Arturo O’Farrill & Chucho Valdés: For Love of Family

Two pianists and bandleaders strive to tear down the walls dividing  genres, generations & politics

Arturo O'Farrill & Chucho Valdes (photo by Luis Olazabal)

Practically speaking, Familia: Tribute to Bebo & Chico (Motéma), the new double album by the renowned pianists, composers and bandleaders Arturo O’Farrill and Chucho Valdés, first came under serious consideration in 2014. But in theory, its roots go back more than a lifetime.

The 76-year-old Valdés’ father was Bebo Valdés (1918-2013), the pioneering Cuban pianist and composer. His son is likewise a towering presence, figuratively and literally, appearing a generation younger than his age and standing a full head above O’Farrill, who’s nearly 6 feet tall. The 57-year-old O’Farrill’s father was Havana-born Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001), the gifted pianist, composer and arranger whose work fueled memorable recordings by Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman,
Stan Kenton and others.

Familia features compositions by both of its principal pianists (the co-penned “BeboChicoChuchoTuro”; Valdés’ “Tema de Bebo” and “Para Chico”; O’Farrill’s “Three Revolutions” and “Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters”), plus interpretations of classics by their fathers (Bebo’s “Ecuaciõn” and “Con Poco Coco”; Chico’s “Pianitis” and “Pura Emocion”). And the project goes a step further. Disc one features Valdés and O’Farrill recording with O’Farrill’s vaunted Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, while disc two boasts the Third Generations Ensemble, which includes children of Valdés (pianist daughter Leyanis and drumming son Jessie) and O’Farrill (trumpeter Adam and drummer Zack). Those talented 20- and 30-somethings also make guest appearances throughout. The extended-family concept results in symmetrical power and beauty, often at once, rather than disparity between the different ensembles. And as the bilingual O’Farrill (who translated for the Spanish-speaking Valdés) explains, their hope is that Familia also brings renewed unity within the United States, as well as with neighboring Cuba and the rest of the world, during these turbulent times.

JazzTimes: In the liner notes, Arturo, you write, “This recording is not about piano, Latin jazz or Cuba.” Why did you make that disclaimer?

Arturo O’Farrill: People tend to box and categorize things. But what master Chucho has always shown us is that just when you think you understand something, it can become something entirely different. Fans of piano, Latin jazz, Chucho’s artistry and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s music should all find things they’ll like, even if those aren’t primarily what the CD is about. It’s really about celebrating what holds us together: the family—both in micro and macro forms, from immediate to global, and the musical family as well.

You guys are also on record as wanting to take Bebo and Chico’s visions in new directions. Why is that?

AO: Bebo and Chico were visionaries. So Chucho and I talked about how it wasn’t enough of a tribute to them to just play their music. We had to learn from their spirit and their vision, and not make it purely a nostalgic record. We’ve also talked about some pianists who are among our favorites, other visionaries in addition to the obvious names. And Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor’s names came up as modernists, progressives, innovators and those who surprise listeners with their vision.

Chucho Valdés: Cecil Taylor is a singular and unique artist in the history of jazz piano. No one else has ever been able to speak his language, his dialect. It is uniquely his own.

Arturo, you also liken the CD’s buoyant opener, “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” to the Brady Bunch theme in the liner notes. It seems a bit more challenging than that.

AO: Chucho and I wrote that piece together, just playing around, and there was a lot of feeling to it. I never write anything in the key of G major. It always comes out joyful and happy, and that stuff never works for me. So I initially wasn’t sure what to think of it, but when it came out, it actually made me happy! Which made a huge imprint on my life. I could admit to being happy.

Chucho, was it emotional for you to record your father’s “Ecuaciõn” and your composition “Tema de Bebo”?

CV: When we started recording “Ecuaciõn,” I had to go to the bathroom to hide my tears. I was transported back to the Tropicana Club [the Havana nightclub where Bebo was the house pianist and arranger]. I used to go there with my father as a kid in the 1950s, and the sound of the orchestra playing that music transported me back to my childhood. And Bebo’s spirit, which was evident throughout the entire recording, was particularly hovering over that piece. “Tema de Bebo” was a piece where I wasn’t trying to compose in the style of Bebo, but to use my voice to show an appreciation of who Bebo was and what he did. I’d previously recorded it with Branford Marsalis in 2012.

