The Offense of the Drum
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin jazz Orchestra
Maestro Mario Bauzá — trumpeter, saxophonist and music director of Machito and His Afro-Cubans, direct link between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo and a key figure in blending jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms — scoffed at the label Latin Jazz.
“What they call Latin jazz is not Latin jazz. That’s Afro-Cuban jazz,” he would say in his inimitable growl. It wasn’t just that “Latin jazz” blurred the Afro-Cuban contribution. It was also that, for him, Latin jazz suggested a different, more varied mix — incorporating Argentine tangos, Colombian cumbias, Venezuelan joropos or Puerto Rican bomba y plena. He would then name artists such as Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri or Jorge Dalto as worthy practitioners.
It was the 1980s and it was a short roll call.
Today, he would’ve had a much longer and broader list.
But Bauzá would have been specially proud of the work of pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, the son of his friend and collaborator, the great Cuban arranger and bandleader Chico O´Farrill.
For 12 years, sometimes seemingly hidden in plain view, Arturo O´Farrill has carried on an extraordinary effort, not only organizing and keeping alive an 18-piece big band but doing so while also expanding the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban jazz into a truly Pan-Latin Latin jazz.
By now, the book of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) includes not only some of the great standards of Afro-Cuban jazz but also pieces blending in tangos, choros and Peruvian festejos.
In The Offense of The Drum, O´Farrill both takes it further out as he brings it all home.
With the drums as the foundational center of the music, the ALJO connects diverse traditions creatively but also rather organically.
So a tribute to the shared spirits and grooves in Havana and New Orleans, a musical dialogue in “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” flows into a sly Colombian porro groove and allusions to Colombian papayera band (a type of brass street band) on “Mercado en Domingo.”
But exploring the groove doesn´t preclude a reflective “Gnossienne 3 (Tientos),” which explodes Erik Satie’s music Arabic elements with a flamenco perspective.
And O’Farrill is neither afraid of collaborations — such as those with pianist Vijay Iyer (the odd mettered “The Mad Hatter”) and DJ Logic (“They Came” which also explores spoken poetry) — nor having a good time, as with the eminently danceable salsa track, “Alma Vacía,” or the classic “Iko Iko,” featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, a Big Chief Mardi Gras Indian, reinvented here as a joyous, bouncing Cuban/New Orleans party groove.
Throughout, the arranging is imaginative, exploring the character of the music and the instrumental possibilities of the band, while the soloing (especially by O’Farrill and Iyer on piano, Rafi Malkiel, euphonium and Harrison on sax) is consistently smart and purposeful.
Creative, swinging and open to the world, The Offense of The Drum is Latin jazz at its best.
While lasting only two years, 1966 – 1968, the British trio Cream had an oversized impact in modern popular music. At different times, Cream has been claimed as ancestor and inspiration by rock musicians of nearly all stripes, from fusion to heavy metal.
But jazz has more than a fair claim to their legacy too. In fact, one doesn’t need to go back to their epic version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” in the group’s final Goodbye, to connect the dots between the jazz tradition and their instrumental virtuosity, approach to improvisation and open-ended treatment of the blues. Set aside the pop-rock imagery for a second and think of, say, a saxophone playing the guitar lines and you are closer to an avant-jazz trio than a rock band.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. The two guys working the engine room of Cream, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, were educated in, and fans of, jazz. Guitarist Eric Clapton was a different story — and his post-Cream, MOR career is evidence enough. In his autobiography, Bruce seems to suggest that two-thirds of Cream thought of it as a jazz trio adding, jokingly one would hope, that they just wouldn’t tell Clapton about it.
With his new album Why?, his first in 16 years, Baker, 75, seems to be closing the circle, returning once again, in one gesture, to his old loves — jazz (including two appealing trio records in the 90s with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden), African music and, essentially, the trio format (replacing the guitar with a horn and in fact playing without a chordal instrument this time).
Baker’s band these days, Jazz Confusion, features Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Alec Dankworth, bass and Abass Dodoo, percussion, and offers the drummer a smart, strong, no-frills vehicle.
The repertoire in Why? also suggests a bringing-it-all-home feel.
It’s comprised mainly of Baker’s originals, including “Ain Temouchant,” recorded with Frisell and Haden on Going Back Home (1994); “Cyril Davis,” (sic) a tribute to the British harmonica blues player Cyril Davies, and trumpeter Ron Miles’ “Ginger Spice,” both first recorded on Baker’s Coward of the County (1998); and the title track, a meditation on his life and work including a tip of the hat to the late bandleader Graham Bond.
The set also includes “Aiko Biaye,” an update of a Nigerian song Baker recorded in 1970 with Air Force, his short-lived sui generis big band; Ellis’ “Twelve and More Blues,” and a couple of jazz standards, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and the irresistible “St. Thomas,” by Sonny Rollins.
Throughout, Ellis is an economic and tightly focused improviser, even as he takes flight on tracks such as “St Thomas” and his own “Twelve and More …,” remade here with a post-bop swing. Dankworth is solid and fluid throughout, anchoring the group and providing measured, eloquent soloing.
Baker drives the music forward with his distinct drive and African-tinged tom-tom and hi-hat sound. There it might not be in his playing the relentless, maniacal intensity of his heyday (how could there be?) but Baker’s craftiness and musicality more than makes up for what he might lack at this point in energy.
In Why? Baker embraces his past — but don’t expect a warm-and fuzzy nostalgia trip. To quote the title of the terrific Jay Bulger’s 2012 documentary about him, Beware of Mr. Baker. And that’s a good thing.
Beware of Mr. Baker
August 2014, The International Review of Music / Jazz With An Accent