Adam O’Farrill Does Not Play Latin Jazz

The young trumpeter inherited the traditions of a royal jazz family, but he’s got no qualms about staking out new musical territory

Adam O'Farrill

Above: Adam O’Farrill at the Vision Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 2018. Photo by Marek Lazarski.

One day when Adam O’Farrill was around five, he had a remarkable experience that, as he is careful to note, may or may not have been prophetic.

He was visiting the Upper West Side apartment of the late saxophonist Mario Rivera, who had long been a fixture of the stateside Latin-jazz community, having played alongside everyone from Tito Puente to O’Farrill’s grandfather Chico to Dizzy Gillespie. Rivera had one of Diz’s trumpets and, as you do when you’re a de facto member of jazz royalty, Adam picked up the horn and blew a note or two. “It still smelled all smoky,” he recalls now, sharing the story over tacos and quesadillas at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican deli in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. “Maybe that had something to do with it.”

“It” is the 24-year-old trumpeter and bandleader’s career to this point, which has been remarkable even considering the advantages of having parents like pianists Arturo O’Farrill and Alison Deane. O’Farrill recently released the concise, thoughtful El Maquech, his second album with band Stranger Days, on Biophilia. Gigs as a sideman started in his late teens, with both his father’s many ensembles and contemporary jazz luminaries like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. His appearance on the latter’s celebrated 2015 Charlie Parker tribute Bird Calls, recorded when O’Farrill was just 20, brought his prodigious virtuosity to a wider audience. But even prior to that point, his ability had turned heads around the jazz world.

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“Adam is my favorite trumpet player of any generation right now,” says fellow trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who gave O’Farrill a few lessons around his pupil’s senior year in high school. “He’s ridiculous, man. He could just grab the trumpet and blow you away every single time, but when I’ve heard him play lately, I can tell that he’s really thinking—really being patient with the music.”

Like his father, O’Farrill proved early on that he could hang as easily with straight-ahead jazz players as he could with contemporary avant-gardists—and with jazz that drew more explicitly from the music’s Latino roots. “I was very impressed by Adam’s playing,” Arturo Sandoval wrote in an email. The Latin-jazz icon was among the judges at the 2014 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Trumpet Competition, where O’Farrill was second runner-up. “He’s got a lot of talent and I know he’ll go far.”

O’Farrill started off playing piano around age six, and began playing trumpet not long after. In a house where, at least from the outside, music-making was more or less an inevitability, he insists that he never felt any real pressure to maintain the family tradition. “They’ll be happy with me doing anything, as long as I’m doing it well,” he says of his parents. In his specific case that meant, for example, his mother yelling from the next room over in the Park Slope townhouse where he grew up that he should fix his posture while practicing—not necessarily the kind of coaching most aspiring musicians can count on from their parents.

Stranger Days
Stranger Days (left to right): Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, Zack O’Farrill, Adam O’Farrill, and Walter Stinson. Photo by Alex Joseph.

Four musicians living in one household also functioned as a sort of timekeeping intensive. “There would be many points when someone would be practicing piano on the top floor, I’d be practicing trumpet on the next floor, and my brother would be practicing drums in the basement—all at the same time,” O’Farrill says. “We had the coolest neighbors, never got any complaints.”

O’Farrill’s older brother, Zack, is an accomplished drummer in his own right. The pair have played together since they were teenagers, recorded several albums as co-bandleaders, and remain bandmates in both Stranger Days and their father’s ensembles. For Adam, his influence predates their experiences on the bandstand: “My brother’s always been good at knowing what’s cool,” he says. Memorable recommendations have include everything from Art Blakey’s live album Ugetsu to players like Vijay Iyer and Miguel Zenón—before they were cool. On his own, Adam was also checking out classics from Miles Davis (not even having a jazz-musician parent prevented Kind of Blue from being his first Miles album) and Dizzy Gillespie, whose Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1937-1949) he listened to religiously.

Composing came naturally to O’Farrill, who started writing songs almost as soon as he learned to play; his first, he says, was a short spy theme called “Agent O” when he was around eight (that’s Agent O’Farrill, not the notorious Vietnam War herbicide Agent Orange). But most of his jazz education was about as straight-ahead as it gets. “The Real Book was my favorite book for a long time,” he says, laughing.

