Hailing from Havana, Cuba, it’s no wonder that Arturo O’Farrill has more in common musically with Sketches of Spain than Giant Steps. His recreation of Afro-Cuban jazz, already a fiery subgenre, makes his work as captivating and delightful as a bright flamenco dance on a sandy beach. With his new album, Boss Level he continues to charm and fascinate his listeners with the help of his two sons.
Right out of the gate, the polyrhythmic vibrations of the drums and bass kick start this album into full gear, and O’Farrill never hits the break pad. “Miss Stephanie”, the opener, is one of the best songs on Boss Level, with bongo-sounding percussion and a nice horn solo that gives way to a sinisterly sweet electric guitar solo. Underlying the entire piece is a climbing bass run that works in tandem with the drums to create a fresh, layered pulsing beat.
The other fast-paced track is “Maine Song”, composed during a trip that O’Farrill took with his sons to the Pine Tree State. Like “Miss Stephanie”, this song has maraca, bongo and cymbal hits that meld to form the auditory equivalent of a seacoast. Electric keyboard chords get thrown into the mix in order to add to that beach-like sensation, and the swinging horns rolling back and forth across the latter half of the song are reminiscent of a ship tossing in the waves. While “Miss Stephanie” demonstrates O’Farrill’s passionate improvisations, “Maine Song” shows the jazz player’s conceptual brilliance when it comes to making arrangements and compositions.
Another song with a slight conceptual theme is “The Moon Follows Us Wherever We Go”, a melody-driven Latin jazz track. Like all of the songs on this album, the bass hoists the music on its shoulders as the piano and horns use that foundation as a leap off point for their solos. Their melodic harmonies with one another raise the song’s soft and delicate atmosphere to new heights; it’s as if the sonic landscape is climbing upwards to catch the moon above. The O’Farrill family’s performance is complex, but it sounds natural and unforced as well. This effortless playing is exemplified in a couple of the slower songs, especially the closer “Peace” and the winding horns on “Compay Drug”.
In contrast to these musical successes, however, “V.F.S.” feels uncooperative and forced. The melody is easily the most complex on the album, and the musicians do their best to keep it moving at a somewhat steady rhythm on their solos. Still, even with the flashes of energy that the O’Farrill family brings to the table, “V.F.S.” feels undercooked as a performance and overcooked as a composition.
Nevertheless, that’s the only low moment on Boss Level. More often than not, the Afro-Latin master sprinkles his songs with fancy flourishes that immediately bring one’s ear back to the harmony of the music. The serpentine horns on “True That” is a great example of this, with the piano, guitar and trumpet weaving in and out of one another before ending in a cataclysmic jumble of dissonant jazz noises.
The drums and bass also have their own time to shine on “Circle Games” and “Not Now, Right Now”, where the percussion and bass rhythm start the track off. On these two songs, all the other instruments take turns being Atlas as the quintessential, worldly polyrhythms of the bass and drums thicken the air with their vibrations. It’s enticing, and also highlights the strong Afro-Latin jazz style that spices up all ten tracks of the album.
Part of the reason why Boss Level is so good is because it’s not pretending to be something that it isn’t. At its core, the album is nothing more than O’Farrill having fun and making music with his sons. He’s not attempting to revolutionize the jazz world, nor is he particularly motivated to have yet another GRAMMY under his belt. In fact, one of the best aspects about Boss Level is that the Cuban jazz player saturates the music with his carefree, playful attitude.
Listening to this album, people experience more than high-quality Afro-Cuban jazz; for over an hour, they become a part of the O’Farrill family and the music that inspires them everyday.