Brace yourself, Brooklyn, this is history
in the making. .
On Oct. 26, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO), Jazz at Lincoln Center’s latest undertaking, makes its inaugural performance in the Borough of Kings at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. In addition, the concert will be a sort of homecoming for ALJO musical director and pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who is a proud alumnus of the Brooklyn College Conservatory and a Park Slope resident.
"I moved to Brooklyn when I was 17 years old, which is longer ago than I care to confess," O’Farrill says with a laugh before a set at the Manhattan nightclub Birdland on a recent Sunday. "I love Brooklyn; my kids were born there, they’re being raised there. I live in a very multicultural community - it’s a real microcosm of New York at its best." The bandleader smiles broadly, then returns to the topic at hand, the genesis of ALJO.
Incredibly, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra came into being as the result of a missed meeting in 1995. O’Farrill, as music director of his father’s big band, the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, had just completed a guest performance with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and now he wanted to ask trumpeter and artistic director Wynton Marsalis for advice about starting a repertory orchestra for Latin jazz.
He contacted Marsalis’ assistant and told her why he wanted to schedule some time with Marsalis, who has led the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra since its inception as a program in 1991 and knows a thing or two about how to run a band. Marsalis was happy to oblige, but life being what it is, the two busy musicians never found time to put their heads together, and the idea dropped.
Cut to December 2001. After the tree-lighting ceremony at Lincoln Center (at which O’Farrill performed), Wynton sidled up to Arturo and told him that he’d decided to go ahead with Arturo’s idea and create a big band designed specifically to play Latin jazz. And he wanted Arturo to lead it.
"I was flabbergasted," O’Farrill recalls, his face lighting up. "Jazz at Lincoln Center is the premier non-profit jazz-presenting organization in the world. To be accorded that kind of recognition for Afro-Cuban jazz and Latin music on an institutional level is a deep, deep honor, which I take very seriously."
Since that time, O’Farrill has faced the daunting task of assembling the musicians, selecting the repertoire, and putting the fledgling ensemble through its paces. The scintillating results will be on display as the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra swings into action in the Walt Whitman Theatre at Brooklyn College on Oct. 26.
So how did O’Farrill go about putting together the ALJO? "I started at the very top with musicians whom I consider to be the very best practitioners of both Latin and jazz music - because it’s an Afro-Latin jazz orchestra," explains O’Farrill. "It’s really an all-star orchestra. Every member is a player of major stature."
Indeed, the roster reads like a who’s who of Latin jazz: Michael Philip Mossman, John Walsh, Jim Seeley and Ray Vega on trumpets; Conrad Herwig, Papo Vazquez, Reynaldo Jorge and Douglas Purviance on trombones; Bobby Porcelli (alto), Pablo Calogero (alto), Mario Rivera (tenor), Bob Franceschini (tenor) and Chris Karlic (baritone) on saxophones; Joe Gonzalez and Milton Cardona on percussion; Phoenix Rivera on drums; Andy Gonzalex on bass; and Arturo O’Farrill, music director and piano.
O’Farrill is a natural selection as the ALJO’s founding music director. The music is in his very bloodline: His late father, Chico, whose compositions and charts for Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Bennie Goodman helped popularize the music in the late 1940s and ’50s, was one of the principal architects of the Latin jazz genre.
But Arturo’s appointment is about more than his musical lineage, distinguished as it may be. He is an accomplished musician, bandleader and recording artist whose musical resume includes a lengthy stint with the Carla Bley Big Band, work with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, Lester Bowie and Harry Belafonte, and numerous recordings. While he is very much the product of his musical upbringing, he remains steadfastly his own man.
"I was about 8 or 9 when I really fell in love with music for my own sake, not because I was told to," he says when asked about growing up in a household brimming with music. "Very early on, I discovered that my father and I were from different generations; I loved Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, and he loved Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
"I learned from him that as a musician you have to be very serious and really care about development, practicing and studying," he says. "My father was a very hard worker. And I think that to be halfway capable as a musician, you have to work hard. Not only just in terms of conditioning your fingers, but in terms of infusing your mind with music."
Much of the music O’Farrill was busy internalizing turned out to be the core repertoire of the ALJO. The Brooklyn concert will showcase classic charts by such Latin jazz legends as Machito, Ray Santos and Mario Bauza, as well a few pieces by Chico O’Farrill. One highlight is sure to be the "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," a rarely performed O’Farrill composition that suggests what might have happened if George Gershwin had put his American in Havana instead of Paris.
As for the future, the sky’s the limit for O’Farrill and the ALJO.
"The name Jazz at Lincoln Center brings so much prestige with it that it opens the door to a thousand venues, and people who would never have heard of Machito are going to have the opportunity to hear this great music," O’Farrill enthuses. "We’re going to get the opportunity to travel all over the globe."
First Brooklyn, then the world.
Andrew Clevenger is a freelance writer and musician living in New York.
The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra appears
at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts’ Walt Whitman
Theatre (2900 Campus Road, one block from the junction of Flatbush
and Nostrand avenues) on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 8 pm. Tickets are
available through the Brooklyn Center box office. Call (718)
951-4500 or visit www.brookl