Arturo O’Farrill and the ALJO present East Meet West featuring John Santos




By NY Co-Editor, Tomas Peña | Photographs by David Garten

“We don’t define ourselves by what we’re or what we’re not, nor by the opinions of what this music is or is not. We define our music by the possibility of what happens when you relinquish control, carry the pueblo in your soul and leap into the infinite.”   – Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O’ Farrill and the mighty Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra extended a warm New York welcome to percussionist, composer, historian and educator John Santos, one of the foremost exponents of Afro-Latin music in the world. Santos, who is based in the San Francisco Bay area curated two concerts and headed up a discussion that focused on the unspoken rivalry between East and West Coast Latin jazz.

The Orchestra paid tribute to their West Coast brethren through the music of West Coast musicians: John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Saul Sierra, Marco Diaz, Ron Stallings, John Calloway and José Rizo. The program took flight with Israel Y Aristedes, a danzón dressed up with some rumba and Abakuá inspired by and dedicated to two of the greatest figures in the history of Cuban music – bassist/composer Israel López “Cachao” and tumbador extraordinaire Federico Arístides Soto AKA Tata Güines. Señor Olmos pays tribute to the Mexican actor, Edward James Olmos. The rumba, SF Bay captures the relaxed and progressive sophistication of the San Francisco Bay area. O’ Farrill payed  tribute to a fallen colleague with the intricate and somewhat frantic composition titled Day of the Dead. No Te Hundas (Don’t Drown Yourself), a funky Puerto Rican bomba featured sonero Frankie Vasquez and percussionist, dancer Nelson Matthew González, who is a member of Danza Fiesta, a theatrical dance troupe that regularly performs with Los Pleneros de la 21. González’s fancy footwork demonstrated the intricacy and beauty of the bomba and drew a well-earned round of applause.

Arturo O’Farrill and the ALJO present East Meet West featuring John Santos - 06The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is made up of 18 eminent musicians, many of whom are respected leaders in their own right. It is a cross-generational powerhouse that reveres tradition and relishes in taking musical leaps of faith. With such an abundance of talent it’s difficult to single out a particular moment or person. Nevertheless I enjoyed watching John Santos, who was beaming with pride as he traded licks with percussionist Tony Rosa, bongo player Joe González and drummer Vince Cherico. Veteran saxophonist Bobby Porcelli and trumpeter Jim Seeley gave new meaning to the word “eminent.” It was a treat to see Arturo O’ Farrill play more than less. More often than not he gets caught up leading the band. I have had the pleasure of seeing the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra perform many times but on this evening they were particularly hot!

Regrettably, I was unable to attend the East Meets West discussion. However, the topic piqued my interest and led me to the following insightful piece by writer and collector, DJ Danny: ‘Latin jazz on the West Coast was something different than it was on the East. It was something that percolated its way down through California’s diffuse network of musicians, attracting its adherents from the Mexican-American and African-American communities, the scattering of Cuban and Puerto Rican percussionists who’d made their way to the Bay Area and Los Angeles for work, and the jazz musicians who’d already established themselves there. Cooler-toned, more studied, and more exotic, it was, very broadly, the work of jazz musicians playing in a Latin style, and sort of the inverse of what had developed organically in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York City, where musicians like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri might play Latin jazz without it ever dominating their broader repertoires of mambos, boleros, cha cha’s, etc.’’

According to Arturo O’ Farrill “The East Coast jazz scene has always been positioned as the more important of the two because so many heroes associated with this music forged their careers here.” But he is also quick to point out that “Being first does not mean best or better.”

John Santos believes that “There will of course be folks who get inundated by the local influences and are not exposed to outside stuff, but the music itself usually brings folks to other frontiers sonically if not physically, smashing barriers and preconceptions along the way.”

Arturo O’Farrill and the ALJO present East Meet West featuring John Santos - 05
Here’s my take. Each music scene has its own distinctive sound. The differences between the two are less glaring than they were during the 1950s and 1960s when Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría and Willie Bobo ruled in the West and Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito ruled in the East. Today the differences can be heard in the music of Poncho Sánchez, Bobby Matos, John Santos, Wayne Wallace, John Calloway and Rebeca Mauleon in the West and Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Papo Vázquez, Bobby Sanabria, Dafnis Prieto, Yosvany Terry, the González brothers and Steven Kroon in the East.

East Meets West demonstrated that yes, there are differences between East and West Coast Latin jazz however at the end of the day, Swing belongs to everyone! For more programs like this, I urge the reader to contribute to the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, a non-profit organization that provides a comprehensive array of performance and education programs. ALJA programs celebrate Latino contributions to American jazz and explore the rich diversity of jazz in the Americas. The Alliance is dependent on your support, so please give generously.


Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri – El Sonido Nuevo (Verve Records, 1959)

The John Santos Sextet – Filosofía Caribeña, Vol. 1  (Guataca Music, 2011)
José Rizo’s Jazz on the Latin Side All-Stars – Tambolero  (Saungu Records, 2007)
José Rizo’s Mongorama – (Saungu Records, 2011)
Poncho Sánchez – Latin Soul (Concord Picante, 1999)

Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Afro Blue Monk (American Showplace Records, 2012)
Papo Vázquez Mighty Pirates and Troubadours – Oasis (Picaro Records, 2012)
Yosvany Terry – Today’s Opinion (Criss Cross, 2012)
Steven Kroon – El Mas Allá (Beyond) (Kroonatune Records, L.L.C., 2008)