AO: It was a very emotional experience to record Chico’s piece “Pianitis,” and to record our fathers’ music in general. One of my favorite moments came during “Ecuaciõn,” when Chucho is soloing and I’m accompanying him. We’re such different pianists, but there was never an attempt to one-up each other. There was always respect, and a beautiful dialogue. We’re hoping that listeners, rather than trying to hear the sound of each pianist and identify them, will try to hear more of the relationship and dialogue between us. And remember, piano players are not always the easiest musicians to get along with! [laughs]

Who plays the more stately first piano solo in “Tema de Bebo,” and who plays the more risky second one?

AO: Take a guess.

You play the first, and Chucho the second?

AO: That’s right. And our ending cadenzas are in that same order.

Was the project recorded live in the studio, or was each instrument
individually tracked?

AO: Oh, it was very much live. We had photos of our fathers on the wall for inspiration. So they were literally watching over us as we made this recording. Our only audience was Bebo and Chico.

Were there any overdubs?

AO: None. And not every song got recorded on the first take, but most of them did. We had just played these songs live at Symphony Space in New York City, so we were well rehearsed.

So you both had your own pianos in the studio, and were rehearsed enough to know who would comp and who would solo at all times?

CV: Yes, we were. And we each had our own beautiful Steinway piano.

AO: They were set up side by side.

Did the arrangements dictate who would be soloing and who would be comping?

AO: We never discussed it. It just came out. That was part of the beauty of the experience.

Was the Third Generations Ensemble assembled specifically for this project?

AO: Yes, but we’re hoping they continue on.

And will the two of you perform together again?

CV: One of these days, yes, hopefully. If and when our schedules allow.

Chucho, the performances by your daughter Leyanis and son Jessie on “Recuerdo,” your tribute to Bebo, must have made you very proud.

CV: They did. This was a very emotional project because of its family nature, and the passing down of music through our families’ generations. They made me feel the changing of the guard. They’re no longer our kids; they are now their own artists, and they have their own trajectory. And it pleases me very much that they’re leaving behind us old guys [laughs]. It was the first time I’d recorded with them!

AO: He was very nervous about that. I told him to practice!

Imagine how nervous the kids were.

CV: They weren’t. They were extremely cool about it.

AO: That’s true. They just rolled with everything. They realize, like Chucho and I did, that our family names are not a birthright. A musical career is a journey, and if you have something beautiful to add to the overall picture, your voice will be heard. I’d actually heard Leyanis play at a show in Havana previously, and was blown away. And I went up to her and told her that people will want her to do what is expected of her, because of what Bebo and Chucho have accomplished. But I told her that she had to find her own voice, and to never be afraid.

Arturo, your sons’ tunes, Adam’s “Run and Jump” and Zack’s “Gonki Gonki,” are very adventurous and creative.

AO: They play together in their own band, Stranger Days. It’s Adam’s project, and a very beautiful band. Very modern and progressive, but also traditional and poetic. They have their own voices, which is important. It can be hard to be a musician whose father or mother has had some success. [Ed. note: The boys’ mother, O’Farrill’s wife, is the classical pianist Alison Deane.] People naturally expect you to be this or that, and if you don’t meet their expectations you’re a failure and/or not as good as your parents were. But my sons have actually surpassed me in contemporary jazz techniques. And I love that.

CV: Leyanis and Jessie both told me after the recording sessions that the experience had changed their lives.

Whose idea was it to record “Raja Ram” with Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar?

AO: It was Kabir Sehgal, our producer. He wanted to also celebrate Ravi’s legacy as a musician and a father, and extend the global nature of the project—to explore the worlds of Indian and African feels as well, especially through hand drumming and sitar. And Anoushka also happened to play her ass off.

Arturo, did Chucho being nearly a generation older than you make him one of your prime influences?

AO: Oh, yes. There’s only one Chucho Valdés in the history of our instrument. When we walked through the Little Havana section of Miami [for the album’s photo shoot], it was amazing to watch how many people recognized him and came up to pay their respects. Chucho is truly one of the heroes and legends of our music, and one of the most beautiful things about working with him is that he transcends culture, genres and geography. He’s lived, and continues to live, in places all over the world. So the normal individual reference points—jazz, Cuba, Afro-Cuban, Europe, America, Latin jazz and beyond—all come together in his hands. It’s very rewarding to me that he’s so proud of what we’ve accomplished with this project. He’s truly a pianist of the world—a global pianist in the best sense. Right, Chucho?

