June 24, 2014

Cubans with a New York Twist

This isn’t your father’s Cuban jazz


To close a May concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Arturo O’Farrill led his orchestra through “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark work by his father, the late composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. That suite, first recorded in 1950, imagined anew innate connections between American and Cuban idioms and among folkloric, jazz and classical forms.

If the rest of the Apollo Theater concert built on that legacy, it did so with a wide-ranging ambition Chico O’Farrill could scarcely have imagined. At some points a turntablist, DJ Logic, stood beside the percussionists, lending textures and rhythms by manipulating LPs. Throughout, the music was grounded as much in styles native to Peru and Colombia, and in the adventurous attitudes of musicians such as pianist and composer Carla Bley, one of Mr. O’Farrill’s earliest mentors, as in his direct inheritance. This was distinctly not his father’s Afro Latin jazz.

Elsewhere in Harlem and later in May, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry performed at Minton’s alongside his brother, bassist Yunior Terry, in a sextet led by their father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry. The Terry brothers, too, were born into heady Cuban tradition. Don Pancho is the violinist and founding director of the Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, a Cuban charanga band, and master of the chekeré, a beaded gourd used for percussion. At Minton’s, the sextet performed a mixture of traditional charanga repertoire and more forward-leaning music Yosvany composed for his working quintet.

Musicians with roots in Cuba who now live in New York—having absorbed influences and made associations that span borders and genres—bring new sonic possibilities and fresh perspectives to their heritages. In turn, they invigorate New York’s scene. Two recent CDs—”The Offense of the Drum” (Motéma), from Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, and Yosvany Terry’s “New Throned King” (5Passion)—embody such promise through distinctly different approaches.

Mr. O’Farrill, 54, was born in Mexico and grew up in Manhattan. As part of his nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance since 2007, the orchestra has developed an expansive aesthetic that plays out through commissioned pieces for concert seasons. “The world of Latin jazz has exploded,” he said recently at his Brooklyn home. “My father did what he did in his era because that was the world he knew. In my world, there’s Peru and Colombia and Ecuador and Venezuela and more—plus, of course, Cuba. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve explored these connections for all their beauty, power and range.”

Mr. O’Farrill’s CD opens with “Cuarto de Colores,” a celebration of Colombian harp composed by Edmar Castañeda, who plays that instrument with remarkable command. Among its most stirring pieces are Pablo Mayor’s “Mercado en Domingo,” based in the Colombian marching-band tradition; “Gnossienne 3 (Tientos),” for which Spanish arranger Miguel Blanco invested French composer Erik Satie’s music with the pained vocals and curled melismas of flamenco; and “The Offense of the Drum,” an ambitious O’Farrill composition incorporating Japanese taiko drums. That such range forms a coherent musical whole lends credence to his mission.

Mr. Terry, 43, is an especially dynamic presence in New York. In addition to his quintet, he recently formed Bohemian Trio, with a cellist and pianist, and composed the score for “Makandal,” an opera conceived and written by Carl Hancock Rux, scheduled for its Harlem Stage premiere in November. In performance, Mr. Terry often picks up the chekeré his father taught him to play. His new CD explores a tradition more closely related to his mother’s lineage: arará culture, drawn from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey. The group he assembles here, Ye-Dé-Gbé, includes Cuban musicians well versed in arará, such as percussionists Román Díaz, Pedrito Martinez and Sandy Pérez, and players with no prior exposure, such as drummer Justin Brown. Though layered with jazz improvisation and, in some spots, electronics, the music’s core is formed by arará chants and drumming, undisturbed. “I could have composed something simply based on that legacy,” Mr. Terry said. “But I left this material the way it was, to interact with everything else.” This music remains functional: a recent Manhattan album-release performance included a costumed dancer, Francisco Barroso.

These two new recordings pursue very different ends yet share some qualities. Each meaningfully incorporates DJ culture—on Mr. O’Farrill’s CD, through DJ Logic’s turntables; on Mr. Terry’s album, via Haitian DJ Val Jeanty, whose constructed soundscapes include recorded samples of ceremonies. Each features spoken-word poetry: During “They Came,” on Mr. O’Farrill’s CD, Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas explores Puerto Rican identity in the U.S.; on Mr. Terry’s CD, Ishmael Reed celebrates women warriors from Dahomey. On each recording, eras and borders collapse within a track or even a passage—as when Mr. O’Farrill’s piano playing moves from ragtime to Cuban montuno to something akin to free-jazz, and when Mr. Terry’s playing evokes Ornette Coleman’s extrapolated blues atop ritual-based handclaps and chants.

The cross-cultural truth behind Afro Latin jazz is not news. What sounds fresh in Mr. O’Farrill’s version is the breadth of geography it may now embrace. Arará tradition is ancient, yet Mr. Terry expresses it in novel and urgent ways. Both recordings can change anyone’s landscape.

Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal. He also blogs at

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