The images of 2020 were scary, nights of ambulance sirens, freezer trucks, sleeplessness, a nation’s economy brought to a halt. Jobs lost, businesses, restaurants, and yoga studios shuttered. With the exception of some high-tech companies and the well ensconced, everybody suffered.
There were other images. Women and men in scrubs and face shields facing an onslaught of suffering with quiet strength. Superheroes clothed in checkout aprons and flight attendant uniforms. People at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic strata who, just by showing up to work, conferred upon themselves wealth of character.
Images of violence visited upon young black lives, millions marching in defiance of that hatred. An honest discussion of racism and a reckoning of the likes we’ve never seen. We discovered a moral abyss at the highest levels of governance and the wisdom of one who urged us to get into “good” trouble. We saw who was who and what was what and can never unsee the differences. Into this reality we meet a group of musicians, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. One week they’re looking at gainful employment. The next they’re faced with the reality that the work they’ve prepared for their whole lives has disappeared.
Free-lance artists have no regular paycheck, no guarantees of employment. They spend hours in practice rooms, doing their scales, their pliés, memorizing soliloquies, writing their stand up, and if they’re very lucky they get to practice their craft. People devoted to those brief moments on stage bring a measure of joy to us, essential workers who may not save lives but do make life worth living. At the beginning of this crisis the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance created an emergency fund for the freelance community, and the orchestra began a weekly stream to raise money to help artists. The production schedule involves musicians donating their time to record individually for hours at a time, then videographers and sound engineers spending days assembling, mixing, syncing, and editing the offering that is shown once a week on Facebook and YouTube.
Two realizations emerged. The first was that only two entities are required for any transaction. Early on in the series we began to see giver and receiver become one. The chat box revealed people from throughout the planet letting us know that in the midst of this dark moment there was at least one time a week that brought them healing. We who labored to give were receiving, knowing our gift was meaningful to people whom we did not know and would most likely never meet. It gave us a sense of global purpose and relevance. The giver becomes the receiver and the gift stays in motion.
The second realization was that the magic of music comes not from the performance or the setting. It comes from the camaraderie of the musicians who bring their best every time they play together, whether in the same room or separated by continents, transcending the artificiality of the computer screen. It’s not the notes but the spirit that creates the swing, the vibe, the whatever you call it, and it’s here in spades. That joy cannot be manufactured, nor contained.
“Gulab Jamón” was commissioned by the Greene Space in New York City. The piece’s title is a mash up of two of my favorite cuisines, Indian and Spanish. The inspiration came from thinking about water and how it can exist in many forms but is essentially the same. We should see humanity as existing in many forms but being of the same essence. We do not dilute our essence when we embrace others.
“Pouvoir” means “power” in French and is written by a very powerful artist born in Morocco, a defender of the sacred Moroccan rhythmic code, Chaabi (a traditional style of North African dance music associated with weddings and festivals.) Malika Zarra, trained in New York, currently residing in Paris, is an archetype of how the music of Mother Africa flows from its sources and travels the globe enriching everyone it touches.
Beautiful human beings make beautiful music. I’m not talking about high cheekbones or sculpted abs. I refer to those whose inner joy radiates in who they are and what they bring. Rafi Malkiel is just such a being. If you know Rafi, you love Rafi. “Desert”, his composition, is an example of that inner joy flowing out. The sound of ancient trade routes connecting with a moment in time where we all need healing.
“Nightfall” by Larry Willis is an example of the compositional prowess of this brilliant pianist. The effortlessness of his swing and the efficacy of his tumbao reveal that the roots, path, and future of this music we call jazz are Afro Latino. Influenced by the middle east and beyond, this music filters through Spain, ferments in Northern African, crystalizes in Western Africa and through a cataclysm called the slave trade, makes its way into all of the Americas.
The next piece is an example of global cooperation, of what could be if artists ran the world. Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi from Kuwait wrote this beautiful song, “Ana Mashoof”, and it was originally performed in Abu Dhabi during a concert called Cuba Meets Khaleeji: The Middle Eastern Roots of Afro Cuban Jazz. In this iteration, Boom Diwan (Boom Diwan is a band of percussionists) records from Kuwait, Ghazi from Abu Dhabi, and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra from the United States and Europe.