CV: [shrugs]

AO: Bebo and Chico were also musicians who stood at the center of many worlds. They were classically trained, Afro-Cuban-trained, jazz-trained artists who changed the musical conversation.

CV: They created a path where things didn’t need to be defined by labels like jazz, Latin or mambo. They helped us all get to a crossroads.

And what influence has Arturo had on you, Chucho?

CV: Arturo has a totally different and new approach to his playing from mine, which is very influential. And one should always learn from, and be influenced by, things that are different.

Chucho, does Irakere, the groundbreaking Cuban band you cofounded in 1973, have a future beyond occasional anniversary showcases?

CV: Irakere could have a future, although it might also be best to leave it where it stopped. Irakere did what it was supposed to do, so it’s not necessary to keep it going. It fulfilled a very important purpose in the history of Cuban music without repeating itself. So you can’t really have an Irakere without some of the original participants. There’s a whole new generation of young musicians in Cuba now who are really moving the music forward the way Irakere once did.

AO: It’s very gratifying to see young Cuban artists coming up to push the envelope the way we once did.

Has touring changed much because of the change in U.S. presidential administrations?

AO: Chucho won’t talk politics [laughs]. But the real change is that it’s become challenging for Americans because there’s such different opinions between the Trump administration and the Obama administration. People here are apprehensive about how things will turn out. So touring hasn’t changed so much logistically, but bringing artists from specific countries has indeed become more difficult; visas have been denied and certain entries to our borders here are more difficult. [All of this] affects us, because we’re presenters as well as musicians and bandleaders. The border patrols are much more vigilant now, too.

I travel internationally a lot, so I hear opinions on the United States wherever I go. And we didn’t have a lot of credibility before, but now we have practically none in parts of the world. In my opinion, that’s very sad. I also think the tragic events that took place during that march through Charleston, S.C., in August may be the lowest point in American history.


AO: There were things about those events that you can’t un-see. Heather Heyer being hit and killed by the car, and the Nazi white supremacists marching through the city with Tiki torches and racist slogans. And the presidential press conference on the Tuesday afterward, where those Nazis weren’t denounced.

Were you surprised that President Trump won the election, or could you foresee that possibility?

AO: Oh, no, I was surprised. I’ve never been so surprised in my life. There were people in the streets of New York City crying, people in my building, too, and I’m an outspoken critic and revolutionary about this. As artists and musicians, I think it’s our responsibility to get involved in creating solutions and destroying walls, not building them. And like Chucho, I believe in the progress of mankind, the equality of all humans. And that, as I see it, is what’s missing currently within the United States. The most important reality we can live by is that all people are of equal value, but that’s only half the picture. The other half is that we’re all responsible for every other human on the planet. If we don’t understand that, we’re lost. And in every way possible, we do what we can to take up that burden and cause, however glorified and mystical that may sound.

CV: And that’s not political. It has nothing to do with politics.

AO: No, it’s about basic human dignity and love for one another.

How much progress was made between the U.S. and Cuba after President Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in July of 2015?

AO: I noticed that a lot more people traveled to Cuba, even if it didn’t seem to have much effect on the average human being in general. I saw the previous travel restrictions as ridiculous, anyway, so I saw those restorations less as advancement than a normalization.

CV: I definitely noticed a difference. It was special. It seemed like everyone was waiting for that normalization.

And now there are threats to undo all that, and to wall off neighbors.

AO: It’s so sad. Trump didn’t pay a lot of people he owed money to as a businessman, which was sadly convenient for him, but now he’s created a government based on convenience—largely his own. But speaking of walls, I’m currently working on one of the most amazing projects of my life in writing a piece called “Little Tiny Walls.” It’s based on the Fandango Fronterizo, the annual celebration and jam session [since 2008] where American and Mexican musicians on the San Diego and Tijuana sides of the U.S. and Mexico border play together through the thick metal meshed fence between the two countries. I plan to do a recording of the piece, with remote recording trucks on both the American and Mexican sides of the border. It’ll happen next spring, with special guests invited for the occasion.

 An across-the-border family celebration that a wall can’t constrain.

AO: It’s my hope that it’s a project, along with Familia, that reminds us about the bond between music, family and community, and that it’s all global. If people who need a sense of normalcy can get it through hearing music that’s been lovingly crafted, by musicians who are literally and figuratively family to each other, then we’ll have accomplished our goal.