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Two Commissions for Arturo O’Farrill

2 new compositions by Arturo O’Farrill paying tribute to sidemen of Afro Latin jazz to be performed by Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

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Arturo O’Farrill performing in Havana, where he recorded the recently released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues.”

Posted on August 24, 2015 by Afro Latin Jazz Alliance

Critic’s Notebook


As the American flag was raised over the United States Embassy in Cuba last Friday, the pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill could be found in the immigration area at José Martí International Airport in Havana. Footage of the ceremony, symbolizing the restoration of diplomatic relations severed in 1961, was being piped into the room. 

“So I’m waiting on line to enter Cuba, and I’m hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Mr. O’Farrill said this week, speaking from the MacDowell Colony for artists in New Hampshire. “I’m looking around me at the people in the immigration hall. The guy who took my passport really smiled broadly, because he understood that there was a new relationship.” 

In December, Mr. O’Farrill brought the orchestra and a coterie of guest artists, producers and support staff to Havana, to make an album with the theme of dialogue across a cultural and political divide. Within two days of their arrival, President Obama made his startling announcement about the United States moving “to end an outdated approach” to relations with Cuba, casting the project in a hopeful and historic light.

 “Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” just out on Motéma, is an album worthy of its moment, an ambitious statement that honors deeply held musical traditions while pushing forward. Spread over two discs, it features a range of pieces commissioned from both Cuban and American composers, including the drummer Dafnis Prieto and the pianist Alexis Bosch. Some tracks — like “El Bombón,” featuring Cotó, a master of the guitarlike trés — feel bracingly familiar, while others venture onto new terrain.

As it happens, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also released a pertinent double album this week: “Live in Cuba,” recorded at the Mella Theater in Havana. This concert recording — the first title on Blue Engine Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new label — is a memento of the organization’s visit to Cuba in 2010, which included workshops as well as performances, and brought its own bureaucratic challenges.

“Live in Cuba” offers a fine portrait of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at work, performing a mix of jazz repertory, by Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, and new works by its members. There are four pieces by Wynton Marsalis, the band’s artistic director, including a movement from the “Vitoria Suite,” which bears his distinctive idiomatic signature as a composer and arranger. But for a substantial portion of the album direct engagement with Cuban music feels like an afterthought; the orchestra mostly hums along on its standard frequencies. 

The few exceptions, not surprisingly, feel supercharged. “2/3’s Adventure,” by the band’s bassist, Carlos Henriquez, deals persuasively with mambo rhythm. (Mr. Henriquez will lead the orchestra in a concert called “Back in the Bronx” on Sept. 12, at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. A week later he’ll release his debut album, “The Bronx Pyramid,” on Blue Engine.) And an arrangement of the bolero “Cómo Fué,” with the venerable Cuban singer Bobby Carcassés, is a suave delight.

One hallmark of Mr. O’Farrill’s style as a bandleader is the drive to collaborate, and he elicits mostly excellent work from his artist coalition. Mr. Prieto’s piece, “The Triumphant Journey,” suggests a whirring contraption, an engine of polyrhythm. The pianist Michele Rosewoman, a bandleader on the vanguard of Afro-Cuban jazz in New York, brings a beautifully nuanced piece called “Alabanza,” with hypnotic Yoruban drumming and shimmery figures for flute and horns. And Mr. O’Farrill’s son Zack, a drummer, contributes a surging closer, “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park.”

Setting aside a tune called “Vaca Frita,” which features an extraneous DJ Logic, Mr. O’Farrill’s own new music bursts with vital purpose. The centerpiece of the album is “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” whose title broadcasts its claim to self-definition. Strikingly, the suite is structured as a showcase for the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose bladelike, bittersweet tone has no direct precedent in Cuban jazz.

And yet Mr. Mahanthappa, slashing and skittering through the four movements of the piece, sounds extraordinary. (He also performed “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” with the band at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier this summer, and it was among the highlights of the event.) Mr. O’Farrill lays out the piece in a loose thematic arc: Its first movement, “Mother Africa,” could almost be a suite unto itself; the second movement is “All of the Americas.” The fourth and final movement, which builds on a phraseology traceable to Mr. Mahanthappa, is pointedly titled “What Now?” 

That’s a timely question, especially as it pertains to a new, freer musical exchange between Cuba and the United States. “We’ve just scratched the surface, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. O’Farrill said, sounding both elated and determined. “I’ve been going down to Cuba for 14 years, and I never saw this day coming. My father would have been overjoyed

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Arturo O’Farrill Interviewed by Crains Business

Posted on August 18, 2015 by Afro Latin Jazz Alliance

Arturo O’Farrill discusses his work and his new album with the GRAMMY winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues on MOTEMA with Crains reporter Theresa Agovino. 


