Before & After with Arturo O’Farrill

One conversation on another

Elio Villafranca
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Fabian Almazan
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Alfredo Rodriguez
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Arturo O'Farrill in Havana in June 2013
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With Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma), Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra continue a dialogue that began in 2014 with the Grammy-winning The Offense of the Drum, but dates at least as far back as 1947, when Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie collaborated on “Manteca,” frequently cited as the earliest Latin-jazz standard. O’Farrill’s release, recorded in Havana with Cuban and American artists, coincided with the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, beginning an ongoing discourse, both politically and culturally, toward what Gillespie envisioned as “universal music.”

O’Farrill, 55, travels to Cuba regularly, and is currently composing a large-scale concerto that will feature Dr. Cornel West as a spoken-word soloist with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. (The work is scheduled to premiere in the spring at the Apollo Theater.) He is also planning a recording with his fellow pianist-bandleader Chucho Valdés that will function as a tribute to their legendary fathers, Chico and Bebo, respectively, and their influence on Afro-Cuban jazz.

“You can understand why I get weird when people say, ‘Jazz is an American invention,'” O’Farrill says, sitting down in New York for his first Before & After session. “You could spend an afternoon listening to 1930s Cuban piano, and it would not be enough. It just validates my whole rant and rave about how the thing we call jazz is really pan-American, pan-African. It’s a diasporic music.”

1. Orquesta Casino de la Playa

“Dolor Cobarde” (from Rumba Rumbero, Musica Latina Nostalgia). José Peña, trombone; Walfredo de los Reyes, trumpet; Liduvino Pereira, clarinet; Evelio González, alto saxophone; Alfredo Saenz, violin; Ernesto de la Vega, guitar; Anselmo Sacasas, piano; Miguelito Valdés, bongos, congas, vocals. Recorded in 1937.

BEFORE: Is that Benny Moré? That’s so great. It’s such a funny sound. It almost doesn’t sound like a trumpet. It’s so Cuban. It’s either Peruchín or Bola de Nieve. It’s not? Wow. It’s kind of raw. And it’s definitely not Bebo.

AFTER: That’s really obscure. The only thing I even came close to was Bola de Nieve. This is beautiful.

The musicologist Ned Sublette, who wrote the seminal Cuba and Its Music, helped develop this playlist. This is apparently a very influential piano solo. And Sacasas actually had to adjust the mic to pick up the piano.

The piano is very strong and very loud, which is rare for recordings from 1937. It’s pretty amazing. That’s a real find. I was going to say Miguelito Valdés. But you know what, it’s a young Miguelito Valdés, because later on in his career, he really is a baritone. But what gave me the sense that it was Miguelito Valdés was the phrasing, because Miguelito has a fluid sound. Later on, if you listen to him sing, it’s very fluid. He’s also kind of a scat singer. He does the same thing Bobby Carcassés does with scat, using Yoruban words, very redolent of scat to me. Beautiful track.

2. Arsenio Rodríguez

“Sandunguera (Guaracha)” (from The Music of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, Vol. 1: Recordings 1944-1946, Black Round). Rodríguez, tres; Benetín Bustillo, Rubén Calzado, trumpets; Adolfo “Panacea” O’Reilly, piano; Nilo Alfonso, bass; Israel “Kiki” Rodríguez, tumbadora; Antolín “Papa Kila” Suárez, bongos; Marcelino Guerra, vocals, guitar; Pedro Luís Sarracent, vocals, clave; Miguelíto Cuní, vocals, maracas. Recorded in 1943.

BEFORE: That’s Bola de Nieve. It’s not? Is this Trio Matamoros? It sounds like a young Chocolate [Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros] on trumpet.

AFTER: That was recorded there?

In Havana in 1943.

It’s beautiful. You can hardly hear the guitar. That’s really obscure. I’m going to go home and study these people. For me this is all education.

