Jazz Column

Jim Merod

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

CHICO O’FARRILL: CARAMBOLA. Milestones MCD 9308.

“Carambola,” indeed ! Now that maestro Chico O’Farrill has been rediscovered all over again — and he never went anywhere in the first place — the Afro-Cuban scene can smile a broad grin of recognition that one of its central figures is here given room to show off. And “show off” in the vital sense of demonstrating imaginative range and orchestral precision is exactly what comes forward on “Carambola.” This is an album of suave tonal textures and tight grooves.

But so much more than mere “blowing” and lyrical strutting is under way here. Chico O’Farrill has purposely or inadvertently crafted a masterpiece. Our era suffers from retro-vision and myopic gazing at the obvious. Not here. O’Farrill delivers us to a sweeping tonal vista in which harmonic beauty and rhythmic ecstacy are reborn. Carambola is an album in the grand sense. It holds your attention at each point that educates you all Across its complex whole. Effortlessly, the title track picks you up and whirls you around the way a grandfather swirls his three year old grandchild. It’s all “whoopee!”

You’ve been teased. Your imagination is about to be tested. This big, brusk Latin ensemble throws you up in the air. Before you land, you are off on a brisk, surprising ride through the Land of Chico’s Way Out Bliss. The second cut, “The Aztec Suite,” at fifteen minutes long, defines the unit of thinking that best captures Chico O’Farrill’s musical intelligence. It establishes a sweeping expanse of musical moods and colors that suffuse the sixty-six minute whole.

From an early moment in O’Farrill’s compositional career, the multi-part suite has been his strength. Some poets write haiku. Others write extended preludes with no completion possible. O’Farrill is a lyric poet who prefers long forms. There can never be a formal conclusion for his capacious mind. The whole of “Carambola” is (therefore) a suite, itself composed of two smaller “suites” — one “Aztec,” the other “Afro-Cuban.”

Anyone who writes poetry or music knows the difficulty of sustaining imaginative brilliance across time and space. Poetry is a spatial art that expresses its deepest mysteries in time, when spoken aloud. Music is a temporal art that lives wherever there are players and arrangers able to read the texts and notations that hold its schematic possibilities of lyric energy. It may be, because the affinities between strong poems and strong jazz performances are so close, that the differences in arriving at their common insight are so profound.

For that reason, too, a player such as our contemporary, trumpeter Tom Harrell, is rare — a musician whose improvisational command is as sublime as a great poet’s texts; a composer whose poetic power is as evocative as Yeats or Stevens or Wordsworth. That height of unearthly utterance is what the greatest music and the most remarkable poetry share.

Within this grouping, think of Tito Puente’s unceasing rhythmic surge. Tito’s bands embodied the Latin spirit at its most musically courageous, a power to transform (for example) Thelonious Monk’s musical ideas while succumbing to Monk’s enigmatic strength. Think of Eddie Palmieri, still plowing his enchanting, fervent, stubborn way forward, night after night, one dance hall after another. Palmieri exudes the inner strength of the culture that he embodies. Think of Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo, Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Cugat at his best, Prez Prado unencumbered with the slickness laid upon his band….

Think, too, of more recent exemplars of the broad tradition at stake in this album. Alex Acuna’s Latin Jazz All Stars come to mind (with Luis Eric, from Cuba, trumpet; Arturo Velasco, trombone; Pedro Eustache, sax; and Tiki Pasillas, timbales). Think, also, of Acuna’s enormously propulsive “Tolu,” featuring Justo Almario on reeds.

Once you’ve put yourself within the sometimes contradictory, often elusive Afro-Cuban tradition, you hear and feel the significance of this extraordinary album. CARAMBOLA is not merely another decent jazz release. It is one of Chico O’Farrill’s most significant statements … which is to say an album of special worth.

I imagine that, far into the century we’ve just begun, this July 2000 recording (at Clinton Studios in New York) will attract admirers as well as jazz archivists and historians. In one sense CARAMBOLA summarizes the traditions that it calls upon. The album seques majestically through rhumbas, boleros, ballads, rhapsodies, the blues, bebop voicings, and the sad, hopeful yearning of a culture’s open heart to assimilate its heritage … and to be assimilated with the “difference” that makes human and artistic inclusion an act of joy and strength.

Most of all, CARAMBOLA is a testament to the unflagging power of Chico O’Farrill’s compositional audacity. Great art, in any medium or genre, takes the human heart on a journey. Great music lifts us from the banal and the all too rooted. It transports us to a childlike moment of bliss and wonder and mature awareness.

Miles Davis’s SKETCHES OF SPAIN has that power to transport us elsewhere. His PORGY AND BESS album does that, too. CARAMBOLA lifts its listeners precisely so … if we give ourselves to it. If we do, we succumb to Chico O’Farrill’s youthful touch, his audacious, loving musical grasp. Welcome back Chico O’Farrill, who is here among us, as always, whispering and laughing musically: who never went away.

December, 2000.

Note: This review was first published in Marge Hofacre’s JAZZ NEWS, Winter, 2000. Thanks to Ms Hofacre for permission to reprint it here.