Still, O’Farrill’s biggest early resource wasn’t a book, or his father’s guidance, or his brother’s savvy recommendations. It was Puppet’s Jazz Bar, a now-defunct club not far from where he grew up in Brooklyn co-owned by one of Arturo’s friends, drummer Jaime Affoumado. Starting in middle school, O’Farrill and his brother led a weekly jam session there, working out standards for a neighborhood crowd. “It was incredible because there were other kids our age that were playing,” he says. “It was a chance to get together and read tunes, but with your friends and family there. It was a good way to get into things.”

It was also at Puppet’s that O’Farrill played his first professional gig at 13 (alongside his father and brother, as well as bassist Andy Gonzalez) and eventually met his now-bandmate, saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown. “I was just struck by his command of the instrument, and his deep understanding of improvising with both a more traditional approach and a more abstract approach,” Lefkowitz-Brown says now. “I think it’s unusual for someone to have such a high command of both extremes. I was so blown away that I hired him for my debut album [2013’s Imagery Manifesto]—he must have been 18.” That date would be O’Farrill’s first recording session outside his family, and perhaps most importantly, the first one for which he was paid. “It was just a powerful moment,” he says. “Not that I do this for money, but to be paid for something like that was very surreal to me.”

The artistic community O’Farrill grew up in was remarkable, of a sort rarely found outside cities like New York. But it’s the city’s extramusical charms that the native New Yorker finds most inspiring, not its singular jazz scene. “The benefit of growing up in New York is that my parents, as much as they were showing me music, they were showing me New York as a city,” he says, recalling family drives to all corners of the metropolis in search of the most authentic regional foods. He went to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the pre-conservatory public high school best known from the musical Fame), and relished meeting its diverse student body. “I love New York for its spirit,” he concludes.

Despite his early work as a jam session architect, O’Farrill is less than enthralled with the New York jazz scene as a self-contained entity. “The session thing has its place, but I hate going to Smalls and getting a sense that people aren’t listening,” he says, with an air of world-weariness that would seem slightly absurd if it weren’t so genuine. “Being there to be seen talking to someone while people are putting their hearts into the instruments—like, c’mon.”

Adam O'Farrill
Adam O’Farrill. Photo by Alice Plati.

Instead, he prefers to avail himself of the vast array of gigs available around the city, performing not just contemporary jazz and more traditional Latin fare, but also a slew of pop music. When we get lunch, he’s en route to a rehearsal with bassist Eva Lawitts, a fellow LaGuardia alum whose work skews more DIY and postpunk, although she’s recently toured with rapper Princess Nokia. “There was one week where I did a country gig at Rockwood, a round-robin thing with Onyx Collective, and a flamenco gig,” he says. “If the music is good, that’s all I really care about.”

At the same time, O’Farrill has been cultivating his own sound—a process that got a boost from a number of impressive mentors. His family, of course, gave him a great foundation and ongoing work, and he also studied extensively with Jim Seeley and Nathan Warner. Those early lessons from Akinmusire, though, were an especially important wake-up call.

“I felt like he was dialing it in and playing the stock shit that everyone else was playing, but better than everybody else was playing it,” Akinmusire says. “A lot of my energy went into figuring out how to inspire him, because I could see that if he continued along the road that he was on, he might have gotten burnt out. He was already at a level, technically, where he could totally have gigs for the rest of his life. When I said that, I could see a lightbulb turn on. Now I think he definitely is thinking about what happens after you can actually do things on the trumpet—what you’re trying to say.”

“I was in high school, and I had gotten lazy,” O’Farrill admits, adding that when Akinmusire asked him how much he had been practicing, he had to tell him two hours … every few days. “He really laid into me. He was like, ‘You should be doing that every day, at least.’ He was totally right saying what he said.”

Over the course of the year or so that they worked together, during which O’Farrill began studying at the Manhattan School of Music, Akinmusire says he eventually had to start seriously preparing what they would work on every time Adam came to his apartment. “I’d have to warm up and really get ready,” he remembers now, laughing. O’Farrill, who cites Akinmusire as one of his heroes, says that much of what he admires about him has nothing to do with the trumpet specifically: “I feel like he’s misunderstood sometimes. I think it’s gutsy to say something that might be construed as pretentious, and to not be self-conscious about it.”

