The conversation continues’ and ‘Live in Cuba’ expand a musical dialogue


Arturo O’Farrill performing in Havana, where he recorded the recently released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues.” Credit David Garten

HAVANA, 2August  22  (NYT)  As the American flag was raised over the United States Embassy in Cuba last Friday, the pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill could be found in the immigration area at José Martí International Airport in Havana. Footage of the ceremony, symbolizing the restoration of diplomatic relations severed in 1961, was being piped into the room.

“So I’m waiting on line to enter Cuba, and I’m hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Mr. O’Farrill said this week, speaking from the MacDowell Colony for artists in New Hampshire. “I’m looking around me at the people in the immigration hall. The guy who took my passport really smiled broadly, because he understood that there was a new relationship.”

Mr. O’Farrill, who was born in 1960, needs no convincing on that point. His father, the brilliant composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill, was a prominent Cuban émigré, leaving Havana in 1948 for New York City, where he worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, among others. (He died in 2001, at 79, without ever returning to his homeland.) The younger Mr. O’Farrill has extended his father’s legacy, notably as founder and artistic director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, a nonprofit arts and education organization whose most visible outlet is the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, an acclaimed big band.

In December, Mr. O’Farrill brought the orchestra and a coterie of guest artists, producers and support staff to Havana, to make an album with the theme of dialogue across a cultural and political divide. Within two days of their arrival, President Obama made his startling announcement about the United States moving “to end an outdated approach” to relations with Cuba, casting the project in a hopeful and historic light.

“Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” just out on Motéma, is an album worthy of its moment, an ambitious statement that honors deeply held musical traditions while pushing forward. Spread over two discs, it features a range of pieces commissioned from both Cuban and American composers, including the drummer Dafnis Prieto and the pianist Alexis Bosch. Some tracks — like “El Bombón,” featuring Cotó, a master of the guitarlike trés — feel bracingly familiar, while others venture onto new terrain.

As it happens, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also released a pertinent double album this week: “Live in Cuba,” recorded at the Mella Theater in Havana. This concert recording — the first title on Blue Engine Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new label — is a memento of the organization’s visit to Cuba in 2010, which included workshops as well as performances, and brought its own bureaucratic challenges.

“Live in Cuba” offers a fine portrait of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at work, performing a mix of jazz repertory, by Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, and new works by its members. There are four pieces by Wynton Marsalis, the band’s artistic director, including a movement from the “Vitoria Suite,” which bears his distinctive idiomatic signature as a composer and arranger. But for a substantial portion of the album direct engagement with Cuban music feels like an afterthought; the orchestra mostly hums along on its standard frequencies.

The few exceptions, not surprisingly, feel supercharged. “2/3’s Adventure,” by the band’s bassist, Carlos Henriquez, deals persuasively with mambo rhythm. (Mr. Henriquez will lead the orchestra in a concert called “Back in the Bronx” on Sept. 12, at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. A week later he’ll release his debut album, “The Bronx Pyramid,” on Blue Engine.) And an arrangement of the bolero “Cómo Fué,” with the venerable Cuban singer Bobby Carcassés, is a suave delight.

Mr. Carcassés also appears on “Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” irrepressibly singing and scatting through his own tune, “Blues Guaguancó.” The tune opens up to a dynamic round-robin of solos, including one by the young Cuban trumpeter Jesús Ricardo Anduz; its expression of Cuban-American dialogue leans heavily to one side, but that’s perfectly fine in the larger context of the album.

One hallmark of Mr. O’Farrill’s style as a bandleader is the drive to collaborate, and he elicits mostly excellent work from his artist coalition. Mr. Prieto’s piece, “The Triumphant Journey,” suggests a whirring contraption, an engine of polyrhythm. The pianist Michele Rosewoman, a bandleader on the vanguard of Afro-Cuban jazz in New York, brings a beautifully nuanced piece called “Alabanza,” with hypnotic Yoruban drumming and shimmery figures for flute and horns. And Mr. O’Farrill’s son Zack, a drummer, contributes a surging closer, “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park.”

Setting aside a tune called “Vaca Frita,” which features an extraneous DJ Logic, Mr. O’Farrill’s own new music bursts with vital purpose. The centerpiece of the album is “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” whose title broadcasts its claim to self-definition. Strikingly, the suite is structured as a showcase for the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose bladelike, bittersweet tone has no direct precedent in Cuban jazz.

And yet Mr. Mahanthappa, slashing and skittering through the four movements of the piece, sounds extraordinary. (He also performed “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” with the band at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier this summer, and it was among the highlights of the event.) Mr. O’Farrill lays out the piece in a loose thematic arc: Its first movement, “Mother Africa,” could almost be a suite unto itself; the second movement is “All of the Americas.” The fourth and final movement, which builds on a phraseology traceable to Mr. Mahanthappa, is pointedly titled “What Now?”

That’s a timely question, especially as it pertains to a new, freer musical exchange between Cuba and the United States. “We’ve just scratched the surface, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. O’Farrill said, sounding both elated and determined. “I’ve been going down to Cuba for 14 years, and I never saw this day coming. My father would have been overjoyed.”