KPFA gets Radio-Active with Afro-Latin jazz

Pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill, center front, brings his Grammy Award-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra to the UC Theatre on Saturday as part of Radio-Active Resistance, a fundraiser for KPFA and DACA support services. Photo: John Abbott

Right around the time that KPFA started broadcasting in 1949, Cuban-born trumpeter Chico O’Farrill was establishing himself on the New York jazz scene as an innovative arranger conversant in both Afro-Cuban rhythms and the new idiom of bebop. Some 70 years later, his son, the Grammy Award-winning pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill arrives in Berkeley Saturday for Radio-Active Resistance at the UC Theatre, a major fundraiser for KPFA and DACA support services.

O’Farrill’s talent-packed Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra headlines a triple bill that also features the great Cuban vocalist Bobi Céspedes, an essential conduit for Afro-Cuban culture in the Bay Area for four decades, and Camilo Landau’s Son Jarocho All Stars. The ALJO is the latest incarnation of the ensemble that played with Chico before his death in 2001 and went on to a six-year Jazz at Lincoln Center residency under Arturo’s direction.

It might seem like a no-brainer that the pianist would seek to extend his father’s musical legacy, but he spent his formative years in the late 1970s rejecting “so much of my Latinoness because there were no real role models for people who transgressed the genre line,” says O’Farrill, 57, who was born in Mexico City, where Chico moved in the late 1950s with Arturo’s mother, Mexican singer Lupe Valero.

Feeling he had to choose between straight ahead jazz and Latin music, he decided followed his passion for jazz, which seemed to cut him off from New York’s Latin music community. “We don’t categorize easily,” he says. “I’m Irish, Cuban, Mexican, American. It’s a mess. In some ways I’m not enough of any of those things. We’re blessed, but it used to piss me off. Why can’t I get certain gigs?”


O’Farrill credits the great Oakland-born pianist/composer Carla Bley with helping him find his way after he joined her band as a gifted but untested 19-year-old. The three years he spent with her provided a conceptual framework for ignoring stylistic boundaries, an evolving approach that’s served him well. “She didn’t believe in seeing the finite points,” O’Farrill says. “I remember one of the first concerts we played we went from free jazz to this crazy modern nutty stuff to playing rock songs. I fell in love with that. This is where I want to be as an artist, enjoying the freedom to find what works.”

He spent years as a first-call sideman playing with heavyweights like Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, and Lester Bowie before landing a long-running gig as Harry Belafonte’s music director. It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that O’Farrill started to explore into his Latin roots, starting as a sub in the pioneering Fort Apache Band led by Nuyorican brothers Andy and Jerry González (on bass and trumpet/percussion, respectively).

He played an essential role in his father’s late career resurgence in the 1990s, eventually running the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Chico’s music is still part of the repertoire, which O’Farrill has expanded regularly by commissioning composers representing the inflow of extraordinary musicians from across Latin America, such as Venezuelan-born, Emeryville-based SFJAZZ Collective pianist Ed Simon.

“I made an effort to engage with the music of all of Latin America,” says O’Farrill, who won his fourth Grammy Award in January for his original composition “Three Revolutions” from his album Familia: Tribute to Bebo+Chico (Motéma). “There are incredible marching bands in Colombia, and phenomenal harmonically sophisticated music in Argentina and Brazil. We’re pan-American, but more importantly pan-African.”

Recommended gig: Pianist/composer Anthony Davis

Pianist/composer Anthony Davis, best known for operas like X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad, plays a solo recital at Harry Bernstein’s house concert series on Sunday May 13. A professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, Davis performed in the Bay Area last year as part of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Create Festival. He draws on a vast array of influences as an improviser and composer, and has collaborated with leading figures a variety of disciplines, including composing the incidental music for the Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (which isn’t used in the current Berkeley Rep revival). Email harry@fullplatemedia.com for reservations.