Arturo O’Farrill Joins Michael Feinstein on NPR’s Song Travels

Posted on August 18, 2015 by Afro Latin Jazz Alliance

You can now listen online to Arturo O’Farrill as he joins on air host Michael Feinstein on NPR’s Song Travels.  http://www.wnyc.org/story/song-travels-presents-arturo-ofarrill


Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra on NPR’s First Listen

Posted on August 18, 2015 by Afro Latin Jazz Alliance

The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is extremely pleased that Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s latest album, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (MOTEMA) has been selected for NPR’s First Listen.

NBC NEWS: Latin Jazz’s Arturo O’Farrill Creates U.S.-Cuba ‘Conversations’

Posted on August 12, 2015 by Afro Latin Jazz Alliance


Latin Jazz’s Arturo O’Farrill Creates U.S.-Cuba ‘Conversations’


Latin jazz pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill calls it a happy coincidence that he happened to be in Havana recording some music last December when the announcement came down that the United States and Cuba would begin to normalize diplomatic relations after decades in a deep Cold War freeze.

“I am overjoyed that this is happening,” said two-time Grammy winner O’Farrill, speaking to NBC News from Vermont, where he is conducting summer jazz workshops. “Musicians have been on the frontlines of this (thawing between Cuba and the United States) for so long. We played a role in making that relationship mend.”

The music O’Farrill was recording in Havana that fateful day is his newest work, ‘Cuba: The Conversation Continues,’ a follow-up album to his Grammy-winner ‘The Offense of the Drum,’ and in a sense, O’Farrill says, a follow-up to a 1940s collaboration between fabled trumpeter John “Dizzy” Gillespie and the seminal Afro-Cuban percussionist Luciano “Chano” Pozo. Pozo co-wrote some of Gillespie’s compositions, including ‘Manteca’ and ‘Tin Tin Deo,’ and was the first Latin percussionist in Gillespie’s transcendental band.

“Dizzy and Chano were on to something. Culture is a fluid, ongoing process. People tend to look at culture in a fixed time but it’s constantly moving and evolving, as is the conversation between Americans and Cubans,” said O’Farrill, who characterizes his new CD as continuing that collaboration and conversation started decades ago by two legendary musicians.


“The conversation never went away; it has always been there,” said O’Farrill. “It never went away when jazz and Cuban music were separated by the (Cuban) revolution. It just lay dormant.”

O’Farrill’s newest undertaking can be called a combination of music and current events, and it brings together musicians from the U.S. and Cuba to create an elegant array of music, from Cuban popular styles such as bolero, guaguancó, and guajira, to Trinidad and Tobago soca, Peruvian festejo, and Northern African Islamic melodies. O’Farrill calls the two-disc creation truly universal music. His two sons, drummer Zachary and trumpeter Adam, have their own musical group, the O’Farrill Brothers Band, and both are featured on the new album which will be released August 21st.


Arturo O’Farrill’s Historic New Album “Cuba: The Conversation Continues” (Aug. 21, 2015)

Posted on August 12, 2015 by Afro Latin Jazz Alliance
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Cuba: The Conversation Continues
(Motéma Music; August 21, 2015)

With Special Guest Cuban Composers & Performers:
Bobby Carcassés, Alexis Bosch, Cotó, Yasek Manzano, Michel Herrera,
Jesus Ricardo Anduz, Antonio Martinez Campos

Additional American Composers & Performers:
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dafnis Prieto, DJ Logic, Michele Rosewoman, Renée Manning,
Zack O’Farrill, Adam O’Farrill, Gregg August, Earl McIntyre

Harlem, NY — Monday, July 20, 2015 — When Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra traveled to Havana, Cuba, in December of 2014 to record Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma Music; August 21, 2015), something miraculous happened: President Obama unexpectedly announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, and plans for the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century. It was time, the President proclaimed, to reignite the conversation between the two long-estranged nations.

Just as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong trumpeted liberty abroad during the Cold War, O’Farrill’s efforts are a symbol of the new political current. He is a modern day “jazz ambassador,” who fought for political normalization between the United States and Cuba through cultural diplomacy long before Obama’s announcement. As the founder and artistic director of the non-profit The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, O’Farrill has been on the ground in Cuba repairing the rupture by promoting a cultural conversation despite political disengagement. O’Farrill and members of his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (the resident ensemble of the Alliance) have been traveling between New York City and Cuba for over a decade.

