SAN FRANCISCO — Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill, the popular composer and arranger of Latin jazz, recently celebrated his birthday at this year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, and his fans received an impressive gift. The diminutive O'Farrill led his 20-piece band through an energetic program spanning his half-century career, a lifework uniquely bridging the worlds of jazz, Latin, and classical music.
"I still dabble in classical music, and I love it," noted the soft-spoken composer in an interview before his performance.
Dabble? This former Juilliard School student had his First Symphony and various dance sketches performed by major orchestras of Mexico and Venezuela. And he still remembers fondly his lessons in music theory with Cuban composer Felix Guerrero, an eye-opening experience for a teenage trumpeter in Havana in love with the sounds of American big-band jazz heard on the radio.
This foundation in classical music served O'Farrill well after he left Cuba for the US in 1948. He ended up working as an arranger for one of his teenage idols, Benny Goodman, bringing to Goodman's band an uncanny ear for exotic harmonies and rhythmically surprising transitions. Arranging jobs with Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie followed.
The best recorded introduction to O'Farrill is "Cuban Blues," a two-CD set just released on Verve, which showcases his first recordings (1950 to 1954) as a leader.
Even a casual listen to the jazzy mambos, passionate ballads, and atmospheric tone poems strikingly reveals the essence of O'Farrill's style. The composer stopped playing trumpet three decades ago; he claims his only instrument today is "the orchestra," but his original compositions are often mini-concertos for extraordinary trumpeters.
A tribute to O'Farrill at Lincoln Center last year featured his new "Trumpet Fantasy," written for and performed by Wynton Marsalis. Tunes like "JATP Mambo" and "Fiesta Time" on the new Verve set are exhilarating brass workouts, with blisteringly high trumpet notes counterpointed by suavely smooth saxophones, all propelled fiercely by multiple percussionists.
Included on "Cuban Blues" is O'Farrill's most famous recording, "The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," a dazzling 17-minute, six-movement composition seamlessly joining Afro-Cuban drumming, modern jazz, and classical styles. It quickly entered jazz history by offering breathtaking Latin-flavored soloing by acclaimed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.
The revised version of this suite, which O'Farrill and his sparkling band performed, showcased some raucous new parts for trombones (there were none on the original 1950 recording). The dance floor, previously spinning with energetically dancing couples during earlier sections of this complex suite, froze. Blasting trombone phrases collided with sharp sax and trumpet attacks. What seemed like straightforward mambo music transformed itself into a modern symphony full of jolting polyrhythms, furious layers of dissonance.
The dancers stood still, amazed, while a sly smile crossed O'Farrill's face as he drew his hornmen into one climax after another, and then signaled to his percussionists that it was time, once more, to keep the dancers happy.