Famed O'Farrill to guest in Barbary Coast performance

by Brent Reidy | 2/10/05 6:00am

This Saturday the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble will perform in Spaulding Auditorium at 8 p.m. with guest artist Arturo O'Farrill, a forerunner of Latin piano and the bandleader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Lincoln Center.

Rather than pretend to write this article from a neutral perspective, I will be honest: I am the pianist of the Barbary Coast and over the last few weeks I've had the opportunity to play the charts to be performed this Saturday. The concert will feature absolutely beautiful, driving big band latin music that is accessible to all. In fact, people will be dancing in the aisles.

Yes, it will be Winter Carnival. But you should come, really. Drunk or sober. Blacked out or not.

And it's only three dollars a ticket.

Saturday's concert won't be the first Arturo has played at Dartmouth. He was here in 2001 to perform a tribute concert to his father, Chico O'Farrill (1921-2001). Whenever Arturo's name is mentioned, inevitably, Chico's is also invoked. Chico was to big band latin what Ellington was to jazz. People have often made a big deal of what it must have been like growing up in Chico's shadow. Despite his father's fame, Arturo's own stature is not in question. He is regarded as one of the leading Latin pianists along with Chucho Valds and Gonzola Rubalcaba. The ALJO, under Arturo's careful direction, is celebrated for its brilliance.

I sat down to Saag Paneer and Tandoori chicken at India Queen with Arturo to talk about his music. When asked if the canonical status attributed to his father was intimidating, Arturo responded with a simple, "No ... he's my dad. He is a brilliant composer and performer ... he was a brilliant composer and performer."

There's no doubt Chico would be proud, too. Latin music is not usually considered as canonically deserving a form of music as straight-ahead jazz. In many ways the ALJO is a very important step forward. Arturo's work will hopefully enrich the New York scene with concerts of big band latin that just isn't usually available. The ALJO's work is keeping Chico's spirit alive.

Arturo has stated, "This genre will die if we do not support this new generation of composers, arrangers and instrumentalists, but there is no other orchestra in the world that has this kind of mission. A large part of our mandate is to provide an instrument for a new generation of composers, arrangers and instrumentalists to further progress this craft."

Despite a dedication to the past, Arturo is also equally engaged with the future. His interest in music is incredibly wide-ranging. His music is certainly much different than his father's, encompassing a broad variety of genres.

Arturo attended the Manhattan School of Music and Brooklyn College Conservatory. He was discovered by a friend of Carla Bley's while playing a gig at a bar. He joined her big band, and his professional career began. He has also worked with other heavy hitters such as Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Arturo was at first hesitant in taking the ALJO post. However, he noticed the absence of his father's music and realized that musicians today needed this music in order to understand their past. His 1999 recording, "Blood Lines," is a summation of his past. Filled with his father's compositions and Arturo's very distinct musical aesthetic, the disc is essential listening for those who wish to understand where Latin piano will be heading.

Fittingly enough, Arturo is blazing trails in both directions -- forwards and backwards. His work with the AJLO is saving threatened musical heritage, and his other works are a shining example of forward thinking for Latin piano.

So, if you have some time Saturday, come to the concert. Winter Carnival hedonism can be suspended for a two-hour concert with one of the world's greatest pianists and bandleaders. You won't be disappointed.