The pianist and composer Arturo O'Farrill knows better than almost anyone that more than 50 years of a trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba hasn't fully prevented the exchange of jazz between the two countries. He's known it since he first visited Cuba in 2002.
"The first thing that I encountered was great 'goo-gobs' of young jazz musicians who worked really hard to master this craft that we thought was our own," O'Farrill says.
Not that he's happy about the blockade. Years' worth of fruitful dialogue between musicians has been hampered, and as the leader of a big band known as the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, that's a problem he wants to address.
"I think that the more that the Cuban musicians and American musicians interact, the less of this unnatural balance will be in place," he says. "We need a new era — we desperately need a new era."
O'Farrill was raised and lives in New York City, though his roots are certainly Cuban. His father was the late Chico O'Farrill, a composer/bandleader and Cuban emigre who was instrumental in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz in the first place.
Chico O'Farrill was there when the virtuoso Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo was working with American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie — a thought that continues to inspire Arturo O'Farrill today. Though neither spoke the other's language, they communicated through their roots in Afro-Western music.
"Discovering that in each other is the roots of each other's music was a moment of incredible clarity for both of them," O'Farrill says. "That conversation began the discovery of something that's far deeper than anything either one of them realized, and it's a conversation that was not stopped by revolution, by death, by ideology, by poverty, by commerce. It was not stopped."
Arturo O'Farrill's latest record with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is titled Cuba: The Conversation Continues. He got six composers to envision, in their own ways, the continuation of a musical conversation that Gillespie and Pozo started. And he recorded it in Havana — just days after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. was seeking to normalize relations with Cuba.
Jazz Night In America took in a live performance of music from Cuba: The Conversation Continues at Symphony Space in New York City — with footage of the making of the record in Cuba, as well as interviews with some of the band's special guests.
Arturo O'Farrill, piano and conductor, with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Seneca Black, trumpet; Jim Seeley, trumpet; John Bailey, trumpet; Jonathan Powell, trumpet; Kajiwara Tokunori, trombone; Rafi Malkiel, trombone; Frank Cohen, trombone; Earl McIntyre, bass trombone; Bobby Percelli, alto saxophone; David DeJesus, alto saxophone; Ivan Renta, tenor saxophone; Peter Brainin, tenor saxophone; Jason Marshall, baritone saxophone; Carly Maldonado, bongos; Tony Rosa, congas; Gregg August, bass; Vince Cherico, drums. Featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Kalí Peña-Rodriguez, trumpet; Adam O'Farrill, trumpet; Alexis Bosch, piano; Cotó (Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi Padilla), tres and vocals.