Live: The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra And Chucho Valdés Headline New York’s Best Unplanned Latin Jazz Festival


Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra Turns Ten
Symphony Space
Friday, January 20

Chucho Valdés and his Afro-Cuban Messengers with Buika
Carnegie Hall
Saturday, January 21

Better than: Sitting at home, twitching with anger because Time Warner denied me the chance to watch the Knicks lose to the Nuggets in double-overtime.

It was way past union curfew at Symphony Space when pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra transformed “Iko Iko,” a treasured New Orleans ditty based on Mardi Gras Indian chant, into hard-driving Cuban son-muntuno. Donald Harrison started that one off sounding every bit the Big Chief he is in his hometown singing and slapping a tambourine, then just as much the modern-jazz hero he is everywhere playing savvy alto saxophone, and finally like the clave specialist he proved to be during a long stint in Eddie Palmieri’s septet.

“There is no jazz,” O’Farrill had declared from the stage earlier. “There is no Latin. It’s just Africa, New Orleans, the world, the strand that runs through the Americas.”

At this 10th-anniversary celebration for his orchestra—studded with special guests, interrupted here and there for proclamations and plaques—O’Farrill reveled in the elasticity and strength of that cultural strand, and of his orchestra.

When O’Farrill parted ways with Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2007, he wasn’t sure what the future held: “Even I thought my ambitions were a little foolish and over the top,” he had told me. Much like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis, O’Farrill’s orchestra was originally a repertory outfit: Where Marsalis first championed Ellington and Armstrong, O’Farrill showcased the classic mambo of “Machito” and Tito Puente, and the ground-breaking orchestral suites composed by his father, Chico. At his orchestra’s inaugural 2008 Symphony Space show, O’Farrill thanked Marsalis and Lincoln Center. But in the liner notes to the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra’s latest release, the Grammy-nominated 40 Acres and a Burro, he described his feelings this way: “We are grateful to our hosts for our birth home, but it is definitely better to be the master of your own tidy cottage than a guest in someone else’s mansion.”

The ALJO’s tidy cottage includes an open window to an ever-widening view. Friday night’s program ranged from obvious to unexpected, as geographic and stylistic borders simply fell away. The opener, “Sunny Ray,” was a straight-up mambo composed by Ray Santos. Later, Santos conducted his own “Browsing with Bauza,” dedicated to a Mount Rushmore figure of Latin-jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá. Carlos Díaz, of the Cuban group Vocal Sampling, also evoked mambo’s heyday with Tito Rodriguez’s “Estoy Como Nunca.” The guests came fast and furious: Claudia Acuña, from Chile, sang a Violeta Parra song, “Volver a los 17,” as arranged by New York jazzer Jason Lindner. Dafnis Prieto, born and raised in Cuba, displayed rhythmic sleights of hand at the drumset on his composition, “Song for Chico,” which slips in and out of traditional forms more swiftly than Lady Gaga changes costumes. Ned Sublette, a New Yorker by way of Louisiana and Texas who is better known as the author of the essential Cuba and Its Music, did the legacy he’s documented proud with original bolero based on Cuban poet Carilda Oliver Labra’s verses. His performance was plenty hip. So was vibist Bill Ware’s “Gentleman Barbarian.” Edmar Castañeda, from Colombia, plucked a traditional harp with sustained intensity and fleet virtuosity, urging the orchestra to giddy heights. Argentine pianist Fernando Otero coaxed slow swirls and fast eddies of notes into surging waves on a solo piece, then swept the orchestra up in his approach on another. He deserves to be more widely heard.

