"I did not choose to study jazz," says Arturo O’Farrill. "I chose to listen to jazz, and to allow the people whose work I admire to permeate my playing almost by osmosis. Sometimes I’ll tell my fingers to zig and they’ll zag-but I’m trying to speak from the heart in a way that transcends all the training I’ve had."
The fact is, jazz chose this 39-year-old classically-trained pianist. On Blood Lines, his first outing as a leader, O’Farrill demonstrates a polychromatic patchwork of influences that makes him impossible to categorize, but that reflects both masterful technique and confident understanding of jazz in its many guises-from a straightahead standard to a sultry Cuban classic to a free jazz kaleidoscope of shaded tone and fractured timing. As the title of this date suggests, the music’s practically embedded in his DNA. It’s part of his childhood, his heritage-maybe even his destiny.
He’s listened to jazz since the crib. He was born June 22, 1960 in Mexico City, where his father, renowned Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill (whose works have been recorded by Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, the Machito Orchestra, and Mario Bauza), had a thriving career as a bandleader. "My life was like living in an I Love Lucy sitcom," O’Farrill recalls. "My father was a musician and Mom was a singer in his band. He worked nights, so we were raised by eight or nine aunts and uncles. I grew up eating tacos and frijoles, and I still identify very strongly with being Mexican. The funny thing is, last year I spent some time in the Catskills, in an area called the Emerald Isle, and I got connected with my Irish culture, too. I’m a New York mutt, and that’s what comes across in my music.
"I’ve always been an eclectic player. I do not fit into the narrow mainstream of what a jazz musician is. I’m too Latino to fit into the straightahead world, but I’m not really part of the Latin music scene because I’m too white. The different things I am really shape the different worlds I’ve traversed musically. I’m always looking for opportunities to transcend international or racial boundaries."
O’Farrill learned early the rewards and risks of the music business. His father was well known on the Mexican entertainment scene; one of O’Farrill’s earliest memories is of riding on his father’s shoulders for a TV appearance, decked out in a miniature matching suit-a big thrill. "But there were also years of heavy-duty poverty," he recalls. Not until the younger O’Farrill started high school did his dad begin making steady money writing commercial jingles. Arturo was pressed into service as well. One of his first compositions, written when he was 15, was a catchy salsa number for a tuna company ad.
"I learned a lot from growing up in a recording studio. Writing commercially forces a musician to quickly crystallize a concept; you have to be a capable creator. My heroes are people who can perform intricate, rewarding music in 30 seconds. Studio work also gave me a discipline. It taught me about showing up, on time, smiling, not to have an ego but to be genuinely pleased to be here, knowing I’m going to work."
He played in the award-winning jazz band at New York’s High School of Music and Art with future luminaries Marcus Miller and Omar Hakim, and became one of the founders of an early rap group, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Joints. Their 1981 release, "Shoot the Pump," went number one in the U.K.
As he pursued studies at the Manhattan School of Music and the Brooklyn College Conservatory, O’Farrill found time to "woodshed" his wide-ranging musical ideas with friends upstate. "One of my crazy hippie friends, with whom I founded Loose Joints, had a summer house in Woodstock. We would go out there, play jazz and write weird, Pharoah Sanders-type stuff. There was a little bar out in the woods and we had a gig there. The owner knew Carla Bley, called her and said ‘You gotta come hear this band.’ The next thing I knew I got a call from her manager at the time, Mike Mantler, asking me if wanted to play with her. That was the beginning of my career."
It was also the real beginning of his education. "In a big band you learn to stay out of the way," O’Farrill notes. "I learned to play as little as necessary. There’s a lot happening in a big band, so as a pianist you have to be sparse, to fill in holes. You also have to learn to voice larger, to know exactly, rhythmically, where the openings are. I also learned to ignore what’s written on the page but to honor it...to make it my own. I was trained in a conservatory, but there’s nothing in the world like a big band. The kind of ensemble playing that you experience is an invaluable school."
