Arturo O’Farrill’s New Album and Historic Premiere

Clave's favorite son shines with "The Offense of the Drum"

Even for a venue as legendary as Harlem’s Apollo Theater, May 10, 2014 was a special day. Pianist Arturo O’Farrill, son of the late Cuban bandleader and composer Chico O’Farrill, honored the 65th anniversary of his father’s groundbreaking Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, recorded in 1950 by Machito and Charlie Parker, and premiered his own reimagining, the Afro Latin Jazz Suite, commissioned by the Apollo as part of its 80th season. The performance was part of this year’s Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, and featured O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) plus some very special guests: saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Billy Harper, pianist Randy Weston, drummer Lewis Nash and turntablist DJ Logic.

O’Farrill also celebrated the release of The Offense of the Drum (Motéma), the ALJO’s fourth album, centered on a pan-Latin rhythmic palette featuring dozens of different percussion sources, from the shekere to the turntable. The album, like the Afro Latin Jazz Suite, reflects the spirit of multiculturalism in jazz that the 54-year-old pianist champions. “I realized that the original Afro Cuban Jazz Suite didn’t really deal with Africa, it dealt with Cuba,” says O’Farrill, who recently sat down for an interview at the Harlem School of the Arts, where the ALJO have been artists-in-residence for the past year. “The diaspora didn’t just come and land in New Orleans. These rhythms come from Africa, but they expanded in the language of the new world.”

For O’Farrill, who studied classical piano and composition at the Manhattan School of Music, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, the Afro Latin Jazz Suite re-contextualizes the innovations of his father in a broader context: the European classical tradition, Balinese gamelan, minimalism and hip-hop.

With a structure analogous to the original, O’Farrill develops this multicultural conceit over three movements: “Mother Africa” blends a chordal structure inspired by Olivier Messiaen and complex djembe rhythms that elude western notation; “The Americas” weds Steve Reich and a festejo polyrhythm; “What Now?” incorporates DJ Logic’s syncopated scratching and Mahanthappa’s microtonal harmony. “At its roots, jazz is a world music and it’s a hybrid music, and to continue that tradition with respect to how the American cultural landscape grows is very important,” says Mahanthappa. “I think harmonically and rhythmically, Arturo checked out my work and found a way to write for that using his vocabulary as a composer.”

Where the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite synthesized Cuban clave and bebop, the Afro Latin Jazz Suite synthesizes Latin rhythms with Mahanthappa’s Carnatic aesthetic and hip-hop. “Rudresh to me represents what Charlie Parker did to my father,” says O’Farrill. “It’s as though you’re looking at these thousands-of-years-old African drums and you can see the lineage directly to DJ Logic and the turntable. I see the connection between the Wu-Tang Clan and Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Some people want to separate these schools, but they are so beautifully interconnected.”

Randy Weston, who performed his 20-minute “African Sunrise” at the Apollo with Billy Harper on tenor saxophone, was instrumental in broadening O’Farrill’s perspective. Not only did the iconic pianist perform the piece with Chico O’Farrill in 1998, also alongside Harper, his 1959 piece “Little Susan” was coincidentally inspired by O’Farrill’s future wife, concert pianist Alison Susan Deane. “The meaning of the piece is that African culture is rising,” says Weston. “It’s like when a plant breaks through the sidewalk: It arises, and that’s why it’s called ‘African Sunrise.'”

Consistent with that vibrant tradition, The Offense of the Drum features eclectic guest artists across a cross-cultural continuum: Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda on opener “Cuarto de Colores,” socially conscious rapper Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas on the reggaeton-inflected “They Came,” composed by Jason Lindner, and saxophonist Donald Harrison on spirited closer “Iko Iko,” the New Orleans standard.

O’Farrill’s “On the Corner of Malecón and Bourbon” dramatizes the inextricable link between Latin culture and the broader jazz context, a backwards history lesson that starts with the harmonic texture of Cecil Taylor and transitions chronologically to Jelly Roll Morton, interpolating son montuno rhythms. He also bridges Latin tradition, French Impressionism and odd-metered contemporary jazz: “Gnossienne 3” is a recasting of Erik Satie with Andalusian, Arabic and African rhythms, while Vijay Iyer’s “The Mad Hatter,” dedicated to Arturo O’Farrill, appropriates Latin phrasing over a 21/8 time signature.

This December, O’Farrill is planning his next foray into jazz cosmopolitanism, taking the ALJO to Cuba. “What would happen if Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo had not been separated by death?” says O’Farrill, who is an outspoken critic of the Cuban trade embargo. “If they had continued their conversation, we would see a very different interpretation of what jazz was inexorably going toward.”

That interpretation revolves around the clave, the 2/3 rhythmic pattern at the heart of Latin jazz. “The clave is really an exercise in tension and release,” says O’Farrill. “The 2 side is solidly on beat and the 3 side has a syncopated tension, so the clave is really the center of all great human storytelling and struggle.”