One of the most important hallmarks of jazz is its focus on social consciousness. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite,” Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” and many others all used jazz to address social injustice, and a call to action.
After releasing Four Questions, Arturo O’Farrill now stands side by side with these giants.
Mexican born pianist, composer, O’Farrill is an excellent model for the successful implementation of jazz as a professional career, as well as the means of social progress and unity. His professional career spanned his immense body of solo work, as well as his work with Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Harry Belafonte, and others.
He is a respected educator, has composed for several dance companies (including Alvin Ailey); and has received many composition commissions from Meet the Composer, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Apollo Theater, and others. O’Farrill also holds a position on the Advisory Committee of Musicians for Musicians.
Four Questions is the first time O’Farrill released an album of exclusively original compositions.
The compositions were premiered live at The Apollo Theater on May 21, 2016, O‘Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was joined by Dr. Cornel West (who, like O’Farrill, holds a position on the Advisory Committee of Musicians for Musicians) as a guest soloist, conductor, and percussionist.
The music was commissioned for the Apollo Theater as part of his MacDowell residency. It was inspired by Dr.West’s speech at Town Hall (in Seattle, WA: October 9, 2014), and based on his book, Black Prophetic Fire. Four questions posed by African American civil rights activist and author W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. The four essential themes from Du Bois’ book asked:
What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception?
What does decency do in the face of insult?
How does virtue meet brute force?
These were expounded by West while O’Farrill and his 18-piece orchestra underscored the words with music.
But what of the music itself?
The album begins with “Baby Jack.” David DeJesus’ alto sax releases a swinging, yet almost angular cycle of fourths based call to arms. The bass and piano respond with an antiphonal combination punch, and the orchestra explodes into an Afro-Latin groove that one can simultaneously interpret as a dance and a march. The piece shifts from one contrasting mood to another as if wrestling with a plethora of violent emotions. The soloists dive deep into these turbulent waters, and expand on the feelings the composition evokes. It ends with a dramatic climax that ties everything together.
“Jazz Twins” begins with a lugubrious trek through thick, steaming tonal ambiguities. O’Farrill’s piano steps in as if offering consolation and comfort to a friend in pain. A staggering bass line attempts to process the advice, and harmonies from the piano and horns break through like sunlight through storm clouds. Without warning, Tony Rosa and Carly Maldanado’s percussions break in and drive the music into a 6/8 grove that skirts around its own cycle of fourths riffs, and swings like the hips of a Caribbean woman dancing with the love of her life. This opens the way for Ivan Renta, David Smith, and O’Farrill to offer marvelous solos over the exuberant and joyful grooves. The piece ends with Smith’s mournful trumpet crying out while Renta and O’Farrill call to him from a distance. The final Dmaj7 chord seems to leave a subtext of hopefulness.
The title track, “Four Questions,” hits the listener with a series of violent chords, and then dances away from any response, like Muhammad Ali hitting Smoking Joe Frazier with several unpredictable punches, then taunting him while staying just outside his reach. Suddenly, Dr. Cornell West bursts in with a spoken word discourse whose poetry and musicality rivals the likes of Amiri Baraka and The Last Poets. The orchestra joined him, offering an emotionally charged 6/8 Latin Jazz that shifts and dances in and out of itself, offering a perfect musical backdrop to West’s discourse.
This lengthy track is a protest song; Dr. West’s spoken word contribution cannot be interpreted any other way. West shares his family background and a griot-like speech of the history and achievements of jazz and Afro-Latin jazz musicians. He also speaks out about social injustice (like the Ferguson killing), and institutionalized racism in the US. The composition and improvisations underscore the meanings of West’s discourse to perfection. The instrumental solos by O’Farrill and company on Four Questions are amazing. None of them can be thought of as anything short of genius.
O’Farrill notes, “Watching Dr. West speak is one of the sublime musical moments of my life. His oratory has the weight of a John Coltrane solo. His rhythmic delivery has the tumbao of Mongo Santamaría. The humor with which he injects his very serious messages floats like Charlie Parker in flight and, oh, most sacred of all, when he gets deliberate, each word has the authenticity and Afrocentricity of Thelonious Monk’s right hand.”
The remainder of the collection is equally amazing. “Clump / Unclump” begins with O’Farrill channeling Cecil Taylor, and deftly reigning in music that seems on the verge of chaos. “Elijah 1 Kings 19:-13,” “Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind,” and “Cacophonous” evokes the trials faced by the Old Testament Prophet at the hands of Ahab and Jezebel; the first two featuring a choir conducted by Jana Ballard. “A Still Small Voice” utilizes Jana Ballard’s choral preparation, soprano soloists Aubrey Johnson & Edda Fransdottir, Sharon Moe on French horn, and DJ Logic on turntables – this within an almost Mingus-like orchestral arrangement.
Mention must be made of “Four Questions Radio Version.” This remix features West and the ensemble’s onomatopoeic response to his discourse. It offers another perspective of the title track, and seems to condense the album into a seven-minute track.
It seems fitting to close this article on a purely personal note. I must confess to having been profoundly moved by the music O’Farrill offered here. The recent social crisis’ and upheavals the world is fighting (and their similitude in my personal life – but that’s a story for another day) have left everyone on edge, frazzled, and drained. The herculean technical accomplishment of O’Farrill’s brilliant compositions and the masterful performances and interpretations offered by the orchestra and choir seem to pale in comparison to the spiritual medicine within the music, offered at precisely the right time it is needed.
Perhaps DuBois would have been surprised to learn how his work inspired the musical chain of events that led to this. Nonetheless, its effect is quite real. O’Farrill and company proved to be more than mere brilliant musicians; they are healers.