There is no such thing as dynasties in jazz, or even in New York music circles. The fortunate truth is that if you can’t deliver, it doesn’t matter who your daddy is. Choosing to perform your father's music is solely an artistic decision.
Asking a famous musician for career advice, I was told “don’t play your daddy’s music”. I disagree; an artist has one responsibility, to tell the truth. And the truth is that Chico was one of the greats, hasn’t quite gotten his due, and alongside my own musical explorations I will always continue to perform the canon of Afro Cuban jazz’s true genius.
This led to strain. Leading my own orchestra, Chico’s orchestra, my small ensembles, my solo work, running a performance and education non- profit (the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance), teaching, touring, raising a family, and well, just being a human was ultimately too much. So on a beautiful, early summer night in 2011, after fifteen years in the finest jazz nightclub in New York and ten years after the passing of my father, The Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra gave its final performance.
I remember the first performance well. It was a freezing cold night and the line stretched down the block. My sons were toddlers and my father was in good health. And then time took its toll and many things transpired, my kids became men, my projects took off and my father aged. I watched band members become husbands and fathers, we saw audiences become familiar faces, and Birdland staff become family. And then one day my father joined the ancestors.
This does not mean the end of Chico’s music, The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra continues to perform his works to this day. But the primary motive in Chico’s aesthetic was to keep the art moving forward. And that is what I am all about.
He was not a replicator, writing predictably the musical equivalent of wallpaper. He wrote from the heart, to challenge and create. And so it is fitting that my work with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra include the master in its repertoire. His music was the foundation for my philosophy. Long live the musical brilliance of my father, el Maestro, Chico O’Farrill.
I’ve listened to the voice of Gianni Valenti every Sunday for what is now close to 18 years introducing us. I have to say that no other institution has made the commitment that Birdland has made to big band Latin jazz. Gianni is the real deal, a club owner in love with the music. He’s there every day taking care of business but I suspect it’s all a front for being close to the music and the musicians he loves. We love you in return, Gianni. You are an official trustee and guardian of our most sacred work.
Three Afro Cuban Jazz Moods
I fell in love with this piece when I was 12, I remember my father working on the vamp in the opening movement in his writing studio. I have seen Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones and other trumpet players of note take turns in the solo chair. With all due respect to these great masters, Jim Seeley owns this piece now and holds his own in such august company.
We rerecorded this masterpiece of an arrangement for one of Chico’s last record dates. I remember his coming into the studio during the mixing sessions and literally breaking into tears upon hearing, in crystal clear digital definition, the gorgeous nuance of his writing. It is exquisite music. I remember playing this piece in the plaza of the World Trade Center two months before the attack and as my father was in transition. There is a beautiful moment towards the end where the brass swells and then disappears, it is so much like our lives. That moment, in that plaza, will remain forever etched in my heart.
This piece was originally written for the Mario Bauza orchestra. The version here is very different. It is the result of one set of musicians playing together for 15 years and forging the kind of groove and trust that can only come from a bond of time and friendship. The gentlemen in this orchestra have a profound love and respect for each other that produces great performance. The five movements are a classic study in Afro Cuban Jazz and reveal the control over multi movement settings that only a master composer like Chico had.
This has always been a favorite Chico composition of fans worldwide. Based on an original work called Cuban Blues this is an extended version created for live performance and featuring the fireworks this band is famous for. It is the simplicity of melodic material, the contrapuntal organization and the rhythmic manipulation of a true American master. And I mean American in the true sense (including all of the Americas).
Fathers and Sons
In December of 2010 I had the privilege of taking the Orchestra, my mother, my sister and niece, my family, and a group of special friends on a journey to Cuba to realize a lifelong dream of mine, to have Chico’s music performed by his musicians in the beloved land of his birth. The purpose of the trip was not nostalgic. It wasn’t an extravagant display of American prowess to show the Cuban people how to swing (trust me they swing pretty hard). It was a gentle thanks to a nation that gave birth to one of our great musical treasures. It was an acknowledgement of Cuban artistic fertility and passion. What better way to do this than to perform with great young Cuban musicians, Grandmaster Chucho Valdes, The Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra and the third generation of O’Farrill musicians, Chico’s grandsons, my children Zachary and Adam. We closed the International Plaza Jazz festival with a piece written to celebrate young musicians everywhere, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Here we close our fifteen years with the same commitment to our heroes, preserving our traditions but, as did Chico, with the same relentless and restless yearning, to progress and grow our art and our young artists.
After the equipment is packed up, the stage is cleared and there are just a few patrons and staff left, there is always a magical moment. A few seconds of closure that at the same time are pregnant with expectancy. Tomorrow the kitchen staff will be in early prepping, the bar staff comes in next, and then servers begin to assemble, the sound check happens at about 4pm, and soon the club opens and audience filters in. This is the good part, that part where the music continues, that the club continues, that the audiences still love what we do. That even an individual (though some would like to think otherwise) is not the reason for the art, that even after a person has transitioned and a residency has run its course, that rare, magical and sacred relationship remains between performer and listener. It is for this reason that my father, myself, and the members of the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Orchestra showed up every Sunday for fifteen years. Be of good cheer, all ye participants, we have discharged our duties with honor and grace.
Recorded live on June 26, 2011 at Birdland Jazz Club, New York, NY. Produced by Arturo O'Farrill. Engineered by Bill Moss Mixed by Bill Moss & Arturo, Zack and Adam O'Farrill. Mastered by Bill Moss. Remote recording provided by NOLA Studios, NY. Photography : Jerry Lacay. Package design: Jack Frisch. Executive producers: Alison Deane and Joachim "Jochen" Becker.