Arturo O’Farrill has – for a very long time – been exploring long-form composition and using it to express [by American standards, at least] his rather radical social-consciousness. While what he writes may not strictly-speaking be the “symphonic” form or tone-poems, the subject matter of his work suggests that he certainly conceives of his music on the epic and very cannily uses orchestral writing to express his world view on a grand – even epic – scale. But of all his recent works – the brilliantly-conceived and executed Four Questions – none stands out quite like the Virtual Birdland album.
The title suggests part of the reason why: the “Virtual” in it tells you that this monumental [by virtue of the number of musicians and the scope of the music] nature of the production and the fact that much – if not all of it was individually [or remotely] recorded is staggering to contemplate, let alone execute. Zoom and other media devices were never designed for a recording on this scale. To pull it off, certainly albeit with considerable hours of post-production, is quite a feat in itself. It is not a matter of simply getting every musician “on the same page” To dig into the emotion of the music – especially instrumental music – notes and diacritical markings may be a composer’s guide.
Yet even the most autocratic composer leaves room for expressive interpretation. Knowing the arduous process of putting Virtual Birdland together and now listening to this music you will be amazed at how musicians so far apart could be “on the same page” musically, and expressively while maintaining requisite tension and release as if they were in a single space. This is no gimmick. The musicians have, indeed deeply interiorized Mr O’Farrill’s vision and artistry and interpreted his music with eloquent idiomatic grace.
And now, the “epic” part: Mr O’Farrill has been deeply committed to the Black Lives Matter and he collaborated with Professor Cornel West masterfully and memorably on Four Questions. On Virtual Birdland the composer extends the scope of his social-consciousness – and his world view – to bring perspectives from the Africa and the Arab World. But “Pouvoir” and “Ana Mashoof” are not simply artistic stances. By using powerful voices [Malika Zarra] and the Arab percussionist colourists the Boom Diwan – especially on the latter song, he is more than simply aligning himself with the concept of “universal brotherhood”.
But using his art to more than extend an [artistic] hand to Islamic brethren; rather, in the vaunted of “Nightfall” and the dark elegance of “Ana Mashoof” he is creating a musical space for that all-encompassing idea of brotherhood. All this repertoire sounds refreshing and new – like Paquito D’Rivera‘s “Samba for Carmen, for instance. Soli are judiciously distributed and soloists respond with noble performance, all of which are seamlessly and exquisitely subsumed into the ensemble performance of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
But most importantly, this recording also melds the “heart-world” of Mr O’Farrill with his “cultural-topography world” – which is the Afro-Caribbean one – expressed in a myriad of wonderful ways, on such works as “Gulab Jamón”, the lyrical “Cimarrón” and the thunder and lightning of “Para los Rumberos”. And it is this collision that brings about a proverbial volcanic mix of wondrous music that while inflected by a multiplicity of rhythms and harmonic idioms, it offers the best and clearest example of Mr O’Farrill’s powerful artistic world-vision.
Track list – 1: Gulab Jamón; 2: Pouvoir; 3: Desert; 4: Nightfall; 5: Ana Mashoof; 6: Samba for Carmen; 7: Alafia; 8: En el Oscuridad; 9: Cimarrón; 10: Para los Rumberos
Personnel – Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – Woodwinds – Alejandro Avilés: alto saxophone [solo on 9], soprano saxophone [4, solo on 5], and flute [1, 5]; Adison Evans: alto saxophone [1, 2, 4 – 6, 8 – 10], and flute [5, 6]; Roman Filiú: alto saxophone [3, 7]; Iván Renta: tenor saxophone [soli on 4, 8, 10], and soprano saxophone ; Jasper Dutz: tenor saxophone [1 – 5, 8, 9 – solo on 1], and clarinet [2, 3, 5]; Jeremy Powell: tenor saxophone [6, 7]; Livio Almeida: tenor saxophone ; Larry Bustamante: baritone saxophone [solo on 7], and bass clarinet [3, 5]. Brass – Seneca Black: trumpet [1, 3, 5, 9 solo on 3]; Bryan Davis: trumpet [solo on 10]; Adam O’Farrill: trumpet [solo on 6]; Walter Cano: trumpet [2, 9, 10], and flügelhorn ; Rachel Therrien: trumpet [1 – 8, 10 solo on 4], and flugelhorn ; Kai Sandoval: trumpet [6, 8]; Rafi Malkiel: euphonium [soli on 3, 10]; Mariel Bildsten: trombone [1 – 5, 7 – 10 solo on 2]; Abdulrahman Amer: trombone [1 – 7, 8 – 10 solo on 9]; Xito Lovell: trombone ; Ben Barnett: trombone ; Earl Mcintyre: trombone [1 – 5, 7, 9, 10], bass trombone, and tuba 3, 7]; James Rogers: bass trombone [6, 8, 9]. Rhythm Section – Arturo O’Farrill: piano [soli on 1, 4]; BamBam Rodríguez: contrabass, electric bass [1, 2, 5, 6], and karkabas ; Vince Cherico: drums [solo on 10]; Keisel Jiménez: conga drums [soli on 2, 4]; Carly Maldonado: bongo drums, bell guiro, cajón , dumbek [3, 4], and timbales [solo on 9, 10]. Special Guests – Malika Zarra: voice ; Gili Sharett: bassoon ; Gazal Faisal Al-Mulaifi: guitar and voice [solo on5]. Boom Diwan – Sulaiman Mayoof Mejally, Abdulaziz Al-Hamli, Abdulwahab Al-Hamli, Khaled Bunashi, Ghanem Salem: percussion. Paquito D’Rivera: alto saxophone [solo 6]; Richard Miller: guitar ; Everton Isidoro: cuica, pandeiro and caxixi [6, 7]; Gustavo Di Dalva: atabaque 
Released – 2021
Label – ZOHO Music [ZM 202105]
Runtime – 1:08:16