Live: The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra And Chucho Valdés Headline New York's Best Unplanned Latin Jazz Festival

Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos
Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers at Carnegie Hall on Saturday.
Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra Turns Ten
Symphony Space
Friday, January 20

Chucho Valdés and his Afro-Cuban Messengers with Buika
Carnegie Hall
Saturday, January 21

Better than: Sitting at home, twitching with anger because Time Warner denied me the chance to watch the Knicks lose to the Nuggets in double-overtime.

It was way past union curfew at Symphony Space when pianist Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra transformed "Iko Iko," a treasured New Orleans ditty based on Mardi Gras Indian chant, into hard-driving Cuban son-muntuno. Donald Harrison started that one off sounding every bit the Big Chief he is in his hometown singing and slapping a tambourine, then just as much the modern-jazz hero he is everywhere playing savvy alto saxophone, and finally like the clave specialist he proved to be during a long stint in Eddie Palmieri's septet.

"There is no jazz," O'Farrill had declared from the stage earlier. "There is no Latin. It's just Africa, New Orleans, the world, the strand that runs through the Americas."

At this 10th-anniversary celebration for his orchestra—studded with special guests, interrupted here and there for proclamations and plaques—O'Farrill reveled in the elasticity and strength of that cultural strand, and of his orchestra.

When O'Farrill parted ways with Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2007, he wasn't sure what the future held: "Even I thought my ambitions were a little foolish and over the top," he had told me. Much like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis, O'Farrill's orchestra was originally a repertory outfit: Where Marsalis first championed Ellington and Armstrong, O'Farrill showcased the classic mambo of "Machito" and Tito Puente, and the ground-breaking orchestral suites composed by his father, Chico. At his orchestra's inaugural 2008 Symphony Space show, O'Farrill thanked Marsalis and Lincoln Center. But in the liner notes to the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra's latest release, the Grammy-nominated 40 Acres and a Burro, he described his feelings this way: "We are grateful to our hosts for our birth home, but it is definitely better to be the master of your own tidy cottage than a guest in someone else's mansion."

The ALJO's tidy cottage includes an open window to an ever-widening view. Friday night's program ranged from obvious to unexpected, as geographic and stylistic borders simply fell away. The opener, "Sunny Ray," was a straight-up mambo composed by Ray Santos. Later, Santos conducted his own "Browsing with Bauza," dedicated to a Mount Rushmore figure of Latin-jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá. Carlos Díaz, of the Cuban group Vocal Sampling, also evoked mambo's heyday with Tito Rodriguez's "Estoy Como Nunca." The guests came fast and furious: Claudia Acuña, from Chile, sang a Violeta Parra song, "Volver a los 17," as arranged by New York jazzer Jason Lindner. Dafnis Prieto, born and raised in Cuba, displayed rhythmic sleights of hand at the drumset on his composition, "Song for Chico," which slips in and out of traditional forms more swiftly than Lady Gaga changes costumes. Ned Sublette, a New Yorker by way of Louisiana and Texas who is better known as the author of the essential Cuba and Its Music, did the legacy he's documented proud with original bolero based on Cuban poet Carilda Oliver Labra's verses. His performance was plenty hip. So was vibist Bill Ware's "Gentleman Barbarian." Edmar Castañeda, from Colombia, plucked a traditional harp with sustained intensity and fleet virtuosity, urging the orchestra to giddy heights. Argentine pianist Fernando Otero coaxed slow swirls and fast eddies of notes into surging waves on a solo piece, then swept the orchestra up in his approach on another. He deserves to be more widely heard.

Such virtuosity never trumped the orchestra itself, which O'Farrill has honed into something wondrous. It operates sort of like a good boxer: solid footwork, strong gameplan, sweet jabs, and stinging punches at the right moments. It has standout players, too, including: tenor saxophonist Bobby Porcelli; the ace rhythm team (Roland Guerrero on congas, Joe Gonazález on bongos and cowbell, and Vince Cherico at the drumset); and trumpeter Jim Seeley, who shone brightest on Randy Weston's "African Sunrise." Weston himself took over the piano chair for that one, clearly energized by how well the orchestra grasped Melba Liston's classic arrangement, and how sensitively it responded to his every implication. And what about that teenaged trumpeter lighting it up just before intermission, with the Fat Afro-Latin Jazz Cats, a big band sponsored by the orchestra's nonprofit Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance? That was Adam O'Farrill, Arturo's youngest son. Through Arturo's progeny as well as his overall project, the future looks bright and expansive.

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