3. Miguelito Cuní con el Conjunto Chappottín

“Pa’ Bachatear” (from Miguelito Cuní con el Conjunto Chappottín, Caribe Music Dos). Cuní, vocals; Cecilio Cerviz, Félix Chappottín, Pepín Vaillant, Aquilino Valdés, trumpets; Arturo Harvey, tres; Luis “Lilí” Martínez Griñán, piano; Sabino Peñalver, bass; Antolín “Papa Kila” Suárez, bongos; Félix Alfonso, congas; Udalberto Fresneda, vocals, rhythm guitar; René Álvarez, Conrado Cepero, vocals. Recorded between 1951 and 1953.

BEFORE: They say the name of the pianist. Lilí Martínez has a really distinct style. That’s why those other two pianists could not have been him. In some ways, Martínez is the real creator of modern Afro-Cuban piano playing, especially because he’s playing these octaves and tenths. There’s no one else who did that, and he was an extraordinary technician. That’s beautiful.

The exact recording date is unknown. For many pre-Castro records, that information seems to have been lost.

Of course.

4. Chico O’Farrill and His All-Stars Cubano

“Descarga Número Uno” (from “Descarga Número Uno/Descarga Número Dos,” Gema). O’Farrill, Alejandro Vivar, trumpets; Delahoza, trombone; Richard Egües, flute; Osvaldo Peñalver, alto saxophone; Emilio Peñalver, tenor saxophone; Arturo Harvey,

tres; Pedro “Peruchín” Jústiz, piano; Israel “Cachao” López, bass; Tata Güines, congas; Walfredito de los Reyes, pailas. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: I’m going to take a guess on the sax player. Is it Paquito [D’Rivera]? Is that Bebo? It’s great. Is this Chico’s piece? I’m trying to figure out who played piano. Is it Bebo? Peruchín! And Chico’s arrangement?

AFTER: This is completely crazy. I should know this tune. Tata Güines, Chico and Peruchín. You are reaching. That is inside.

5. Rubén González

“Fabiando” (from Rubén González, Areito, rereleased as Indestructible, EGREM). González, piano; Fabían García, bass; Roberto García, bongos; Guillermo García, congas; Gustavo Tamayo, guiro. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: I’m going to say Gonzalo [Rubalcaba].

AFTER: I should have known that.

This is a recording of a rhythm section González played with in Enrique Jorrín’s band, rereleased when the Buena Vista Social Club became popular.

I didn’t think it was Rubén because it sounds so young. It sounds quite adept and fast and really choppy and youthful, and the Rubén I’m familiar with is older and much more languid and reserved. It’s really nice to hear him play like this. It proves that we were all young once.

6. Irakere

“Cuba Libre” (from Cuba Libre, JVC). Arturo Sandoval, Jorge Varona, trumpets; German Velazco Urdeliz, alto saxophone; Carlos Averhoff, tenor saxophone; Carlos Emilio Morales, guitar; Chucho Valdés, piano; Carlos Puerto, bass; Enrique Plá, drums; Jorge Alfonso, Oscar Valdés, percussion. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: This sounds familiar. It’s Irakere, for sure. It’s Chucho. I know I’ve heard this. I’m not sure where this is from. It’s not “Misa Negra,” is it? I even played this for a class.

AFTER: There was an era when recordings all had that sound. I don’t know if it was a movement away from reverb or toward it, but they have a very specific sound. I always feel like with Chucho, there’s a lot of stuff that is under his fingers, and every now and then he goes dangerously close to losing control of what he’s playing, and he does it anyway. Listening to him get perilously close to losing control is so beautiful, because he never really does. He has such mastery over the instrument, it’s almost like he lets go of it and stops controlling it, but he still has so much keyboard prowess.

The thing I love about Chucho is that he leaves the language. He leaves the Romantic pianistic language and the Cuban language and just goes free. It’s almost like Cecil Taylor. Like that stuff there, he’s not controlling it. That’s just his fingers, but it’s still so beautifully done. And then he goes back to the language. He goes back to, like, Debussy. You know what I mean? It’s amazing. Nobody plays like Chucho. People try to, but they should know better.

7. Ernán López-Nussa

“Countdown” (from Delirium, BMG). López-Nussa, piano; Jorge Perez, bass; Ramsés Rodriguez, drums; Inor Sotolongo, percussion. Recorded in 1998.