Though he is a frequent Cuba traveler, the announcement was still a surprise: “It was an emotional experience for me, a day that I had hoped would come for years,” says Arturo O’Farrill. He was in Cuba performing with his 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Havana International Jazz Festival at the time of Obama’s announcement. In fact, the night before the historic announcement (Dec. 16), O’Farrill and his orchestra performed at the residency of the U.S. Chief of Mission in Havana with several Cuban musicians featured on Cuba: The Conversation Continues.

An auspicious moment in the celebrated composer/pianist’s 30-year career, the recording Cuba: The Conversation Continues is a profound statement that’s a touchstone of diplomatic engagement and cultural healing. For this full-length studio album, O’Farrill enlisted four of today’s premier Cuban composers and six world-class American composers/arrangers, including Bobby Carcassés, Alexis Bosch, Cotó, Michel Herrera, Dafnis Prieto, Michele Rosewoman, Earl McIntyre, Gregg August, Arturo himself and his own son, Zack.

Executing such an ambitious project was no easy task. O’Farrill and Executive Producer Kabir Sehgal led a delegation of 58 people to make the recording: 24 musicians, 21 producers, six staff, five videographers, and two photographers traveled to Cuba, approved by the U.S. Treasury Department. All told, 75 people contributed to making this studio album a reality, including the efforts of co-producers Julian Weller and Eric Oberstein. Recorded at Abdala Studios in Havana, Cuba: The Conversation Continues offers a compelling, forward-looking aesthetic — one based on dialogue and cross-cultural collaboration. With the news of political normalization, the musicians grasped the potential significance of the album — to create a cultural compass to guide future dialogue between the two countries. “There was a sizzle in the studio, and the resulting emotional rush made it onto the album,” says Sehgal.

For O’Farrill, Obama’s announcement had deep, personal significance. His father, the late Latin music legend Chico O’Farrill, was born in Cuba, but was unable to return to the island after the Revolution. He subsequently settled in the U.S. and died in New York in 2001, never seeing his homeland again due to Cold War travel restrictions. This familial history has fueled Arturo O’Farrill’s longstanding devotion to bringing Cuba and the U.S. closer together through the power of music and has inspired major artistic achievements recognized by The Recording Academy. Twice, in 2009 with Song for Chico and again earlier this year for The Offense of the Drum, his efforts have resulted in winning GRAMMY® Awards in the “Best Latin Jazz Album“category.

Musically, the roots of Cuba: The Conversation Continues stretch back to the collaborations between the American jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban conga virtuoso and composer Chano Pozo. Many jazz historians cite their momentous 1947 meeting and later collaborations as the birth of modern Latin jazz. Now, nearly seven decades later, O’Farrill and a cast of celebrated composers are resuming the conversation between Gillespie and Pozo, bringing it into the present at a pivotal time in U.S. and Cuban history.

“The Chano Pozo-Dizzy Gillespie conversation led to a realization that they had much in common. Both their music originates from Africa.”

Unfortunately, that conversation was interrupted by the diplomatic falling out. “But now we can resume and update their conversation,” notes O’Farrill. “This conversation is at the heart of our album.”

Cuba: The Conversation Continues gives new meaning to the ancient truth about music being a universal language. Gillespie himself spoke of a time when there would be neither “jazz” nor “Afro Cuban” but “universal music.” O’Farrill fulfills Dizzy’s prophecy of creating such a music and breaking down cultural walls. It turns out that musical borders are man-made, just like geographic and political ones.

Featured Compositions — Cuba: The Conversation Continues
On Cuba: The Conversation Continues, O’Farrill ultimately answers the question, “What would the music have sounded like if Pozo and Gillespie (and we) kept talking with each other?” Judging from the resulting compositions, it would have sounded very diverse, very adventurous, and yet reverent to tradition. The double disc set boasts several standout compositions, including O’Farrill’s masterful four-movement “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” a bold reimagining of Chico O’Farrill’s 65 year-old gem, “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite.” Commissioned by Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater for its own 80th anniversary celebration in May 2014, “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” is propelled by the extraordinarily soulful virtuosity of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

O’Farrill notes of the track, “Rudresh is a voice that’s changing jazz, and it’s a voice that many jazz students in Cuba aren’t familiar with. He’s broadening the scope of this music. The jaws of these young musicians drop when they see him play. ‘The Afro Latin Jazz Suite’ is rooted firmly in the work and the expansive vision of music that my father created.”

