Arturo O’Farrill’s “Four Questions”

ZM202002_ofarrill_foiurquestions6

FOUR QUESTIONS / O’FARRILL: Baby Jack. Jazz Twins. Four Questions.+ Clump, Unclump. A Still, Small Voice* / The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra; Arturo O’Farrill, pno/cond; +Dr. Cornel West, speaker; *The “Still Small Voice” Singers, dir. Jana Ballard; Aubrey Johnson, Edda Fransdottir, sop; Sharon Moe, Fr-hn; Jason Marshall, bar-sax; Ivan Renta, sop-sax; Peter Brainin, t-sax; John Bailey, tpt / Zoho ZM 202002

This is a truly arresting CD by Arturo O’Farrill, son of the late, great Cuban-American jazz composer-arranger Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, who first came to prominence in the late 1940s with his innovative charts for Benny Goodman’s big bop band.

The CD is divided, more or less, into two sections. The first of these contain four original compositions by O’Farrill for big band, Baby Jack through Clump, Unclump while the second consists of his 21-minute suite dedicated to Dr. Cornel West, A Still, Small Voice. Yet both sections of this CD are based on the four questions regarding integrity, honesty, decency and virtue posed by pioneer Civil Rights leader W.E.B. DuBois in 1903 and reiterated by Dr. West in a speech he gave in Seattle in October 2014. Dr. West’s speech was a reaction to the great financial crisis of 2008, a crisis I can certainly relate to as I lost half of my IRA in it. I do take exception, however, to O’Farrill’s wholly unfair and unfounded assessment of the “gravity of the 2016 presidential election and its potential doom (italics mine).” But it is a vanity of many jazz musicians today that they simply must politicize their art, assuming that all their fans and listeners agree with their political views.

The music, however, is fascinating. O’Farrill learned well from his father, whose work was noted for its harmonic sophistication even within standard Latin beats. In Baby Jack, Arturo O’Farrill extends this to include a device I refer to as the “moving bass line,” meaning that the bass line moves with the top line rather than simply supporting it. This was a device originated in the mid-1920s by pioneer jazz arranger Bill Challis, but O’Farrill takes it much, much further. Indeed, the entire harmonic sequence on which Baby Jack is based is continually moving and shifting; the composer says that it was inspired by the way “babies can laugh with the brilliance of pure joy, instantly howl with pain the next, and then burst back through with radiance in the blink of an eye.” David DeJesus’ alto sax solo forms the centerpiece of this track; it is the only section of the piece that is in conventional harmony and rhythm, immediately returning to the harmonic “chaos” of the opening right after.

Jazz Twins is based on his friends Arnold and Donald Stanley, who attended many of O’Farrill’s concerts throughout the U.S. He initially thought “they might be part of a government agency,” but came to realize they were fans who quickly became almost like family. Although not as edgy as Baby Jack, O’Farrill uses shifting meter and yet another moving bass line to induce the harmonic underpinning, the melody line being played on solo trumpet by David Smith. At the three-minute mark the music suddenly jumps into a fast Afro-Cuban beat with complex, almost atonal figures played repeatedly by the saxes, over which the brass plays a contrasting theme in a contrasting rhythm. An unnamed pianist (O’Farrill?) plays a nice running solo against the band’s frenzy, followed by a superb tenor solo by Ivan Renta. Smith then returns to play a brilliant improvised solo comprised mostly of fast eighth-note figures in ascending and descending lines.

Four Questions opens with hard, stomping, atonal chords played by the orchestra, following which Dr. West comes in with his narration. He apparently still thinks that he’s fighting the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s, but what the heck. I certainly have no hatred for him or any other Africa-American. Once again, the music is interesting and complex, this time with crossing figures within the trumpet section and continued bitonality in the harmony. At 9:16 the tempo and rhythm shift upwards into a quicker beat, the piano plays a different motif and the orchestra, first led by low trombones and then with contrasting rhythmic figures played by the trumpets, take over.

Clump, Unclump,  a piece “about the relentless law of gathering and scattering, the coming together and the falling asunder.” It opens with a frenzied piano solo, followed by frenzied playing by high reeds, staccato brass interjections and an overall feeling of mechanical coldness. At 1:30 another piano lick, this one in stiff staccato rhythms, introduces a second, more harmonically and rhythmically complex theme. But O’Farrill is scarcely done; the music continues to shift and morph as it moves throughout its duration. Seneca Black plays an absolutely brilliant trumpet solo on this one.

A Still, Small Voice, in four sections, opens with a gorgeous French horn solo by Sharon Moe, which is followed by the horn playing with a solo trombone, then the other trombones enter to provide the harmony, followed by the trumpets. O’Farrill has a keen ear for orchestral texture. During the ensuing piano solo, the two vocal soloists seem to be talking gibberish as the music becomes more chaotic. Eventually words emerge, but very quickly in staccato rhythms and, without a text to go by, it’s difficult to understand them (something about “passing by”). Jason Marshall plays a fine baritone sax solo, followed by more choral work and outstanding orchestral playing. The second and shortest section, “Amidst the Fire and Whilrwind,” is all choral, while the third, “Cacophonous,” is mostly orchestral, opening with some knotty brass chords before leading into a piano solo that moves like a freight train and then rising chromatic sax figures with brass interjections playing against them. A bit later on, there’s a quirky section of stiff counter-rhythms, followed by a smooth soprano sax solo by Renta. The last section opens with a fairly quiet bongo solo, followed by a brass chord and one of our vocal soloists. I’m not certain what she’s singing, however, or in what language, although she has a beautiful voice.

The thing that struck me with this piece was O’Farrill’s ability to write music that had disparate parts yet which somehow coalesced into a whole when heard together. In this respect, I liked A Still, Small Voice a bit better than George Russell’s anti-Vietnam War piece, Listen to the Silence. It all falls together with exceptional musical brilliance.

This is, for the most part, an excellent album of creative, individual music that crosses the boundaries between written (formal) and improvised music. Recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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