Paquito D’Rivera’s “Samba for Carmen” was written for the inimitable Carmen McRae and arranged by Maestro Chico O’Farrill. Paquito is a chameleon and one of the most amazing clarinetists of our time. He is equally at home playing a Mozart concerto, a Guaguancó, or a fast Cherokee. Here, he is featured in a Brazilian samba and sounds like a born and bred “carioca.”
Letieres Leite is my counterpart. He founded Orkestra Rumpilezz and created a universe around performing and teaching Afro Brazilian music. This is not your typical elevator bossa. This is full blown Candomblé, scored for 5 percussionists, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 5 saxes and a tuba. “Alafia” is his composition and recorded here by a very happy group of physically, but not socially distant musicians thrilled to be playing such progressive music.
Composed by Rafael Solano and orchestrated by Chico O’Farrill, “En La Oscuridad” is a meditation in elegance and soul. I performed this piece under my father’s direction and marveled at the playing of tenor saxophone giant, Mario Rivera. To hear Mario’s protégé, Iván Renta, play with so much reverence for his mentor, yet be so much his own voice, reminds me that we are part of an ancestral trail.
Don Angel “Papo” Vázquez is affectionately known as “El Almirante” (The Admiral). He is the creator of bomba jazz and amongst the finest trombonists I know. “Cimarrón” was commissioned by The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and in this setting refers to the wild or untamed runaway. I love this celebration of musical fearlessness.
We close this recording with Tito Puente’s iconic “Para Los Rumberos” arranged by José Madera. A rumbero is someone who is not bound by circumstance. Who when the picture is at its bleakest and the smart thing to do is cave in to fear, does the opposite and celebrates the challenge with song and dance. Are you a rumbero? When life hands you lemons, do you make lechón asado out of it? Tito took the circumstances of his life and created a universe of joy. If you have that skill then you too, are a rumbero.
Release Date: April 9, 2021
When this thing happened, this pandemic, this time of national and global reckoning, we were blindsided and even though the sky seemed like it was falling, we rose up and were determined to play music and heal others. This recording is proof that we are interconnected globally even if we are not allowed to leave our homes. The musicians on this recording sat in their living rooms, bedrooms, or closets and contributed to the lives of thousands of unseen listeners. No immediate feedback, no discernible applause, no fancy concert halls, no paycheck, just the purest form of art there is, service to others.
– Arturo O’Farrill
Virtual Birdland is a candle in the darkness, which illuminates what is possible when good people come together to create beauty and meaning in the world. The year 2020 will forever be known as annus horribilis, one of misfortune and misgiving, when the people of the world suffered through an pernicious pandemic.
Arturo O’Farrill is the ultimate “artivist,” a terrific blend of artist and activist. When the occasion arises, he rises to it. Instead of cursing the darkness, he creates music and opportunity for all of us to experience. Arturo is a humanitarian who helped to mobilize resources to support the creative community. He made sure that those in the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra had a steady gig, a semblance of normalcy during a time of chaos. While we all hunkered down in our homes, every week we had the Virtual Birdland show to look forward to. This project is indeed an homage to its namesake, named after the iconic Jazz club in midtown Manhattan where Arturo and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra have had a weekly Sunday night residence for many years.
This album is special. It represents many people coming together to create something larger. We cannot be defeated. We cannot be kept down. Because the human spirit will always bring us together. And music will always be a force for unity. This is the seventh album that I’ve been blessed to produce for Arturo. It’s been an honor for Doug Davis, Paul Avgerinos, and me to help bring maestro Arturo’s brilliant artistic vision into the world.
– Kabir Sehgal
The Rafi Malkiel composition “Desert” was created with support from Chamber Music America’s New Works: Creation and Presentation Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Arturo O’Farrill is a Steinway Artist. www.Steinway.com
Source: Zoho Music