On his recent set with the trumpeter Jim Seeley, Arturo O’Farrill’s acoustic piano work sounded like that of a Latin pianist who could play jazz. It was a matter of overall keyboard sound, attention to melodic development, and of course rhythm. This was hardly surprising in the son of the late and esteemed Cuban arranger Chico O’Farrill, the heir to his band and leader of the Lincoln Center Latin Jazz Orchestra. The liner notes to the present set briefly chronicle the development of Arturo’s musical inclinations, for a considerable time those of a New Yorker drawn not to the Latin music of Chico O’Farrill—who gave Benny Goodman his one straight up bop masterpiece—but to Coltrane, Hendrix and Sun Ra. Forget psychobabble, the young Arturo was probably too musical to have sentimental attachments to Latin music, or miss the pull of that other stuff. Several jazz musicians—I can’t speak for Latin ones—have in the past spoken of an experience like hearing the infant’s first word when a full-sized son indicated that Pa’s music was no longer a closed book.
What sounds like something Cuban is Arturo’s preferred approach to the piano on this set. He can play pretty orthodox contemporary, but here each hand seems to develop its own line, but not of course wholly uncoordinated with the other. There’s some effort made, applying touch, phrasing, and pedal-work, to keep each hand’s line sounding distinct from the other. During his own belated recording career, the Cuban maestro Ruben Gonzales filled out colour and harmony and rhythmic complexity all at once with his independent hands—often feeling no need to improvise jazz lines, or any reluctance to quote from other tunes. Arturo’s whole business here is jazz improvisation, combining his two-hand, two-voice playing with the lines of the veteran Latin bassist Andy Gonzales, no close relative either biologically or musically to Ruben. So there are often three melodic lines or voices here. The straightforward support of this Cuban (metaphorical) uncle—not a man to waste notes or abandon the duty of maintaining pulse—also releases Arturo to relate to his individual NYC and North American roots (OK, Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn!), while the baby of the trio at the drums, Dafnis Prieto, keeps things moving and keeps things together.
The bassist gets to set things up in the opener, his own composition “Vieques”, and there’s Arturo flowing around seeding the environment with implied accents and cross-rhythms and linearities. It’s important that this is improvised music, going to new places rather than following already laid down lines. There’s a consistent feeling of things opening out.
Early in the eleven minutes Arturo’s trio devotes to Carla Bley’s “Walking Batterie Woman” there’s a lot of that lady’s characteristic stop-go, the occasional modal run, and almost Bartokian phrasing. Note the racing single line in the right hand, and after some five minutes, the pure Cuban riff followed by a mystic marriage of Ruben Gonzalez with McCoy Tyner’s muse. Andy Gonzales celebrates the wedding with a bass solo, and Dafnis Prieto executes a drum roll which might have been lifted from a New York composition of the early 1940s: from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. The singular playful rhythmic climate which is Carla Bley’s is conjured at the end.
Horace Silver’s “Peace” opens with almost Ellingtonian piano work, the bassist playing with his own strongly defined sound, with echoes of what Scott LaFaro did in the course of devising a new piano trio approach with Bill Evans and Paul Motian. The overall conception tends toward the spacious, and on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, which begins bluesy, Arturo uses the piano’s pedals to produce an echoey, even clangy sonority. He gets back into the blues—before Gonzales takes his solo—by way of a flying visit to Cuba. Clever. There’s enterprising piano support as the bass solo progresses, and chording and riffing to create colour patches at the beginning of the drum workout. Some of this performance is in Corea-Jarrett-Tyner language, but the trio has its own ways, including when building heat in a series of intensifying passages. The three-minute “Utviklinsang”, a second Carla Bley thing which presumably alludes to her own Swedish antecedents, is slow-paced with bouts of virtuoso intensity, rather playing with the theme in terms of the original composition than working out jazz lines. Fingered and pedalled dynamics alike distinguish the almost eleven-minute treatment of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”. At times the piano sound is stark, other times there are bursts of almost orchestrally harmonised recomposition, and extended linear passages with again each hand following its very individual way. Before the long sustained bass solo, a range of apparently managed fluctuations suggests that if the whole performance doesn’t fall apart (and it doesn’t) it will wind up having opened out the theme in some surprising ways. As it does. Risky stuff.
There’s some boppish play or foreplay before Gonzales commits a performance with a wide-ranging opening to Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”. Like the great stride pianist Joe Turner, O’Farrill sees the potential of that composition as something to be delivered at a fair lick. Gonzales solos as ever with concentration on tone, phrasing, time, space, selection. Saxophonists who have nightmares of bassists’ overactive fingers might sigh ecstatically hearing so much being done to such purpose, with so few notes and no dereliction of traditional duties. The man is extremely musical. The set resolves logically, Prieto’s extended drum solo crystallising what follows from the rhythmic fertility of Monk’s theme.
On this form, though no strictly stylistic innovator, Arturo O’Farrill wins out with energy and enterprise. No attempt to overproduce a recording for a supposed market, this is the best of a very good live gig. The 57 various minutes aren’t another case of a piano trio performing brilliantly what you can and have heard often enough elsewhere. This is something the reviewer of a lot of piano trio sets especially appreciates: Spontaneity.