Envisioning the future, O’Farrill’s “Vaca Frita” features turntablist DJ Logic, the brilliant saxophonist David DeJesus, and Adam and Zack O’Farrill. The opportunity to work with the next generation of O’Farrills on such a momentous occasion was particularly rewarding.

“Watching my sons interact with their Cuban counterparts was one of the motivations for this album,” O’Farrill says. “There was such a tremendous respect and love for each other. When I saw them reach across borders, I said, ‘There’s a lesson here for every human, especially for the politicians who have divided our two nations.'”

“El Bombón” is another standout, written by Cotó (Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi). The work is a changüí, which deals with a very specific feel and rhythm from Guantánamo. “Second Line Soca (Brudda Singh),” by Earl McIntyre features vocals from Reneé Manning and draws a direct line from Cuba to New Orleans. The cultural exchange between one of America’s most unique cities and the Caribbean island nation 90 miles south of our border goes back centuries.

“The roots of jazz are intertwined between Havana and New Orleans. For 50 years we have been denied an essential nutrient in the development of jazz.”

Finally, Cuba: The Conversation Continues leaves off with “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park,” an epic 13-minute piece written and conducted by Zack O’Farrill in honor of the great Cuban national hero, and again featuring Mahanthappa, along with O’Farrill on piano and Ivan Renta on soprano sax. With shades of free jazz, this song hints at what the future of Dizzy’s “universal music” might sound like.

Even though there’s been significant political progress in the seven months since the announcement, O’Farrill urges Americans to act:

“Call your congressman. Tell them to lift the embargo. It hasn’t worked during the last 50 years. We need a different approach. This album shows what normalization sounds like: there may be tension and discord at times, but we still find harmony and resolution. It’s time the politicians catch up with the musicians.”


Great sidemen are often overlooked and it’s the leaders who receive all the glory. The most important attribute for a sideman is that they possess great technical skill, understand the nuances and aesthetics of a style, and have the ability to play with authenticity, something that can only come when a musician has deep respect for an art form.   O’Farrill proposes writing a new work featuring saxophonist Bobby Porcelli and trombonist Reynaldo Jorge and a second piece that features drummer Vince Cherico and bassist Ruben Rodriguez to be performed by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra for two evenings during their 2016 season at Symphony Space.

Honoring Bobby Porcelli & Reynaldo Jorge – In this composition, O’Farrill intends to draw heavily on both artists shared knowledge and language gained through their work with Tito Puente.  For Bobby this is represented by his understanding of the elements of the great “Palladium era” and for Reynaldo of his years with Fania, the seminal record label associated with Salsa. Bobby Porcelli is one of Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz’s most accomplished flautists and alto saxophonists. He provides historical significance to his playing as he is the only lead alto sax player to have played steadily with the “Big Three” from the Palladium Era (Tito Puente, Frank “Machito” Grillo, and Tito Rodriquez). Reynaldo Jorge is a great instrumentalist with profound technical skill who brings the heart and soul of Puerto Rican music to his performing. He possesses incredible nuance and swing in his playing. He is an alumnus of the Tito Puente Jazz Ensemble.

Paying Tribute to Vince Cherico & Ruben Rodriguez – For this composition, O’Farrill intends to compose a work marked by a sense of accuracy, relaxation, and intricacy but in a natural way. It is his belief that Cherico and Rodriguez are musical brothers.  From 1995-2006, Vince Cherico was the drummer for Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit Sextet, where he developed his reputation as a first-call Latin jazz drummer.

Bassist Ruben Rodriguez is recognized by many as a “musician’s musician.”  With a vast knowledge of Latin music, his groove is so effortless, that his playing serves as a bench mark for other players. Listening to Rodriguez’s bass line behind the melody tells volumes about his ability as an improviser – while he has learned his lessons from the Latin greats such as Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez, there’s a deeply rooted freedom in his work.


Project Media

A Wise Latina
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Composed by Arturo O’Farrill and performed by O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra from their album, 40 Acres and a Burro (ZOHO). The piece was commissioned by Symphony Space and Bronx Museum of the Arts in honor of the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina appointed to the Supreme Court.

Vaca Frita
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Vaca Frita composed by Arturo O’Farrill, performed by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Apollo Theater, May 10, 2014, Running time: 4:58

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New York, New York

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Last update on August 24, 2015

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New York, New York
The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA) is a nonprofit organization founded by musician, composer and educator Arturo O’Farrill in 2007.  ALJA is dedicated to preserving the music and heritage of Afro Latin jazz, supporting its performance for new audiences, enriching the genre through commissions for composers and arrangers and educating young people in the understanding and performance…


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