BEFORE: Gonzalo? Is this recorded in Cuba? It’s not Gonzalo, and it’s not Chucho.

AFTER: I know Ernán. He’s an amazing pianist. The only time I’ve ever heard him was in Cuba. His nephew, Harold López-Nussa, was just at the Blue Note for two nights, which is great.

8. Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio

“El Manicero (The Peanut Vendor)” (from Supernova, Blue Note). Rubalcaba, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Robert Quintero, congas; Luis Quintero, timbales, guiro. Recorded in 2000.

BEFORE: Is this recorded in Spain? It sounds like Bebo, but I know it’s not. I’ve heard this. Is it a young person? Is it Alfredito [Alfredo Rodríguez]? Is it Gonzalo? Gonzalito, but this is Gonzalo before he became Gonzalo. It’s funny, I saw a video yesterday of Gonzalo playing “Autumn Leaves” at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, and I compare Gonzalo from that era with what he plays like now, 15 or 16 years later. Gonzalo to me is a very interesting pianist. He easily has the chops of Chucho or anybody, but he’s not given to histrionics. Even when he is given to histrionics, he’s a cerebral pianist. I was going to say Ignacio, because there’s nobody who plays the drums like Ignacio. I remember this record with Carlos Henriquez. It’s a beautiful record.

9. Elio Villafranca/Arturo Stable

“A Las Millas” (from Dos Y Mas, Motéma). Villafranca, piano; Stable, percussion. Recorded in 2010-2011.

BEFORE: Wow. Is it Elio? It sounds like Elio’s touch. He has a very fine use of the left hand. Arturo Stable is a bad cat. [This music] represents the younger cadre of Cuban pianists, but Elio is in some ways more informed by Afro-Cuban-ness than by virtuosity. He plays brilliantly, but it’s much less about the piano and much more about music. And all those older guys, starting with Peruchín, were really about the piano’s Romantic repertoire, and the great histrionic stuff that they learned. The conservatories in Cuba were very Russian, so they all played the hell out of the piano. They all come from Rachmaninoff and Liszt. I’ve sat with Chucho and we’ve played Liszt for each other, so it’s part of the language. These younger guys did that and didn’t stay there. They’re much more in touch with their Afro-Cuban roots. [Elio is] a fantastic musician, and also more informed by contemporary jazz pianists. That harmonic language is much more a part of their vocabulary than it is for the older generation.

10. Roberto Fonseca

“Lo Que Me Hace Vivir” (from Akokan, Justin Time). Fonseca, piano; Omar González, bass; Ramsés Rodriguez, drums; Joel Hierrezuelo,

percussion. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: Is that Alfredito?

AFTER: Because of the nature of the track, I was going to say it was Vince Guaraldi. It has a Vince Guaraldi vibe, and to me, sometimes as Cubans we revert to that language as if it’s the only place that we come from, but it’s just not the only thing we can do. It’s got a little touch of Keith Jarrett. It’s great.

11. David Virelles

“Sueño” (from Motion, Justin Time). Virelles, piano; Luis Deniz, alto saxophone; Devon Henderson, bass; Ethan Ardelli, drums; Luis Orbegoso, congas, batajones, cajón. Recorded in 2006.

BEFORE: Is it David Virelles? He’s unique. David Virelles is really outstanding, and has really distinguished himself as someone who has used the language of tradition and modernized it to where it’s come to be in the world of Steve Coleman. For me, he’s probably one of the most interesting musicians out there period, let alone Cuban pianists. He’s also one of the few Cuban pianists who’s not scared of simplicity. He doesn’t show it on this track, but there are things of his that have space and freedom; this is not space and freedom. He’s bad. My hat is off to him. He’s a marvelous musician. It’s lovely and it’s modern, and it comes from tradition and does everything that I think that jazz should. It’s got one foot in the next world, but it’s firmly planted on terra firma.

12. Fabian Almazan Trio

“Sin Alma” (from Personalities, Biophilia). Almazan, piano; Linda Oh, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: That’s Gonzalo. Roberto Carcassés?

