Romance in rhythm | Latin Beat | Indy Week
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Romance in rhythm 

Mambo, bolero, swing and guaguanco ... swirling taffeta and two-toned shoes ... orchids pinned to organza and dark blue lapels ... these are some of the nostalgic sounds and images conjured by An Unforgettable Night, a live concert of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra led by Arturo O'Farrill.

The album, featuring guest vocalists Claudia Acuña and Herman Olivera, was in the running for a Grammy this year in the Tropical category (losing out to an elder statesman of genre, Bebo Valdes, for Bebo de Cuba).

Arturo O'Farrill is the son of composer and arranger Chico O'Farrill (Cuban by birth, Irish by descent), one of the originators of the Afro-Cuban big band sound in the '40s and '50s. (That's Arturo at the piano, as his late father Chico conducts, in a scene in the movie Calle 54.) He now leads his father's big band, as well as the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, the 18-member flagship of Latin Jazz at Lincoln Center. A true maestro, Arturo exercises his intimate side as a performer in a Latin jazz trio, together with next-generation Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto (who also composes for the ALJO) and Nuyorican bassist Andy Gonzalez, one of the university of salsa's unofficial deans.

Chapel Hill is the first stop on the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra's U.S. tour this Friday in Memorial Hall's grand opening concert series. Arturo spoke with us recently by phone from his home in New York City about preserving the cultural legacy of Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Beny More.

independent: What is so special about the big band sound?

arturo o'farrill: A big band is like jazz's symphony orchestra. It basically serves the same function. It's a composer's palette, the synthesis of that palette with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms that is a perfect synthesis of Europe and Africa. In an Afro-Latin big band you have an amazing, unbelievably wonderful marriage of these two worlds. To me, it's the ultimate statement of the New World, of the African Diaspora. And then on top of that you have our penchant for dancing, and dance rhythms.

You do a lot of boleros, steamy old tunes that combine that really lush sense of melody and this type of rhythm.

That is a very important part of our tradition. Like all good books, and novels and films and plays, it's about romance, it's about passion, it's about love. If you think about the great American songbook and Cole Porter and George Gershwin, it's always been about love. Some of these tunes are written by Mexicans and end up being American beloved ballads. That happens a lot. "Cuando vuelvo a tu lado" [became] "What a difference a day makes."

I'm very conscious of Mexico as this incredible source of melodies. It's a rich part of Mexican folklore. I love my Cuban side and I love my Mexican side, but I know the Mexican side of me is very passionate, very effusive. There's no middle ground with us. We care deeply. And a lot of the material I chose for that album is about that.

Are you bringing vocalists with you on tour?

I wish we could. It's basically an economic consideration. We have 18 musicians to pay, plus three or four support personnel, and then to pay for guest artists it becomes really prohibitive. At one point in time, that big band sound was indispensable to daily life, but it's cheaper to pay four guys, five guys with electric guitars and keyboards than it is to pay 18 people.

Tell me about the program you are going to play for us.

We're going to do a couple things. We're going to play some of the classic mambo repertoire from the great days of the Palladium.

Most definitely, we'll play the "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" [by Chico O'Farrill], which is one of the masterpieces of our repertoire. Some critics think it's one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. It's important for us to establish a canon of the most fundamental, important Latin jazz compositions. It needs to be established as some sort of heavy art form.

And we're going to play a couple of new commissions that we have. To have this music continue, you have to breathe new life into it. You can't just play the old pieces. I'm very personally committed to having new music in this genre written. We're going to look into the 22nd century.

How does your experience in the trio setting affect how you do big band, and vice versa?

It's completely different, like I'm two completely different people. When I do a big band, it involves being a very energetic frontman, and conducting and encouraging the cats to play. I don't really do a lot of playing in the big band. In fact, I'd rather not solo and let other people get the limelight. In a small group, I can really sit down at the piano and cut loose.

Standing in front of a band of the caliber of the ALJO is a little bit like driving a Rolls. It's a world-class act. But sitting down at the piano at a trio setting with guys like Dafnis [Prieto] and Andy [Gonzalez], that's also kind of amazing.

How did the mambo era influence Latin jazz?

Across the board when I talk to Latin [jazz] musicians, I hear that they listened to Tito Rodriguez growing up, and Machito and Tito Puente and Vicentico Valdes. Their moms and dads played the records when they were growing up and it influenced their jazz style. They grew up loving John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but they never shook the influence of these great Latino artists. Isn't that wild? I feel very privileged. To have this music on in the background of your life is kind of unique, kind of special.

Do you feel a big responsibility to keep passing the baton forward?

I don't really see any other choice. It's incredibly valuable music, it's important music, it's music that people love. So it's a no-brainer. I have no choice, I love it, and I have to do it. I'm feeling these days very lucky that I have the opportunity.

Read more of Arturo's interview, with his reminiscences about Machito and Ray Barretto, in our online edition at

In the live music calendar: Jazz at Lincoln Center'sAfro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with Arturo O'Farrill perform Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m. in Memorial Hall. Tickets from $10-$75; box office info at or 843-3333. UNC's Charanga Carolina with Nelson Delgado plays a concert with the Carolina Jazz Band Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m. in Memorial Hall. Alex Weiss & Different Drum with Colombian vocalist Calla Cano perform in a house concert in North Durham on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.; admission $10, call 491-5089 or e-mail for details. SAMECUMBA plays Montas Lounge in RTP on Friday, March 10; see for details. Bio Ritmo hits The Pour House in Raleigh on Saturday, March 11. Ricardo Lemvo y Makina Loca headline Saturday, March 18 at the Durham Music and Dance Festival, 11 p.m.-2 a.m. in the Durham Armory. Tickets at or 245-0822. x


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