Although the lengthy Wikipedia article on Afro-Cuban jazz rightly mention greats like Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez as well as a slew of other artists, it omits any reference to Chico O’Farrill. Certainly a word or two about Chico at the least would not have been out of place. He does get an article under his own name for those who know enough to look for it, but clearly he deserves inclusion in the broader discussion. A composer and arranger who worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton, as well as Machito, he led his own big band devoted to Afro-Cuban music in a weekly Sunday night gig at the legendary jazz club, Birdland. It was a gig that lasted for nearly 14 years including 10 years after his death under the leadership of his son, Arturo.
On Sunday, July 26, 2011, the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra directed by Arturo O’Farrill gave its final performance, one that was preserved for an album, Final Night at Birdland, which will be released on August 13. It is an album that shows just how far the Afro–Cuban sound has come in the past half century. Although early on it was adopted by a number of mainstream jazz artists, its entrance into the popular music field as Latin dance music in the 1950s probably marked its broadest success. Songs like Perez Prado’s “Mambo No. 5” and especially his “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” put the Afro-Cuban sound on the pop front burner.
The O’Farrill Orchestra has gone way beyond dance music. What they are playing is music that may have roots on the dance floor but that has blossomed in the concert hall. Chico O’Farrill imbues the Afro-Cuban sound with a modern sensibility. His music takes the best of the past and builds on it.
Moreover, the orchestra itself is made up of a collection of brilliant soloist quality musicians who play with passion and skill. The fantastic trumpet section is led by John Walsh; the trombone section is led by Sam Burtis. David Bixler leads the alto sax players, while Peter Brainin handles the tenor saxes, and Maximilian Schweiger handles the baritone saxes. Meanwhile, Arturo plays piano, his son Zachary guests on drums and his other son, Adam, is on trumpet.
The set features two suites, starting with the three movements of Chico’s “Three Afro Cuban Moods.” There is some absolutely phenomenal trumpet work from Jimmy Seeley, as well as Bixler on sax and Burtis on trombone. “Tanga Suite,” composed by O’Farrill along with legend Mario Bauza, has five movements: ”Cuban Lullabye,” “Mambo,” “Cuban Ritual,” “Bolero” and “Rumba Abierta.” Solos here are handled by a number of different musicians including Arturo on the piano. It is a suite that emphasizes the rhythmic varieties of the Afro-Cuban sound.
Chico’s arrangement of the haunting ballad “Delirio” and his “Havana Blues,” with a dynamic tenor solo from Peter Brainin shine brilliantly. The evening ends with Arturo’s “Fathers and Sons…,” a fitting conclusion to the night’s tribute.
Listening to Final Night at Birdland, one can only hope this really isn’t the final night for a great big band. Clearly, it won’t be the final night for Chico’s great music.