Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jazz CD Review : Arturo O’Farrill “The Noguchi Sessions”

Noguchi Sessions

Noguchi Sessions

I think the secret is out of the bag. I like Arturo O’Farrill. I think I have covered three or four CDs, concerts, projects and the like in the past six or eight months that the  GRAMMY® Award winning pianist, composer and educator has either led, contributed to or organized. From his work with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra to his involvement in "Música Nueva 5, Prez Fest 2012 Celebrating Dizzy Gillespie and his regular sideman, trumpeter and flugelhornist Jim Seeley, participating in Celebrando” by Hendrik Meurkens, Gabriel Espinosa with Anat Cohen & Antonio Sanchez which I reviewed back in May (follow the links).

He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere. And for good reason. The man is a monster on the piano. Surprisingly, this is his solo Piano Debut. And what could be more natural for O'Farrill, Mexican born to a Cuban father and a Mexican mother but raised in New York than to draw inspiration from Japanese-American Artist Isamu Noguchi?

“The Noguchi Sessions” Arturo O’Farrill

It's not by chance that O'Farrill chose The Noguchi Museum (in Long Island City, NY) as a setting for perhaps his most personal and challenging project to date: a recording of solo piano. "I have waited to record solo piano. It is the scariest thing a pianist can do. In Noguchi's multifaceted approach to his work -- painting, drawing, sculpting and designing furniture, lighting, and public spaces -- he found a kindred spirit. O'Farrill has not only performed as a soloist, and led and composed for small and large ensembles but also created his own organization. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is a non-profit organization committed to advancing the performance and educational aspects of the music -- just as Noguchi created his own museum.

O'Farrill simply set up his piano in one of the galleries of the Museum after closing time and played, recording the whole album in one sitting. The recording took place in what is known as Area 3 here.

"I had been working on some of these pieces for the past two years at the Puppet's Jazz Bar, a little club here in Brooklyn where I played every Wednesday. Sometimes I'd have 20 people, sometimes there would be two people," recalls O'Farrill. "It was a very interesting experience. By the time of the recording I had things all worked out. But when I sat down to play, I kind of abandoned the game plan I had and entered a very exposed and vulnerable, truly improvisational space."

The results are not just technically impressive but deeply affecting. the opening track is an elaborate, very busy and involved improv,  he calls "The Sun at Midnight," which blends elements of classical music, Cuban jazz, post-bop, and more into a awe-inspiring performance. Track two was an inspiration, it’s “"O' Susanna", the old minstrel tune that is harmonically bubbling over and made me think of Art Tatum in the way the song was taken from a simple little ditty and turned into a show stopping jazz piece.ArturoOFarrill_promo_1_6x8

All through the album you’ll find standards mixed with O’Farrill’s own compositions, many given O’Farrill’s African-flavored  personal stamp, mixing Cuban accents into the basslines while retaining the heart of the pieces. He gives us Cuban classical composer Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney" , "Once I Had a Secret Meditation" is a wonderful and inventive re-working of the standard "Secret Love," to dramatic and shimmering effect.

O’Farrill dares to enter hallowed ground with an Art Tatum trademark, "Oh Danny Boy" but he gives it a Latin-Jazz  interpretation which claims it as his own.  maybe my absolute favorite, being a bass player, is a playful take of Charles Mingus' "Jelly Roll," you don’t hear this piece often, even on Mingus Tributes and compilations.  O'Farrill's rendition starts out smooth and filled with grandeur but soon turns playful. It’s a real delight and sure to bring a smile to the face of both musicians and fans alike.

There are several instances in this recording in which certain themes or ideas are revisited in different pieces creating intriguing pairings: "O' Susanna," and "Jelly Roll," suggest two views of America; one is "a song .. with grotesque stereotypes," the other, a celebration of an open, inclusive country. "The Delusion of the Greedy," and "Oh Danny Boy," look at a place of deceit but also, on that September 11, 2001, a place of heroism and ultimate generosity.

"Alisonia," and "Mi Vida," the latter written to commemorate the fiftieth wedding anniversary of his aunt and uncle, offer two views on couples and relationships. And in "In Whom," and Randy Weston's "Little Niles," two fathers address their sons.

The strategy suggests O'Farrill circling around a certain subject, not unlike one might circle around a sculpture, illuminating it from different sides. Perhaps significantly, this was unplanned.

Sun At Midnight

Or was it? A couple of fully improvised pieces ("Once I Had a Secret Meditation," which grows out of "Once I Had a Secret Love," and "The Sun at Midnight," inspired by a Noguchi sculpture of the same name.

It just happened," he says. "But serendipity is less of an accident than we think."

And if O'Farrill's playing in The Noguchi Sessions has a certain indefinable quality, intense yet lyrical, consider it part of the pianist's response to Noguchi's work. "There is a thickness, a kind of dense quality to his work," says O'Farrill. "But I find that's one of the magical things about Noguchi's work: some of his pieces weigh tons, they would crush you if they fell on you -- yet they seem to soar. So when I sat down to playing, I tried to capture that density, that weight -- but also the lightness." 


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Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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