Two generations of family pay tribute to Bebo Valdes and Chico O'Farrill in a thrilling display of sparkling Latin jazz from the classic to the utterly modern.
The joy of Latin jazz is one of the great, bustling triumphs of this nation. From the start, jazz carried what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Latin tinge" — a rhythmic lineage that brought Afro-Cuban polyrhythms into the root of the music. A few decades later, jazz would be further invigorated by a more direct infusion of Latin music, as musicians such as Machito and Mario Bauza brought specific Afro-Cuban rhythms into the jazz format and Dizzy Gillespie famously brought Havana-born Luciano Pozo González (“Chano Pozo") into his big band as a percussionist and co-composer. New York became not only a hotbed of jazz that was animated by clave rhythms but also popular forms such as mambo and, eventually, salsa.
All of this music was infused with emphatic, thrilling, hip-moving propulsion. Both popular and artistically challenging, it remains a living thing today in dance clubs and concert halls.
A key figure in this story was Bebo Valdes, a pianist who was essential to the scene at Havana's renowned Tropicana Club (later recreated in the Bronx), a writer, arranger, and performer of enormous imagination. Also critical to the music was Arturo “Chico" O'Farrill (born in Havana to an Irish father and German mother), a trumpeter, composer, and arranger who moved to New York in 1948 to continue conservatory study at Juilliard, leading him eventually to work with Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Machito, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Chico's son, Arturo, was born in Mexico in 1960 but moved to New York as a child, where he started to play the piano — eventually attending the city's LaGuardia High School for Music and Art, playing modern jazz with the likes of Carla Bley and Lester Bowie, and serving for a while as Harry Belafonte's music director. Ultimately, however, Arturo was drawn into his father's music when he got involved with Jerry Gonzalez's Fort Apache Band (which blended Latin jazz and small-group modern jazz) and then helped his father to lead the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra in regular gigs at Birdland.
In the meantime, Bebo's son, Chucho Valdes, was developing as a pianist in Havana with a decidedly modern bent. He was a founding member of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, which morphed into the band Irakere in 1973. Irakere, which would be signed to Blue Note Records and have international impact, featured future U.S. jazz stars Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandaval, and it was powered by Chucho's pianism and composing.
These are stories of family, of course — both literal nuclear families and families of musicians and families of musical styles.
Familia is a recording by Arturo O'Farrill and Chucho Valdes, together and with O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra on one disc and featuring O'Farrill and Valdes grandchildren on the second disc. The spirit of collaboration does not mean that this music is forced or stitched together Franken-style. Just as Bebo and Chico themselves worked together in Havana, the families fuse in ego-less fire.
The first disc leans toward tradition, with the band configured as a traditional jazz orchestra (four trumpets, four reeds, three trombones, rhythm section — with added Latin percussion). Both Chucho and Arturo play piano on nearly every track, but their styles are utterly distinct. O'Farrill uses staccato bop lines that swirl and knotty modern harmonies, while Valdes uses the keys more like a drum kit, setting up figures and patterns of excitement. O'Farrill's style as a composer shines on “Three Revolutions", which flirts with atonality and long, weird through-written sections, and a hard-thumping groove that sets up beneath funky ensemble sections as well as the piano solos.
“Ecuasion", by contrast, was written by Bebo, and the band treats us to a precise and bouncing modern version of that classic sound. Chico's “Pianitis" (written as a vehicle for the young Arturo) is also featured, with O'Farrill taking the first pass over the chart like a playful otter, then Chucho reading a slow portion, playing with the frilly daring of Art Tatum.
The larger band also accommodates the younger generation on a new tune by Arturo, “Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters". Adam O'Farrill opens the tune, unaccompanied, showing off both his gorgeous tone and his range, twisting from cabernet-rich low tones to squeezed-blue high ones. The groove sets up a thrilling trumpet battle between Adam, Kali Rodriguez-Pena, and Jesus Ricardo Anduz. After that, there are two contrasting solo piano cadenzas: first the master Chucho plays a rippling string of crazy arpeggios that break into thumping low tones, then his daughter Leyanis guides us through a harmonically lush statement that owes as much to Cedar Walton as it does to Chucho . . . leading us back to the groove again and a conversation between Leyanis and clarinetist Ernesto Vega that carries the band once again.
The second disc begins with three tunes that lean toward a more modern jazz sound, anchored by twin drummers in Zack O'Farrill and Jessie Valdes and boldly led by trumpeter Adam O'Farrill and pianist Leyanis Valdes. This is a “little big band" (seven horns plus rhythm section) that plays “Latin jazz" in the integrated context of the jazz of the last 40 years. Adam's “Run and Jump" incorporates the contrapuntal groove of the style developed by his grandfather, perhaps, but it is largely a new — and wonderful — thing. Vega's clarinet solo flows over a drum groove that is informed by soul/jazz more than Afro-Cuban styles, and when Adam solos over an electric bass/piano unison bass line, you are firmly on New Jazz territory. “Gunk Gonki", written by drummer Zack O'Farrill, refers to his mother's name for the old-school Latin jazz his dad used to play, the tune itself uses a free-bop melody and a rhythm section feeling that owes more to Herbie Hancock than to Bebo or Chico.
The last three tunes, however, take us back home again. “Pure Emotion" is a Chico O'Farrill tune played solo by his son Arturo . . . as a tribute to Belo Valdes. This short performance is shot through with romantic harmony. Then Chucho plays of tune of his, “Para Chico", as a tribute to Chico, but playing it in the style of his father: dancing, bouncing, then using a traditional form to put on a breathtaking display of virtuosity: runs, trills, glissandi, nearly avant-garde swirls, classic Latin bass lines, and mainly all of this put together. It's a tour de force.
Finally, a form of the two generations return to a simple theme by Bebo, “Un Poco Coco", passing the solos back and forth between Adam, Chucho, and Arturo — the language of this classic music moving across ages and geographies with such ease. It is a reminder that the basic idea of Afro-Cuban jazz was central to the music from the start: a groove, a rhythmic language, a connection to the blue notes of America, the polyrhythmic chatter of Africa, and the specific dance impulses and forms from Latin America.
This collection of a dozen wildly varied examples of Latin jazz does a brilliant job looking back and looking forward, focused yet keeping many ideas on the table. It is remarkable that two families can summarize so much while promising so much for the future. From a seed like this, much should grow (and already has). Now, let's dance.