If Latin jazz has a muse, it’s Chico O’Farrill.
For the past half-century, he’s been one of a pantheon of innovators who fused the soul-wrenching rhythms of African Cuba with the sweet harmonies of American jazz. Longtime admirers of the Latin jazz genre know O’Farrill as a master of sweeping, symphonic compositions that embrace his love of Debussy, Stravinsky, and the mambo; and as a bandleader who keeps alive the roar of a full dance band, most recently as conductor of the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band, which plays New York’s Birdland every Sunday night.
"He put the big band in clave," says producer Todd Barkan (clave being the syncopation that characterizes Cuban popular music). "I would put him right at the top of the list of modern Latin jazz pioneers."
Yet for those whose ears are new to the genre, O’Farrill’s name may be unknown. For much of his career he’s worked quietly in the background, crafting music that became a showcase for others: "Undercurrent Blues" for Benny Goodman; Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Charlie Parker and the Machito orchestra; Trumpet Fantasy, premiered at Lincoln Center in 1996 with soloist Wynton Marsalis; and more than 80 arrangements for Count Basie.
"People have been hearing his music for many years, but recognition of the contribution he’s made is long overdue," Barkan adds.
To set the record straight, filmmaker Jorge Ulla, Barkan, and Arturo O’Farrill (Chico’s son and a talented pianist in his own right) produced Chico O’Farrill: Heart of a Legend. The Milestone date moves from mambo to blues to spunky cha-cha and includes an updated big-band chart for the classic Gillespie hit "Manteca," which O’Farrill arranged as a four-movement suite in 1954.
"It’s a real overview of different facets of Chico’s personality, a retrospective of his styles," notes Arturo.
"We wanted to present a spectrum of music that most fully reflected the palette of Chico’s expression," Barkan agrees. "That’s why we have the relatively spare instrumentation of ‘La Verde Campiña,’ his evocation of the Cuban countryside with young violinist Ilmar Gavilán, all the way to the full-blown big band Latin jazz of Trumpet Fantasy and ‘Momentum.’ In the middle of those extremes we have the tenor voicing of ‘Te Quiero,’ played by Gato Barbieri."
The latter is part of a suite of compositions on the album inspired by O’Farrill’s score for Jorge Ulla’s film Guaguasí. Heart of a Legend, in fact, is O’Farrill’s career come full circle: when Ulla decided to devote a film to O’Farrill, filming a documentary scheduled for release in summer 2000, the musical compilation was conceived as a companion to the film.
The documentary will trace a life begun in Havana in 1921, where O’Farrill was born into a genteel Irish-German-Cuban family. When Chico was in his teens, he was expected to follow his father into the family law firm, with a short detour for training at a U.S. military school. That’s where his parents’ well-intentioned plans went awry.
"In the States, I started listening to big bands on the radio-Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey," Chico recalls. "And somewhere I got hold of a trumpet and joined the dance band in the school, and that sealed my fate."
His father wasn’t pleased, but the O’Farrill stubbornness is legendary; at last, the senior O’Farrill relented, arranging for his son to study with Cuban composer Felix Guerrero. By 1945, the young trumpeter was playing with the popular dance band Orquesta Bellemar and teamed with guitarist Isidro Perez. He moved to New York in 1948, where he worked as a ghost writer for arranger Gil Fuller and wrote for his hero, Benny Goodman.
Always open to a wealth of musical styles-he drank in everything from Bela Bartók’s "String Quartets" to Cuban sextets-O’Farrill began collaborating with bandleader Machito and his musical director Mario Bauza. As word got around, jazz artists interested in the concept of a new, Afro-Cuban jazz contacted the budding composer. He wrote "Carambola" for Dizzy Gillespie and charts for Stan Getz’s "Cuban Episode." In the early 1950s, O’Farrill toured with his own orchestra.
When the big bands began to wane, O’Farrill moved to Mexico City, where he worked as a bandleader, juggled a steady list of commissions and a television show, and wrote Aztec Suite for trumpeter Art Farmer. He returned to the States in 1965, where he continued to arrange for Gillespie, Basie, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and Gato Barbieri.
He also delved into the commercial market. With military precision, he turned out an astounding array of TV background music and consumer jingles-melodies that paid the bills faster than jazz could. "I think one of the reasons he was so successful, though, is that he could never really be a hack," says Arturo. "He always wrote from the heart. So even his commercials were good music." His return to his roots, an album of original compositions entitled Pure Emotion, earned O’Farrill a Grammy nomination in 1996.
Heart of a Legend features a long list of guest stars, all major names in Latin and jazz, and all major Chico fans: in addition to Barbieri, there’s Cachao Lopez, Freddy Cole, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Patato Valdés, and many others. Add those personalities to Chico’s 18-piece orchestra, layer on a film crew shooting documentary footage, and you get a recording studio full of sublime chaos. “When I wasn’t helping Chico arrange or conduct, I was playing traffic cop,” Arturo jokes.
All for a worthy cause. “This album should re-establish in everyone’s minds that Chico’s been around through so many eras, and he’s been writing great stuff for all those years,” says Arturo. “Although it’s certainly not conclusive—Chico’s working now on a bunch of projects. My feeling is this release simply marks a new era.”