El Maquech is the second recording from young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and his commanding quartet, Stranger Days. Chad Lefkowitz-Brown is on tenor saxophone, with bassist Walter Stinson and drummer (and brother) Zach O’Farrill in the rhythm section. Stranger Days, their debut, was assured and imaginative, creating musical landscapes that took their cues from cinema: episodic, dramatic, varied, and textural. Those strengths are still present on the new record, which leans a bit more on grooves and driving elements to create excitement.
The models for the piano/guitar-less quartet in jazz are no longer scarce, of course. And hearing El Maquech you feel that O’Farrill has heard all the influences and incorporated most of them. Like the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker quartet, this band uses generous counterpoint between the horns to create harmonic movement. Like the early Ornette Coleman Quartet, there is a quick, chattering quality to the dialogue among the four musicians, a thrill-a-minute sense that the music—while still swinging—could go anywhere. Like John Zorn’s Masada group, Stranger Days has a drive, particularly when it is working a genre such as Latin jazz.
That last quality, for example, comes through on the Mexican folk tune “Siiva Moiiva”. While it is little more than a repeated lick taken at a relaxed tempo, the band digs deep into an implied groove. The horns take the last few notes of the motif and use it as a repeated figure beneath a gloriously messy bass solo from Stinson. Lefkowitz-Brown solos on tenor next, held up in the air by the very busy bass, almost continuing its solo and the conversational asides of O’Farrill. Though it doesn’t burn at tempo, it digs deep.
More obviously burning is the title track, “El Maquech”, which uses a busy triple meter with a Latin feel to underpin a melody that sounds more Middle Eastern. The soloists begin sounding like accomplished klezmer musicians, able to dance around the rhythm while spinning through the written harmonies, but they each take their improvisations out to more impressionistic harmonic territory as well. “Verboten Chant” comes off as a drunk Monk kind of funk, with Stinson and Zach O’Farrill grooving through a set of syncopated stop-times that throb and land hard on the one while still surprising your ears. Trumpet and saxophone engage in a high-wire dance atop the funk, effortlessly.
Also (Thelonious) Monk-ian is “Erroneous Love”, apparently based on the changes to Monk’s “Eronel”. The horns have a circular figure in unison that sits atop a half-time groove before both halves of the quartet break into stuttering syncopated patterns that tongue-and-groove together. The horns trade back and forth for a bit over the half-time feel before engaging in conversation that merges back into the written tune, this time with Stinson part of the melodic statement. You think it’s over at that point, but O’Farrill loves to make his compositions more episodic, so things end on a slow, roiling section that uses a small piece of the melody to menacing effect.
That kind of cinematic writing and arranging is on display on two other tunes. “Pour Maman” (by Gabriel Garzon-Montano) is a dark theme that uses dissonance and tonal interest from bass and horns over a light, fast ride cymbal from Zach O’Farrill. The tune then transitions to a gut-bucket section with the drums snapping and tumbling in hints of hip-hop as the horns cut loose in a collective improvisation—before getting back to droning darkness. “Henry Ford Hospital” is even more varied, and frenetically so, shifting from moment to moment joyously. The band is tight as can be in making these micro-transitions.
As tight and hip as this quartet is, O’Farrill is becoming a soloist who simply must be heard for his trumpet mastery along. “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”, the Irving Berlin tune known mainly from its Ella Fitzgerald reading, is treated here as a six-minute meditation for solo trumpet. O’Farrill takes his time, pulling every possibility from every note. He worries his way through the melody, bending notes, creating subtle shades in tone, and generating small moments of rhythm simply from attack and repeated notes. When he wants to sound pretty, O’Farrill’s tone shines, but more often he uses his sound for expression: playing quiet, playing a throaty whisper, playing a clarion high note. Sometimes he creates choked-out almost avant-garde passages and, at other times, he plays perfectly articulated bop runs. But what you never hear is speed for its own sake or gaudy beauty. It is a thoroughly modern and mature demonstration of expressive chops.
More fun and just as trumpet-tastic is the duet for the two brothers, “Shall We? (If You Really Must Insist)”. They go at a fast, frenetic figure, Adam jabbing and playing smooth runs as well as figures that leap across wider intervals. Zach plays neat and tight, a rat-a-tat accompaniment that leaves Adam in the lead but constantly compliments that lead. Zach is not flashy, but he’s a listener in the mode of Brian Blade. The trumpeter that most comes to mind, for me, is Woody Shaw, who had a similarly wry tone and had the ability to think more like a saxophonist than a brass player. Adam O’Farrill is already in that kind of esteemed company as a player.
As a bandleader, Adam O’Farrill is also doing something very special. This quartet has an identity, it plays with creativity that spans a real range of tradition and innovation, and it is making records that feel effortlessly interesting. If the future of creative improvised music has the fire and fun of O’Farrill and Stranger Days, then the music isn’t fading—at least not in substance and daring.