Sunday, November 20, 2016

Jazz Pianist Arturo O’Farrill Sharpens a Political Edge on his SFP Debut

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched the Jazz Series for its 2016–2017 season with a rare solo gig by pianist Arturo O’Farrill, making his SFP debut. He is the son of Cuban composer, arranger, and conductor Chico O’Farrill, who founded the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which Arturo now leads. However, as a piano soloist, the younger O’Farrill’s interests go far beyond the Afro-Cuban repertoire, combining hard bop influences with the roots of both folk and spirituals and then adding his own unique approaches to composition. O’Farrill’s playing took in about 90 minutes, including verbal commentary that boldly ventured into the political domain.

O’Farrill is far from the first jazz artist to “go political” in his work. However, while there was a wealth of elegant embellishing riffs in his keyboard work, his reaction to the results of the Presidential Election had shot-from-the-hip directness. Thus, one of his most recent original pieces has been called “The Donald Blues;” and, while it may not have had the in-your-face agitprop of Charles Mingus’ “Original Faubus Fables,” it was difficult to disregard the seething undercurrents of the music. (The Mingus selection on last night’s program was “Jelly Roll,” which amounts to jaundiced nostalgia for the early days of jazz.)

“The Donald Blues” was followed by an almost lyrical take on Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna;” but O’Farrill made it clear that nostalgia was not what he had in mind. Instead, he played up the early history of that music in minstrel shows, an entertainment genre that tried (and, in its day, succeeded) in turning racism into public entertainment. (The original sheet music described the music “as Sung by The Ethiopian Serenaders.” What is particularly striking about this song is the way in which the words celebrate absurdity:
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry;
The sun so hot I froze to death—Susanna, don’t you cry.
Such patent defiances of commonsense logic now feel like a poignant echo of the absurdities we had to endure over the last several month of political speechifying (and this clearly involved more than one candidate). Ironically, one of the major hard bop selections of the evening was Horace Silver’s “Peace,” perhaps offered up as “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Moving away from political connotations, O’Farrill was at his best in starting with very simple tunes and then spinning them out into elaborate webs of thickly embellished prolongations. He could almost be considered as a latter-day incarnation of one of the contributors to the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The child’s tune “Hot Cross Buns” appeared twice during the evening. The first time around it contributed to the “landscape” of a piece O’Farrill wrote about being a dog in Havana. However, it then returned in its own right as the final offering of the evening; and it this latter capacity it left listeners with the perfect example of O’Farrill’s ability to turn the utmost simplicity into the most thoroughly engaging complexity.

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