[JPL] His Latin Beat Goes On, in a New Home

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 22 19:01:11 EDT 2007

October 13, 2007
His Latin Beat Goes On, in a New Home 
Arturo O’Farrill, the burly pianist who leads the
Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, sat cross-legged and
discoursed about the meaning of Latin jazz recently in
the top-floor study of his brownstone in Park Slope,
Brooklyn. “Listen,” he said. “To me, it’s natural,
because this music is about who we are: New York,
jazz, Latin music, America. So it’s either a cultural
mainstay or it’s not. If it’s not, I’ve made a huge
mistake, and I’ll move on.”

These are the words of a gambler, and Mr. O’Farrill,
47, is in the middle of an optimistic gamble. At
Symphony Space next week, his 18-piece Afro-Latin Jazz
Orchestra will perform for the first time since its
genesis without the powerful name recognition of Jazz
at Lincoln Center, where it started and where it had
its institutional base.

For five years the orchestra played three concert
programs each season at Jazz at Lincoln Center and
toured internationally. It was the only band ever
brought in from the outside by Jazz at Lincoln Center
to operate under its auspices. It was modeled after
the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: a working band
polishing a historical repertory and extending it into
the present. 

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra brought together some of
New York’s greatest Latin musicians and created a
canon in Mr. O’Farrill’s wide definition of Latin
jazz. It ranged from the heavily New York-identified
mambo of Machito and Tito Puente to the ambitious
orchestral suites written by Mr. O’Farrill’s father,
the Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill. 

The orchestra collaborated with living masters like
the bassist Israel (Cachao) López and the pianist Bebo
Valdés. It commissioned new works and proposed a scope
of Latin jazz that went far beyond the strictly
Afro-Cuban, to works reflecting the music of Puerto
Rico and Argentina and Brazil; hence the orchestra’s
more inclusive name.

But the relationship ended mutually last year. “The
long-term issues were about the scale of the
orchestra’s ambitions and what we could afford,”
Adrian Ellis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s executive
director, said in an interview last week. 

Mr. O’Farrill speaks of his Jazz at Lincoln Center
experience in divided terms. He praised Wynton
Marsalis, the organization’s artistic director, for
enabling the orchestra to exist in the first place. He
said that the Jazz at Lincoln Center imprimatur
enabled the band to play in faraway cities that have
no built-in audiences for Latin jazz, like Yokohama
and Shanghai. And at home, he said, he was thrilled to
look in the audience and see more Latinos among the
regular subscription crowd. 

On the other hand, he said, he found the experience
frustrating for several reasons. To keep his orchestra
together — it was paid per performance, rather than on
salary — Mr. O’Farrill wanted to tour more often than
he felt he could under the terms of his agreement with
Jazz at Lincoln Center. He desired more promotion,
more financing, more opportunities for the band to
take part in the organization’s educational programs.
Finally, he said, the partnership crumbled. 

Last year Mr. O’Farrill met Symphony Space’s artistic
director, Isaiah Sheffer, when he and Mr. Sheffer were
both being honored by their alma mater, Brooklyn
College. Soon thereafter they began working on a

So far the arrangement is giving Mr. O’Farrill the
leeway he was seeking. He — or rather his new
nonprofit institution, the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance —
will rent Symphony Space for its concerts, at a
favorable rate. And so, he said, the orchestra will
operate as a separate financial institution. But the
alliance will be able to manage the band’s financing
for commissions, to work with whatever booking agents
Mr. O’Farrill chooses, and to set up the band’s own
educational outreach programs independently, as well
as working within those organized by Symphony Space.

And, much as they did with Jazz at Lincoln Center, he
and the orchestra will put on three concert programs
each season. The first, “A New Perspective,” will
consist of three concerts, from Tuesday to Thursday.
It will include older works by Machito, Tito Puente
and Mario Bauza, as well as music previously
commissioned for the orchestra by the drummer Dafnis
Prieto (“A Song for Chico,” dedicated to the elder
O’Farrill, who died in 2001) and the trombonist Papo
Vazquez (the driving “Iron Jungle,” building on Puerto
Rican bomba and plena rhythms). Concerts later in the
season will center on vocalists and on timba, the
newer form of salsa played in Cuba.

“I have this dream,” Mr. O’Farrill said, “that this
music is important, that it’s worth protecting and
growing and keeping alive, and that it’s not dependent
on an institution, whether it’s Symphony Space or Jazz
at Lincoln Center. 

“It’s an incredible legacy, the music that we play.
It’s not going to be easy, but I believe it’s an art
form that should survive.” 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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