Collaborating with Mahanthappa on Bird Calls was similarly instructive. The saxophonist had approached O’Farrill after watching an old audition tape of his on YouTube, resulting in an immersive experience that he says “really lit a fire under my ass.”

“There’s nothing worse than playing with someone who doesn’t know what they want,” O’Farrill says. “[Mahanthappa] had a vision, and it wasn’t this grand ambitious thing—he just knew what he wanted. My dad was like that, too. It was good to see more people like that, who were just like, ‘This is what it is.’ I learned a lot about bandleading from spending time with him.”

As O’Farrill refines his own vision, there’s a level of deliberateness to his output that makes it easy to forget his age. His debut as a bandleader came on 2016’s Stranger Days alongside his chordless group of the same name—Lefkowitz-Brown, brother Zack, and bassist Walter Stinson—which projects an instantly recognizable maturity. Its arrangements are stripped down, its players studiously avoiding clichés; any chaos is incidental, as the band instead relies for fireworks on the chemistry that’s come as a result of their longtime friendship. “When you’re making music with people you can fully trust as friends, you hear it in the music,” says Lefkowitz-Brown, who adds that he treasures the band’s unusual (for jazz) continuity and closeness.

The sequel, El Maquech, was recorded while the band was on tour—a relatively haphazard array of material that O’Farrill had been introducing live and wanted to capture on record. Its sources range from regional Mexican folk music to R&B singer Gabriel Garzón-Montano to Thelonious Monk, the stylistic diversity made cohesive by the band’s synchronicity and energy. It’s a remarkable achievement, a jazz record that’s timely yet serious, intentional without letting concept overpower execution. “He often plays with a very unconventional approach, but it’s still so genuine,” Lefkowitz-Brown says. “It’s clear that he’s spent so much time thinking out this approach to his improvising, because it’s so cultivated. It doesn’t sound like he’s getting on the bandstand and just trying something new for the sake of trying something new.”

There’s no question that El Maquech shows O’Farrill tapping more explicitly into Latin music traditions, both within jazz and without. But it’s not Latin jazz, and O’Farrill is aware of the potential for his music—no matter its aesthetic qualities—to be placed in that category by those who should probably know better, just because he’s Latino and has played Latin jazz with his father and others.

“It’s something my dad has had to put up with his whole life, and still has to put up with,” O’Farrill says. “Even the stuff he does with big band goes beyond the standard definition of Latin jazz.” He recalls seeing one critic’s year-end lists on Facebook: best jazz albums, followed by best Latin jazz albums. At the top of the latter was Gnosis, David Virelles’ ECM outing alongside Roman Diaz. “It’s not even worth putting into words what’s wrong with that—it’s so blatantly obvious,” he says. “You’re specializing something that stands right next to this other shit. It’s just so disrespectful, and so close-minded. Critics, presenters, and even musicians look down on Latin jazz and Latinos, and don’t understand the weight of our contributions to this music. They don’t understand what my grandfather did, what Dizzy and Bird were doing. It’s still a problem.”

O’Farrill would prefer that we all embrace complexity and realize that Latin America’s musical and cultural traditions can influence his work without requiring a new category, or any category. He points to the critically acclaimed 2014 film Birdman, an English-language film set in New York with an English-speaking, non-Latino cast and a Mexican director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. “With that kind of movie, I think there’s something in it that’s informed by Mexican culture and his upbringing, without trying to prove anything,” he says.

It’s a tricky balance—to embrace tradition while avoiding the cliché—but O’Farrill’s output so far suggests he’s up to the task. He has upcoming international tours alongside his father to attend to, a commission for the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival alongside Joel Ross and María Grand, and the ongoing process of refining new compositions that he might premiere at the Jazz Gallery in December. He’s also got to decide what to do with a whole album’s worth of unreleased Stranger Days material.

And yet, somehow, O’Farrill doesn’t appear daunted by the heft of what he’s already accomplished, or the potential burden of being the third generation in a jazz dynasty. He just finished watching a series about another notable family, The Sopranos, and was inspired by its slow and steady pace. “Even in the finale, there was no big climax—it was very natural,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to do as a writer because you want to have control, to determine what happens. You do in a sense, but it’s also about figuring out how to let go. Something’s going to come around in a way you don’t expect.”