Estrellas de Areito
Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band
The musical connection between Havana and New York dates back to the 1930s, but the Cold War isolated Cuban musicians from their compatriots in the United States. The rest of the world kept listening, of course, and musicians in Latin America and Africa continued to borrow actively from Cuban traditions. The commercial success of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan dance bands throughout Latin America in the 1970s laid the groundwork for salsa's popular emergence in the United States. Meanwhile, Cuban musicians who had made New York their home before the revolution continued to make music, welcoming into their midst expatriate players from all over Latin America, exploring the connections between jazz and the Cuban descarga ("jam session"), and captivating New York's multiethnic dancing and listening audiences. Two recent releases speak to distinct but intertwined realms of that singular musical legacy.
Seeing Cuban music being capitalized upon abroad, island musicians responded with the Estrellas de Areito project, a 1979 studio descarga that assembled three generations of masters to confirm the continued vitality of Afro-Cuban music in situ. The 30-odd Areito all-stars logged five days in the studio, producing enough material for several albums geared to a keen African salsa market. In edited form, that fabled undertaking is finally available abroad. Among the celebrities were Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All Stars rediscoveries Rubén González and Pío Leyva. Other descarga royalty included session director, arranger and trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, trumpeters Félix Chappotín, Adalberto Lara and Arturo Sandoval, flautist Richard Egües, woodwind ace Paquito D'Rivera, percussionist Tata Guïnes, and singers Teresa García Caturla, Miguelito Cuní and Carlos Embale. The freewheeling collective result is a smoldering, unconstrained exploration of Afro-Cuban music's traditional roots. With many tracks running over ten minutes, the artists claimed the improvisational space to open things up and turn them inside out, in one of the great Cuban recordings of the latter twentieth century.
Stateside, the genial Cuban spirits of Mario Bauzá, Machito and Chano Pozo live on in the haunts of Dizzy Gillespie, presided over by the mischievous soul of octogenarian composer-conductor Chico O'Farrill, the greatest living architect of New York's consummate musical synthesis, Afro-Cuban jazz. O'Farrill's big band, long an institution, comprises two dozen of New York's finest, under the musical direction of his son Arturo, who also contributes two elegant solo piano pieces. Three who left Cuba after taking part in the Estrellas session - Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D'Rivera and Juan Pablo Torres - do solid guest turns. They join past O'Farrill collaborators Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, Gato Barbieri, Cándido Camero, Israel López "Cachao," Mario Rivera, Mauricio Smith and Carlos "Patato" Valdés, and first-time guests Freddy Cole (Nat's brother, with a soulful vocal on "Sing Your Blues Away") and Orlando "Puntilla" Ríos. O'Farrill penned all but two tracks, his son's "Guaguasí Abstracto" and the Gillespie-Pozo-Gil Fuller classic, "Manteca." Heart of a Legend offers a sizzling essay on the half-century sweep (mambo, cha-cha, comparsa, afro, guajira, and the blues) of New York Afro-Cuban jazz history. As Duke Ellington would have put it, O'Farrill's brilliance is simply beyond category. - Michael Stone
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