It came as no surprise to me when Adam O’Farrill placed in the top three at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Trumpet Competition two years ago, at the tender age of 19. I’d seen and heard him four years earlier, onstage at Havana’s Mella Theater, standing toe-to-toe with Cuba’s finest young trumpeters, all several years his elder, holding his own and flashing a harmonic knowledge they lacked, while on tour with the orchestra led by his father, pianist Arturo O’Farrill.
And it comes as no suprise to me that O’Farrill’s debut recording as a leader, “Stranger Days” (Sunnyside) is finely honed, witty, deep, soulful and hip—it’s marked by his casual yet authoritative command of his instrument but also much more, especially a coherent group concept. O’Farrill has been dropping hints for some time now: on previous recordings in bands co-led with his older brother, drummer Zack O’Farrill; on small-ensemble dates led by his dad; on saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s recent “Bird Calls”; and on various gigs within the community of like-minded musicians within which he stands out. He impresses yet again within a quartet led by bassist Stephan Crump on the forthcoming CD, “Rhombal” (Papillon Sounds), which I’ve just dug into.
I concur with Nate Chinen, who, in his review, called O’Farrill’s new CD “a potent declaration of independence, as much as it is a glowing indication of promise.”
And with Steve Futterman who, writing in The New Yorker, cited it as “the kind of début recording that a burgeoning young bandleader can take special pride in.” Futterman explained, “His lean two-horns-bass-and-drums quartet sounds like an actual working ensemble, his compositions announce themselves as memorable tunes worth returning to, his musical overview is expansive and inviting, and his own smart playing balances passion and restraint.”
That’s how it sounded live, too, during a CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery earlier this month. Only the tunes seemed to be evolving, as they do in any good band’s hands. The humor embedded in “A&R Italian Eatery,” which reminds me a bit of Carla Bley’s music, sounded more pronounced. The hints of hiphop rhythm within the swing of one new tune arrived as a jolt of surprise.
The success of Adam O’Farrill’s band relies not just on his bright, round and supple tone (he plays dark and muddy too) and his penchant for pithy and unconventional compositions. It’s a band achievement, owing to his strong communion with tenor saxophonist Walter Stinson (who also composes for the group), and to the flexible and propulsive combination of bassist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Zack O’Farrill.
Zack is an unusual drummer: His touch is disarmingly light, which can sometimes conceal just how deeply swinging a pocket he helps craft, and his ideas are often pleasingly odd, in the sense that, say, Paul Motian’s were. He’s a secret weapon here, as is usually true of desirable trapsmen and benevolent older siblings.
Both Adam and Zack come to music with some serious legacy. Their dad, Arturo is a Grammy-winning pianist and founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was a renowned composer, arranger and bandleader whose “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite” combined jazz, Cuban and European classical forms in startling fashion.
Yet listening to this generation of O’Farrills in Adam’s new band is to sense not the weight of the past but the lightness of pure possibility, not to mention joy.
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