 14 years until Arturo's many commitments forced him to bring a halt to the popular series. This CD presents performances from the last Monday evening, July 26, 2011, including several classic Chico O'Farrill arrangements. The members of the Orchestra clearly rose to the occasion, as evidenced by the piercing ensembles and the captivating solos by such band stalwarts as David Bixler, Sam Burtis, Jed Levy, Jim Seeley, and Arturo himself.

"Three Afro Cuban Jazz Moods" begins with "Calediscopico," where rousing trumpet fanfares lead to trombonist Burtis and trumpeter Seeley sharing the theme. The changing rhythms and textures, and Seeley's dynamically penetrating solo work enhance the vitality of this first "mood." Maximilian Schweiger's baritone sax is in the forefront on the insinuating "Pensativo" melody, and the brass stand out in the orchestral parts prior to and even during Bixler's undulating alto solo. Trumpeter Peter Nater then mesmerizes with his rich tone, and Burtis follows with a tuneful swagger, as all the while the rhythm section resounds zestfully. For "Exuberante," Tony Rosa's congas, Joe Gonzalez' bongos, and Vince Cherico's drums set the pulsating base beneath the fiery multi-textured counterpoint between the brass and saxophones. Seeley's sometimes stratospheric but always lucidly fervent solo climaxes in a vocally-inflected, technically brilliant coda.

"Tanga Suite," in five movements, was originally written by Chico and Mario Bauza for the latter's orchestra, but has since been revised. Bixler plays the gentle theme of "Cuban Lullabye," which is succeeded by the throbbing rhythms and exultant brass of "Mambo," and O'Farrill's prancing and tumbling two-handed delight. Vocal chants precede trumpeter John Walsh's pugnacious excursion. Trombones are front and center above infectious rhythms at the start of "Cuban Ritual," then the trumpets, until Levy's urgent improv. Rosa and Gonzalez lastly engage in an absorbing percussive dialogue. "Bolero" has a slowly swaying opening that features Gary Valente's full-bodied trombone on the lyrical theme, with the more gutbucket Burtis taking the bristling solo. The dance number "Rumba Abierta" is buoyed by Rosa and Gonzalez, as well as O'Farrill's montunos, while Walsh shines again as lead trumpet. The fixating conga and bongo encounters midway, and Cherico's forceful drumming during the reprise add to the excitement.

"Havana Blues" is based on Chico's original "Cuban Blues," and is an extended arrangement intended for live performance. The perky rhythms and streamlined melody convey an old-time feel, but Peter Brainin's heated tenor solo is anything but traditional, as he digs deep harmonically with overtones galore. Nater's lengthy outing takes a more melodious but no less compelling slant, becoming edgier and more demonstrative as it builds up steam. The band's flourishes at Nater's finish and the ensemble passages ahead of the constrastingly calm reprise are prime examples of Chico O'Farrill's arranging eloquence. Chico's arrangement of Luis Miguel's "Delirio" finds Arturo's sparse, reflective piano interacting with the sultry, romantic melody, with Burtis center stage. Greg August's resonating bass lines are notably impactful, as is Levy's meaty trip and Walsh's profound lead trumpet.

Arturo's "Fathers and Sons, From Havana to New York and Back Again" was performed by the Orchestra in Cuba in 2010, and was "written to celebrate young musicians everywhere." The third generation of O'Farrills, trumpeter Adam and drummer Zachary (Arturo's sons), are on board here. Adam's burnished horn plays the contemplative prelude and maintains an absorbing presence as the band picks up the pace with swirling motifs and rhythms. Arturo's trickling piano interlude prefaces Adam's return to tranquility. Michael Herrera's robust, surging alto solo is in jolting variance, only to be answered by a brief thematic observation by Adam to close this invigorating, multi-faceted work.

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Scott Albin