Jazz Hands

Nineteen "monsters" of music come together in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra

When ticket holders for the 2004 US Bank Saint Louis Jazz Festival begin streaming into Clayton's Shaw Park on Friday, they'll notice a couple of things that are different about this year's main stage. First, the stage itself is larger than last year's; it was brought in specifically to accommodate the nineteen-member Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra from New York City's Lincoln Center, who will close Friday night's festivities with a performance at 8:30 p.m.

But more unusual -- for an outdoor jazz show, anyway -- is what will be in front of the stage: a dance floor.

Hearing this seems to please ALJO director Arturo O'Farrill, who approvingly acknowledges that "the basis of this music is dance music." It would be hard to find a more enthusiastic or articulate evangelist for Latin jazz than O'Farrill, the son of innovative jazz bandleader and composer Chico O'Farrill and a pianist and composer in his own right who has spent a lifetime absorbing the best of both jazz and Latin music.

Let's dance: Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with director 
Arturo O'Farrill.
Let's dance: Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with director Arturo O'Farrill.
Shaw Park

In 1995 O'Farrill took over the leadership of his father's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. After that ensemble performed a joint concert with Wynton Marsalis, O'Farrill and the orchestra's trumpet player hatched the idea of creating a Latin-jazz repertory orchestra to complement the Lincoln Center's Marsalis-led jazz big band. It took several years for the idea to become reality, but the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra made its debut during Lincoln Center's 2002-2003 season with a mission to perform classic material from the Afro-Latin jazz tradition, to commission new works and to lead educational events.

Now, after two seasons developing its repertoire in residence in New York, the ALJO is taking its act on the road. "This is our first year of actually going out and touring," says O'Farrill. "I'm thrilled and amazed by the reception we've gotten. People just go crazy.

"A lot of the audiences we've been seeing on this first tour are new audiences to Latin music," he adds. "They may be familiar with some of the bigger names, but they're not as well versed in the traditional Latin-jazz genre." So for this initial touring season, the band has selected pieces that represent "a broad retrospective of what this genre is -- the meat and potatoes of the repertoire, which, by the way, is as much a dance repertoire as a concert repertoire."

Toward that end, O'Farrill says, listeners can expect to hear some "great dance music" originally performed by the orchestras of Tito Puente, Machito, Mario Bauza and others -- "classy, buoyant, brassy, big-band music, but it's also Latin," he laughs.

But expect more challenging fare as well, most notably the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite composed by Chico O'Farrill -- a work his son calls "one of the centerpieces of the entire Afro-Latin big-band jazz repertoire. It's a weighty piece, a very important piece that fully integrates jazz and Latin. When it was first performed, the original soloist was Charlie Parker. One of the shining moments of my evolution was discovering that piece."

Leading the ALJO has exposed O'Farrill to other musical treasures, too. "One of the best things for me has been discovering how much great Latin jazz there really is," he says. "When you begin scratching the surface, you find out how much has been written. This orchestra is not your typical repertory orchestra. We're going to be discovering music that has been unheard except for in Latin America. It's very exciting."

Interpreting varied styles with idiomatic accuracy is a daunting task for any musician, and O'Farrill says one challenge in building the ALJO was "finding people who really play Latin music authentically, but who also play jazz authentically -- people who can play bebop, changes and swing, and who know and understand Trane, Bird and Monk. They're a rare animal, a rare breed, and to have eighteen musicians who are monsters in both genres is wonderful."

Blending many strong individual voices into a coherent whole presents another challenge for a bandleader, but O'Farrill learned a few things in that regard during his tenure with Carla Bley, the famously idiosyncratic composer who for years has mixed and matched musicians from mainstream and avant-garde jazz, rock and Latin music.

"Carla showed me you have to give the musicians a little room," says O'Farrill. "If you are aware of the personalities in your band, you're aware of what they bring to the music. In my opinion, the trick to good band-leading is to allow those personalities to be themselves, in every way possible -- in the music and offstage as well.

"That's why this music is not museum music, because it comes from people who are alive in 2004. I have to give them enough latitude to bring their sensibilities to it. We can interpret the music, but we're not going to play it exactly the way Machito played it. We play it because it is important music."

All That Jazz
Although organizers of the Saint Louis Jazz Festival freely admit they're not going for the hard-core jazz audience -- one of their news releases says this year's bookings represent "an expanded musical selection to appeal to a broader market" -- there's nevertheless plenty of high-quality music scheduled for the two-day event.

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