NYC Pianist Arturo O'Farrill Finds Himself In Cuba, and Brings His Father Home

Chico O'Farrill never made it back. His music did.

Just then, Chucho Valdés, an eminence among Cuban musicians—and, at six-foot-four, an imposing figure—arrives. Arturo yields the piano bench as Valdés sits down to look over the piece, which includes sections during which he can improvise.

“Anyone have a pencil?” he asks.

Valdés begins sketching in chords and harmonic ideas for his cadenzas and solos. Meanwhile, at the other end of the stage, Arturo reviews musical cues with the young horn players. When Valdés starts playing, the saxophonists hold up cell phones and cameras to capture the moment.

Arturo O'Farrill
Erika Goldring
Arturo O'Farrill
On the final night of the Havana International Jazz Festival, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra played an emotional set at the Mella Theater.
Erika Goldring
On the final night of the Havana International Jazz Festival, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra played an emotional set at the Mella Theater.

Later that night, the 1,500-seat Mella Theater is packed, up through the balcony formed from an organic sweep of rough plaster. “Fathers and Sons,” the last piece played on this, the final night of the trip, is introduced by an angular, vaguely classical-sounding melody, played rubato, which then gently gives way to a clave-based rhythm, and finally forms the basis for individual improvisations. Each young trumpeter takes a different approach: Rodríguez, pensive and fragile; Delgado, fiery and bright; Adam O’Farrill, confident and in search of harmonic adventure.

These same Cuban musicians, including Valdés, had performed in October with Marsalis to the crowd’s delight. Then, Rodríguez expressed wit and concision on a bluesy bebop number. One of the saxophonists, Emir Santa Cruz, had traded phrases elegantly, as if in conversation, with Lincoln Center tenor-sax player Walter Blanding on a Count Basie tune. But here, Arturo was inviting Valdés, an elder master, and these young players, including his sons, into the final form of his newest piece—spanning borders and generations to create something new, in real time, just for this Havana audience.

Back home, Adam and Zack are up-and-comers on New York’s jazz landscape—deservingly so, based on the assured new CD, Giant Peach, from their jointly led band. Arturo’s new Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra album, 40 Acres and a Burro, is more ambitious and better than its Grammy-winning predecessor, Song for Chico. With his February 26 Symphony Space concert featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., his orchestra will highlight New Orleans as an essential influence on whatever “jazz” and “Afro-Cuban” mean in this country. From its roots as a repertory group, the orchestra has grown to embrace wide-ranging new works. Meanwhile, Oberstein wants the Alliance to create a jazz-education exchange involving Cuban and American faculty, plus students from both countries. That goal is well served by the Obama administration’s formal announcement, published in the Federal Register last month, of a renewed “people-to-people” policy, specifically enabling such programs.

Two months later, Arturo’s orchestra members are still processing the trip to Cuba. Percussionist Roland Guerrero feels “humbled, in the best of ways, in terms of the things I know about this music.” Trumpeter Jim Seeley was inspired not just by the sight of his good friend Arturo realizing his dream, but by the sheer tenacity of young musicians who triumph over the flaws of instruments in awful disrepair. Zack O’Farrill has “grown to appreciate a little more what went into my grandfather’s music and who he was, since I never really got the chance to know him.”

Arturo is still sorting out his feelings. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about this,” he says. “The reason I went was not to canonize my father. I did want to hear his music in Cuba and to see my mother there. But there’s another thing: I want jazz to stop dying this awful death, this strangulation. I think the future of this music has to do with the acceptance of a larger picture of it, which has always been the deeper truth anyway.

“I think it would be arrogant to call myself Cuban. I didn’t grow up in Cuba. I was born in Mexico, but I’m not Mexican. Raised in New York, yet I’m not exactly American. My father never quite found his home, either. He was a little pink Irish-German-Cuban guy without any directly Hispanic features who nevertheless was thrown in the Latin heap. He loved New York, but he wept for Cuba. He loved jazz, and he wrote incredible Afro-Cuban music. There’s got to be a way to define those of us who don’t really have a home, those of us who don’t have but who insist on having an entry point into the conversation—which is most of us, really.”

That final Sunday night in Havana, after the premiere of his new piece, the Mella’s massive brown curtain drew slowly shut, until finally only Arturo was visible. He was speechless. He simply waved. The curtain closed. The door had been thrown open, the larger conversation to come.

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