Last year we were fortunate to bring you the Grammy-winning effort from Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra –Four Questions. So, it is only fitting that we bring you the follow-up, Virtual Birdland. By now you’ve seen the opening sequence to the Grammys, and you may have seen other virtual performances that feature large casts performing from their own living rooms essentially live. As you’d infer from the title, such is the cases here with O’Farrill’s ensemble of 24 musicians plus 11 special guests. Yet what makes it even more remarkable is the global span. This is seventh O’Farrill album produced by the redoubtable Kabir Sehgal. Here he heads a team of Doug David and Paul Avgerino with recordings taking place during a 10-month period from New York, New Jersey, California, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, France, UK, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.
When the pandemic put so many musicians out of work, O’Farrill stepped up, creating an emergency fund through the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance in a weekly stream that gave the players an opportunity to perform and to raise money for their fellow artists. Givers and receivers became one and a community developed among the musicians who collaborated despite the considerable constraints. This album is not only a fruit of their labors but of considerable engineering and production work to make this come alive.
The opening “Gulab Jamon” is announced almost if the horns were signaling the start of the Kentucky Derby. It was commissioned by the Greene Space in NYC and is titled as a mash-up of O’Farrill’s two favorite cuisines – Indian and Spanish. The thought is water and how it can exist in so many forms with the parallel to the human race in a hopeful way. Solos are from the leader and from Jasper Dutz on tenor sax. “Pouvoir” is French for ‘powerful,’ written by a Moroccan, Malika Zarra, trained in New York and currently residing in Paris. It is about how the music from Africa enriches music globally with poignant solo turns from trombonist Mariel Bildstein, a bandleader in her own right, conquero Keisel Jimenez who leads us into the piece and is a clear presence throughout, and the joyous vocals of guest Malika Zarra.
Rafi Malkiel plays the euphonium on his composition “Desert,” a busier tune that suggested by the title, as it’s meant to be the sound of ancient trade routes connecting during this time that we need healing. The other featured soloist is trumpeter Seneca Black as guest Gili Sharett adds color with his bassoon. “Nightfall,” by Larry Willis features strains of music from the Middle East, Spain, Northern Africa, Western Africa and presumably by slave trade, make sit to the states. Rachel Therrien takes a soaring flight on trumpet, Ivan Renta blows aggressively on tenor while the leader and Jimenez more than keep pace with their bursting energy.
“Ana Mashoof” is one of most interesting pieces and a shining example of global cooperation. It’s written by Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulafi from Kuwait and was originally performed in Abu Dhabi during a concert called Cuba Meets Khaleeji: The Middle Eastern Roots of Cuban Jazz. In this rendition the percussion group Boom Diwan records from Kuwait, Ghazi from Abu Dhabi, and the ALJO from Europe and the states. Ghazi is the voice and guitar while Alejandro Aviles solos on both flute and soprano sax.
Puerto Rican sax icon Paquito D’Rivera’s signature alto graces “Samba for Carmen,” a tune he wrote for Carmen McRae, arranged by Arturo’s dad, Chico O’Farrill. This Brazilian samba also features another O’Farrill, Adam on trumpet. “Alafia” was composed by Arturo’s counterpart, Letieres Leite, who performs and teaches Afro-Brazilian music. This is a fully blown bossa, scored for five percussionists, four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes, and a tuba. Larry Bustamante leads on baritone sax. “En La Oscuridad” was composed by Rafael Solano and is also arranged by Chico O’Farrill. As the album’s shortest piece. It’s a ballad associated with the famous tenorist Mario Rivera. His protege’ Ivan Renta steps into that role admirably.
“Cimmaron” was commissioned by the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and in this setting refers to the wild or untamed runaway, connoted by the heavy percussion. Abdulrahman Amer (trombone), Alejandro Aviles (alto), and Carly Maldonado (various percussion), who whips up a storm are the featured performers. Amer’s trombone and Aviles’ alto add to the frenetic sense of excitement. They close exuberantly with Tito Puente’s famous “Para Los Rumberos,” as no fewer than six soloists assume the spotlight in this jubilant horn blaring tune – Renta (tenor), Malkiel (trombone), and Bryan Davis (trumpet) spurred on by percussionists (it’s a Tito Puente tune!) Jiminez, Maldonado, and drummer Vince Cherico.
The recording is intended to be a beam of light shining through the darkness of the pandemic. There’s sheer power here that belies the virtual nature of the recording process itself. It’s all that and more – uplifting music that should have you dancing, and/or marveling for the umpteenth time on the binding power of music that brings cultures together in celebratory fashion.
- Jim Hynes
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