Arturo O’Farrill: The Noguchi Sessions

Arturo O'Farrill with his Latin Jazz Orchestra at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010 image 0
Melissa Mergner

Arturo O'Farrill with his Latin Jazz Orchestra at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010

Give Arturo O’Farrill credit for guts. The 50-something leader-composer of splendid big bands and small ensembles chose to record the first solo piano record of his career in a single sitting. What’s more, he chose to record it inside a museum built by and dedicated to an artist, Isamu Noguchi, for whom O’Farrill has long felt affinity and admiration. In the promotional materials, O’Farrill also states that one of the subthemes of these performances is that “there is an unfinished quality to jazz,” and that “when I sat down to play, I kind of abandoned the game plan I had.”

Not surprisingly, the music produced under these circumstances is uneven-often brilliant, dense and ambitious, but occasionally too fitful for a truly satisfying coherence. For example, the opening piece, named “The Sun at Midnight” after a Noguchi sculpture, is a free improvisation that contains two, perhaps three, motifs that appear to be operating as free agents. And the embellishments on Randy Weston’s “Little Niles” erode some of the loping swing that is at the heart of the composition.

The highlights, however, can be spectacular. O’Farrill’s improvisation on the ’50s pop song “Once I Had a Secret Love,” retitled “Once I Had a Secret Meditation,” reveals new light and shadow and is lofted up in perfect pitch. His original composition, “Mi Vida,” is a tour de force on the tensile strength of a mature relationship; his Latin covers, of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney” and Pedro Flores’ “Obsesión,” set those familiar melodies in the eye of his pianistic hurricane; and he resuscitates “Oh Danny Boy” from boozy banality. In fact, there is beauty and dazzle in most every tune. But sometimes it dashes away.