With ideological and economic isolation implemented amid the Cold War, Cuba has often seemed farther than 90 miles from the U.S. But Cuban culture flourished stateside nevertheless, especially in its influence on American jazz. Cubop began when conga legend Chano Pozo joined Dizzy Gillespie onstage in 1947, and proliferated through Cuban expats like Machito, Celia Cruz, and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. A Birdland regular with his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Chico’s 1950 “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” (featuring Charlie “Bird” Parker) became a standard of the Cubop sound. After Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, Chico never returned to Cuba. Although Chico died in 2001, his spirit and sound live on thanks to his son, pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill.
A longtime soloist for Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Harry Belafonte, Arturo has led the ensemble (rechristened the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra) since 1995, performing worldwide and earning two Grammy® awards. Arturo also directs jazz studies at Brooklyn College and heads the nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance to promote Latin Jazz. In 2014, O’Farrill and his orchestra were in Havana, Cuba, to record when news broke of plans to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. Uniting composers from both countries, O’Farrill’s Grammy®-nominated album Cuba: The Conversation Continues offers a buoyant, multicultural carnival that hops borders and genres. The heat of “The Triumphant Journey” celebrates the newly thawed tension, “Vaca Frita” bounces saxophone solos off turntable scratches, “Afro Latin Jazz Suite” complements Chico’s seminal composition, and the remainder runs a gamut of guajira, post-bop, salsa, highlife, progressive jazz, cha cha, Yoruban folk, changüí, and funk. Though deferred nearly a century, Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra are helping fulfill Dizzy’s, and Chico’s, dream of creating “universal music.”
One of the best jazz orchestras in existence, a powerhouse outfit whose precise section work is enhanced by thrilling soloists.
—The New Yorker