Such virtuosity never trumped the orchestra itself, which O’Farrill has honed into something wondrous. It operates sort of like a good boxer: solid footwork, strong gameplan, sweet jabs, and stinging punches at the right moments. It has standout players, too, including: tenor saxophonist Bobby Porcelli; the ace rhythm team (Roland Guerrero on congas, Joe Gonazález on bongos and cowbell, and Vince Cherico at the drumset); and trumpeter Jim Seeley, who shone brightest on Randy Weston’s “African Sunrise.” Weston himself took over the piano chair for that one, clearly energized by how well the orchestra grasped Melba Liston’s classic arrangement, and how sensitively it responded to his every implication. And what about that teenaged trumpeter lighting it up just before intermission, with the Fat Afro-Latin Jazz Cats, a big band sponsored by the orchestra’s nonprofit Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance? That was Adam O’Farrill, Arturo’s youngest son. Through Arturo’s progeny as well as his overall project, the future looks bright and expansive.

The past was much in mind when pianist Chucho Valdés, a towering figure in his native Cuba, played Carnegie Hall Saturday night. Sitting at the piano in a slick velvet suit, he said, “It’s been 34 years since I was here.” He referenced the 1978 New York debut of Irakere, the group he led from 1973 through 2000. Backstage that night, he had an emotional reunion with his father, pianist Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, a seminal figure of Cuban jazz who had left that island for good in 1960. Onstage, he introduced New Yorkers to Irakere’s bold and subversive music, which was both a response to Cuba’s post-revolution rejection of American culture and a seed for the Cuban dance music later known as timbá.

Valdés was sending a message then. His current band the Afro-Cuban Messengers (named in homage to Art Blakey’s signature band) gives word that, at 70, Valdés is no less bold or forward-thinking. These days, his innovations focus mostly on deft manipulations of clave, the elemental five-beat patterns of Afro-Cuban music; in Valdés’ hands, these slip and morph to fit any meter without losing their integral essence. Valdés is also a grand master, with astounding skills. He can play simultaneous independent parts, either of which would stump most pianists. He can slither a song’s harmonies into extensions that use up the entire keyboard. He can speed up solos and arpeggios into blurs of sound. He does all this with such precision that, at some point, it hardly matters that he also does this stuff entirely too much. Part of the point is showmanship. In that way, Valdés sometimes seems like James Brown in his prime: It’s all entirely too much, but it’s so expertly synchronized and so emotionally and technically valid that audiences crave more. It helps that Valdés’ band can match his levels of technical skill, energy, and musicality. Percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé, quite literally plays three batá drum parts at once. Yaroldy Abreu Robles can create torrents of crossing rhythms on congas. In sum, the seven musicians can be a big band anytime they choose. At Carnegie, the group mostly played songs from Valdés’s recent CD, “Chucho’s Steps,” last year’s Grammy winner for Best Latin Jazz Recording (a category that, sadly and foolishly, has been eliminated). These included “Zawinul’s Mambo,” an brilliantly Afro-Cubanized recombination of the elements of “Birdland,” the 1977 Weather Report hit composed by pianist Joe Zawinul.

Valdés can dial it back whenever he chooses, enough to be a brilliant and sensitive accompanist. He did so when his sister Mayra Caridad Valdés sang “Obatala,” and when he was joined on three songs by the Spanish singer Buika. This was Valdés’s first North American performance with Buika, rekindling their connection on her 2009 album El Último Trago. Her raspy voice and dramatic phrasing draws heavily from flamenco. But as her inflection and occasional scat-singing suggest, she’s grounded just as much in the legacy of singers like Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. She’s stunning to watch, sensual to the point of fierceness. Buika, who goes by only her surname, was born on the Spanish island of Majorca, where her parents settled after leaving Equatorial Guinea. “I’m from everywhere and nowhere,” she told me. “What I have is a mix of a lot of traditions. When you don’t know where you are from you have the choice to be whatever you want.” Valdés told me that his father, Bebo, had led him to Buika, and that he “instantly fell in love with her voice and temperament.” So did I on Saturday, and the roar from the packed house let me know I wasn’t alone.

Critical bias: Nothing can match hearing O’Farrill’s
orchestra or Chucho Valdés in Havana

Overheard (on Friday): “That’s Orlando Cepeda in the front row.” (It was.)

Random notebook dump: During his encore, when audience
members began clapping in unison on the one-beat, Valdés pretty much stopped
his solo and gently instructed them to clap out a clave rhythm. He never
stopped smiling.