Flatbush Avenue cuts across Brooklyn. At its western tip, the avenue literally becomes the Manhattan Bridge, a vital entry point to the musical mecca of Manhattan. But Brooklyn itself has a rich cultural legacy. The Up Over Jazz Café, which sits atop a barbecue takeout joint, rests on the dividing line between two neighborhoods, Park Slope and Fort Greene, both home for generations to musicians, artists, and writers.
This recording captures a fiery piano trio performance on two sweltering August nights at the Up Over Jazz Café. Leading the group is Park Slope resident Arturo O'Farrill, a pianist whose own history cuts across a wide swath of jazz and Latin-music influences, and whose vision forms a bridge to new musical vistas. The son of the late Cuban bandleader and composer Chico O'Farrill, Arturo grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Chico, who died in 2001, created some of the most significant and sublime fusions of Afro-Cuban music and American jazz. These days, his music is celebrated at Lincoln Center and elsewhere, most notably through two renowned orchestras under Arturo's leadership: the Chico O'Farrill Latin Jazz Orchestra, and the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Orchestra. But it was not always so.
If the United States was not quick to accept Latin jazz as its own, neither was the young Arturo. "When I first began to play," he says, "I rejected my father's inherited culture," he says. "I was into Coltrane's, Jimi Hendrix's and Sun Ra's music. I was making my name around Manhattan's downtown loft scene." Arturo blazed his own trail, which included a notable three-year stint with the big band led by Carla Bley.
"A magical thing happened when my father got elderly," Arturo says. "I heard our music as if it were new to me." Others keyed Arturo's embrace of things Latin. Bassist Andy Gonzalez, an integral part of this trio, pushed Arturo in that direction.
"I remember telling Arturo that it was OK for him to play clave-inspired music, that it was a part of him," Gonzalez says. A New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Gonzalez stands as one of the world's preeminent Latin jazz bassists. His work with his brother Jerry in the Fort Apache Band is considered by many to be the new standard for the genre. His bass has anchored bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Chico O'Farrill, among others.
The affection and intellectual camaraderie between O'Farrill and Gonzalez draws a page from stories of the bond between Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. "Andy is sort of the Einstein of modern Latin jazz," O'Farrill says. "He has never forgotten the bass rule that even Bach understood: above all else, the bass line pushes the harmony and the rhythm forward."
Drummer Dafnis Prieto, a generation younger than O'Farrill and Gonzalez, was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. He arrived in New York in 1999, when American jazz musicians had begun anew to seek out Latin players for cross-cultural collaboration. One of Prieto's first jobs in New York was with the trailblazing saxophonist Henry Threadgill. Since then, he has become first-call drummer of ensembles led by Eddie Palmieri, Chucho Valdés, Michel Camilo, and the Caribbean Jazz Project. He debuted as a leader with the recent release of About the Monks, also on the ZOHO label.
If all of the above makes you think of this CD as a Latin-jazz album, think again. It is instead a swinging announcement of Arturo O'Farrill's identity, a Brooklyn postcard from three like-minded musicians - all brilliantly bilingual and fully committed to O'Farrill's skillfully eclectic ideal.
The opening track, "Vieques" leans upon Gonzalez's simple bass figure. "Its simplicity is startling," O'Farrill says, "and it opens up all sorts of possibilities. The tune moves through a variety of Latin rhythms, from Puerto Rican bomba and plena to Cuban son.
"Walking Batterie Woman" is the first of two Carla Bley's tunes here. As O'Farrill says: "I've played a lot of free jazz in my life and a lot of structured jazz, and this is the piece that most straddles the two worlds." One key to such negotiation is the presence of Prieto. "Most people think of Dafnis as a pyrotechnical virtuoso - which he is," says O'Farrill. "However, he thinks like a painter as much as a drummer, and he plays with great washes of sound."
Another Bley tune, "Utviklinsang," celebrates her penchant for writing lovely and distinctive melodies. O'Farrill never tires of such beauty. Next is an extended take on Duke Ellington standard "In a Sentimental Mood." The trio luxuriates in pure melody and rich harmony for quite some time; then O'Farrill reaches a point of pure improvisation without a hint of contrivance, lost in the song's inner core.
Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" gets a gentle introduction. Then, little by little, O'Farrill weaves in a chiming montuno or two while Gonzalez and Prieto slip into Latin rhythms; moments later, the trio shifts into a bebop mode, with O'Farrill playing furious single-note runs. It's a seamless union of styles, abetted by the genius of Shorter's design.
Horace Silver's "Peace", is a bluesy spiritual number; its simple beauty belies its harmonic complexity. And for O'Farrill, it's a subtle comment on the Bush administration's call to war. (He remembers how, when Reagan was elected president in the 1980s, Carla Bley's band would perform the "Star Spangled Banner" in a minor key.)
O'Farrill closes the set with Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't." Here, perhaps more than at any other point, O'Farrill finds his middle road, part bebop, part Latin, partly free improvisation. "Monk may be the original Latin-jazz composer," he says. "Or the best one, anyway. He had this intuitive clave machine inside his tunes."
Live in Brooklyn documents O'Farrill just months after his first trip to Havana - to a homeland his father had forsaken, never to return. Arturo now separates his life into "B.C and A.C" (before and after the Cuba trip). Everything he encountered - the rolling countryside, the mangy-looking cows, the hero's welcome that came as a surprise - profoundly changed each note he has played since. You can hear it in this recording.
Larry Blumenfeld, Brooklyn, 2005
Recorded live at the Up Over Jazz Café, Brooklyn, NY, on August 8 & 9, 2003. Engineer: Kato Hideki. Produced by Arturo O'Farrill and Todd Barkan. Photography : Sergio Royzen. Package Design : 3 & Co., New York (www.threeandco.com) Executive Producer: Joachim Becker.