He stayed with Bley four years (1979-83), then went on to develop as a solo performer and an ensemble member on recordings and performances with a spectrum of artists: Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, Noel Pointer, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. In 1987 he became musical director for Harry Belafonte. As he found himself ever more deeply involved in jazz, he understood his father’s absences, his demands, his differences and the consuming relationship a musician has with his profession. After much soul-searching, he agreed about four years ago to direct the band that preserved so much of his father’s music, Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band.
"I’d avoided it for years. I didn’t want to get involved. We’d been very separate for years until he recorded Pure Emotion in 1995. I think he was proud I’d fashioned a career for myself, and I don’t feel relegated to a secondary position.
"I do get a lot of criticism from people who feel I’m riding my father’s coattails," O’Farrill says. "It’s not easy. But as an artist I would be bereft if I didn’t honor the opportunity to perpetuate my father’s music."
Blood Lines reflects all of O’Farrill’s rich and complex past. Except for three cuts-"Brava," "Arturo’s Closet," and "Ya Yo"-the ten tracks are familiar pieces from his repertory. "I think of ‘Moment’s Notice’ as my entry card," he says, reflecting on the recording session. "When I was a kid I used to enjoy playing a lot of notes really fast, and that’s what jazz is for some people. I’ve come to prefer a more flowing, soft, careful approach. But here, the fast passages are like stating my credentials. So I used it to open the album.
"‘Brava’ is more melodic, less about flash and technique. I was doing an album for Milan Simich, and heard this piece by the bassist, Santi Debriano. I was crazy about it, so I asked him if I could record it. It’s a very syncopated melody, but because of the structure it flows very sweetly, bathed in Arabic-Spanish-Moorish-sounding chords.
"‘China y Criollas’ is a very fusion-y piece. It’s about the dichotomy of comfort and insecurity, structure and freedom. The middle goes into a real Latin-y thing, very playful." Another Latin track, the classic "Siboney," is included as "a real test of one’s knowledge of styles and culture. I thought it was important to include something classically Cuban, played in a minimalist style. I wanted to capture the essence of Cuba, to whisper."
"Pure Emotion," composed by Chico O’Farrill, is included as a tribute to his father. "It’s an absolutely beautiful melody with gorgeous chords," the pianist says. "It’s introspective, gentlemanly, dignified. I went out of my way to play it lyrically and sweet, which is what it evokes for me. [Bassist] George Mraz was brilliant; it’s funny, because you never know what’s going to happen in the studio, but we recorded that piece in one take."
Two tracks are the happy result of O’Farrill’s long friendship with trombonist Papo Vazquez, who plays on both. "We co-wrote ‘Arturo’s Closet.’ We took a cyclical melody that begs to be played over and over, attached a very dark bass line, and the chords we use on top are very mysterious and ambiguous. Maybe it’s a nod to that perceived dark vibe people think I have. People say they don’t know what I’m thinking-usually I’m just thinking about lunch.
"‘Ya Yo’ is Papo’s composition, added because we were looking for something in a medium swing. I love the 6/8 section, it’s like jumping from jazz to Africa. Plus when it comes to jumping back and forth like that, no one does it better than [bassist] Andy Gonzalez and [drummer] Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez [anchor musicians on Blood Lines]."
A Randy Weston piece, "Little Susan," was inspired by O’Farrill’s wife, classical pianist Alison Susan Deane, when she was a little girl. "It’s a lovely playful piece; the notation calls it a ‘calypso waltz’ in 3/4 time. We couldn’t quite figure it out until Jerry Gonzalez came in; when he added his conga part, it connected. It’s mired in 6/8 African rhythm, and it works."
Rounding out the album are a beautifully languid solo, "Darn That Dream," which showcases O’Farrill’s lush, elegant handling of the keys; and Carla Bley’s "Walking Batterie Woman," a huge challenge for the trio during rehearsals. "Some parts are written without bar lines," O’Farrill explains. "It gets into an odd-meter section with a fast tempo that has to be played very accurately. It’s a real yin-and-yang statement; some parts are definitive and others are a complete mystery."
No single track is definitive of O’Farrill’s history or talent; each piece is a bit of the puzzle that, he hopes, will reveal his personal relationship with jazz. "That’s what doing an album is all about, isn’t it?" he says. "For me, music is a commitment to putting forth an honest and integral energy."