AFTER: I’m not familiar with his work. I know that he’s an interesting pianist. That’s a great trio. I have to get hip to Fabian. This is definitely not your granddaddy’s Afro-Cuban, or even your granddaddy’s Cuban jazz. I like it because he’s got a beautiful, light touch. If you played this for a hundred people, they wouldn’t think this was a Cuban pianist. They wouldn’t think that-it’s just so rooted in modern jazz. I guess that’s why I like it. It’s more like the music I’m likely to make with a piano trio. It’s very light and airy.

13. The Pedrito Martínez Group

“Conciencia” (from The Pedrito Martínez Group, Motéma). Martínez, percussion, vocals; Ariacne Trujillo, piano, vocals; Alvaro Benavides, electric bass, vocals; Jhair Sala, percussion, vocals. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: This is Pedrito. And Ariacne’s fabulous. I’ve heard this. She’s amazing. Pedrito’s just incredible. When people think of Pedrito, they think of real folklorically grounded music, but in fact he’s a modernist and she’s a modernist. It’s so predicated on the groove, people tend to bring it to a very fundamental place, but it’s not. She’s a forward-looking musician.

14. Jorge Luis Pacheco

“Con el Pache Me Voy” (from My Favorite Themes, pachecopiano.com). Pacheco, piano; David Faya Cordova, bass; Ivan Llanes, drums; Otto Santana Selis, percussion. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: It’s not Roberto Carcassés? Alexis Bosch?

AFTER: I know Jorge Luis Pacheco. This does not sound like him. Let me hear the solo. He’s a very fine musician. He’s given to a lot of virtuosic display that is such a trademark of Cuban pianists. I’ve known him for a long time. Let me listen to this. I guarantee he’ll break into 32nd notes. There it is!

It’s funny; he’s a really scary pianist. I think there’s a maturation process that he’s going to go through, because technically he’s beyond gifted. It’s a hard road in a way, because Cuba has got so many great pianists that to distinguish yourself as a pianist you have to be technically spectacular, and Jorge is. He’s phenomenal. There’s a thing that’s expected of Cuban pianists, when jazz tourists go to Cuba. They want to hear the histrionics and the virtuosity, and because it’s easy for the pianists to do it they’ll do it, but it’s excessive to some degree. It doesn’t always make musical sense, but it’s so impressive. For instance, some of my favorite Chucho is when he’s really just playing Cuban music without all the bells and whistles. It’s the same with Pacheco. When he plays timba, syncopation and groove, that’s impressive to me. Thirty-second notes, not so much. That was nice, though.

15. Alfredo Rodríguez

“Guantanamera” (from The Invasion Parade, Mack Avenue). Rodríguez, piano; Peter Slavov, bass; Henry Cole, drums.

Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: That’s pretty. That’s good piano playing, too. That’s control. Wow, that’s really good. That’s great. I have no clue, but it’s brilliant.

AFTER: Is it Alfredito? I’m really familiar with Alfredo, and [his playing is] technically adept but there’s a sense of control about it. Obviously, [speaking of] the younger crew, all these pianists are phenomenal, but this is not just histrionics for histrionics’ sake. There’s a musical reason and there’s a constructed reason. There’s an architectural arc to why he plays like he does. Also, it’s informed by jazz. It’s shaped by Cuba but informed by contemporary jazz pianists. Oh, there go the histrionics. Eventually they come out, don’t they? It’s like trying to hide your crazy; you can’t hide it for too long. That’s also typical of Cuban pianism.

A lot of people are mystified by that, that need to overplay and overwrite, but I think they’re not understanding the idea that it’s an expressive form as valid as playing any way. An entry point into music can be your technique, can be your culture, can be the genre that you’re surrounded by, can be your musical upbringing. They are all valid. And I think the thing that marks Cuban pianists is the fact that they’re trained very well. They’re extraordinary musicians and extraordinary pianists, and I like when they take the limits of their extraordinary pianism and their Afro-folkloric roots and understanding, and then join in the conversation with contemporary jazz pianists. That’s kind of the best of all possible worlds.

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