Star turns can be awfully distracting at times. Take, for example, “Four Questions,” the title track of the sixth album Arturo O’Farrill has made with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. It’s a tour de force both conceptually and compositionally, using the “four questions” from W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal The Souls of Black Folk to address the breadth and depth of African-American musical culture. Some of that comes through the spoken words of Cornel West, who addresses the listener and the orchestra as if salvation were at hand, but it’s O’Farrill—both as composer and pianist—who does the heaviest lifting. This prismatic music was a revelation when first performed at the Apollo Theater in 2016, and it takes on even greater resonance with the recent revival of the civil rights movement.
But as great as it is, “Four Questions” is only part of the brilliance O’Farrill manifests here. With each successive Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra album, O’Farrill has expanded the definition of Afro-Latin music, and Four Questions is no exception. Gospel music hasn’t traditionally been seen as part of that spectrum, but O’Farrill ties it in brilliantly, both through a section of “Four Questions” based on the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and on “A Still, Small Voice,” a thrummingly kaleidoscopic four-part work for jazz orchestra and choir. Nor is his use of the choir simply drawn from the church. “A Still, Small Voice” uses its vocals—whether solo soprano or full choir—to add an extra layer of color to the orchestra, while its a cappella third part, “Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind,” underscores O’Farrill’s absolute command of harmony.
Within all that, the expected brilliance of the band, particularly the trombone section, may go under-remarked, but it’s hardly unappreciated. Four Questions is a masterwork, and a timely one at that. It deserves hearing.