I have waited to record solo piano. It is the scariest thing a pianist can do. But that’s not why. I think it’s because I feel a bit like an outsider. A little like Isamu Noguchi. He was born in Los Angeles of mixed American and Japanese descent. I was born in Mexico to a Cuban father and a Mexican mother but raised in New York. Aesthetically as well, Noguchi flirted with painting, drawing, sculpting, and designing public space. I have performed as an instrumental soloist, a composer of small and large ensembles, and have become known for my work in Afro Latin Big Band Jazz. I am all these things and none of them. There are other parallels; Noguchi was troubled by the restrictions of the established art world, eventually creating his own museum in an unprecedented move. I too got tired of the narrow definitions I’ve been categorized in and created my own orchestra, organization, and educational models.
Whilst I would not have the hubris to imagine myself as profound as the master, I think I understand why he felt this way and created his own path. It’s about the art. There are larger issues (figuratively and literally) at play here. Humans have a need to categorize everything. If you can’t describe it in a catalog then it can’t be part of the conversation. Well, art is not like that. There are outsiders, people who see things from a distance. Issues like nationalism, style, genre and form disappear when you yourself are not bound by these dogmas. When you see the soaring, majestic and profound structures that Noguchi created they defy typecasting. When you see the transience of improvisation caught in structures made of stone and metal, you begin to see the need for a larger conversation.
On a cold and windy evening, the kind folks entrusted with the Noguchi Museum allowed me to come in after hours. Steinway generously entrusted me with a piano that is no less a work of art than the items found in the setting, and for several hours I was alone with the instrument, the works of art, and a few helpers. What ensues is, I hope, a chance to deal with all of these ideas, the idea of being an outsider, the idea of free improvisation, the recasting of tradition, and, most of all, the desire to honestly transmit the fleeting, the illusory, that which is like a vapor that is here one minute and then vanisheth away. If I have been successful then I will have realized some of the ideas that brought such joy to me upon seeing Isamu’s works. I like to think that if the master had been present, he would’ve smiled.
The Sun at Midnight
This is a free improvisation, I sat down and played without anything more than an intervallic relationship as a guide. It is also inspired by the Noguchi sculpture of the same name which is a ring of black stone, seamless, and eternal (it is the sculpture in the cover photo). A Buddhist symbol of life and wholeness much like the spirit that imbues free improvisation. It’s like picking up a conversation with the cosmos in midstream, there is no start or end point, just entry.
Originally a silly minstrel song with repugnant lyrics, O’Susanna is pure Americana. Though we are a nation clothed in violence and oppression, the principles on which we are founded are pure and true. Somewhere along the way we really lost ourselves but the simplicity and brilliance of the constitution is blinding. Conversely a song written with grotesque stereotypes in mind can be reclaimed to be simply, a poignant melody, some re-imagined harmony, and a vehicle for acknowledgement of our sometimes painful past.
This is a composition I wrote for my son, Zachary, who is a drummer. It begins and ends with fragments of a larger work which was premiered in 2010 at the Havana Plaza Jazz Festival called “Fathers and Sons, From Havana to New York and Back”. It’s funny with kids, it seems like one day you’re in the hospital greeting them into the world, then life happens, and the next thing you know they are out on their own.
The great Randy Weston wrote this composition for his son. It is with great humility that I perform it. Randy is directly responsible for me stepping out from the bandstand. His sense of playfulness and freedom as a solo pianist is unparalleled and one of life’s great wonders.
The Delusion of the Greedy
The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been a tremendous inspiration to me. The accusation of incoherency in the goals of the movement pale compared to the reality in this nation of what has transpired in the past few decades. The divide is criminal. The unashamed evil of predatory lending, mortgage bundling, the collusion of banking, investment firms and those in governance reveal a moral abyss that is astonishing. Greed is self defeating, the system will implode, the evil will destroy itself and truth will out. Those that think otherwise are lying to themselves.
Ernesto Lecuona is considered one of Cuba’s greatest composers. The Siboney are an indigenous people once found on the island of Cuba and throughout the Caribbean. It is fitting that this great composer should acknowledge what we all seem to have forgotten. Before we got here, there were others, and the beauty of the Native nations is majestic. May we never forget them.
There is a protagonist and antagonist in this piece, originally composed for my wife Alison. You don’t have to listen too carefully to recognize the wild and wooly, the crazed jazz musician whose passion and volatility causes chaos in the otherwise calm and orderly existence of the quiet and brilliant classical musician. If it’s true that opposites attract then this is a supreme example of it. Somehow it works, the wild wooly crashes into the calm and orderly, resulting in what I hope is a picture of balance. I feel it so.
Arturo O'Farrill at The Noguchi Museum. Photo by Jack Frisch.
Once I had a Secret Meditation
I love simple chords and major triads. This is a meditation and free improvisation on the standard Once I had a Secret Love. It is also one of my favorite pieces on this collection.
This original composition was written to commemorate my Aunt Gloria’s and Uncle Stan’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. They are two of my favorite human beings on the planet, as deeply in love now as when they first met. Kind and cordial to each other, they amassed a wealth on this planet that belittles earthly possessions. Every year at Thanksgiving they gather sons, daughters, grandchildren, cousins, friends and those they barely know to remind us of what truly matters, a grateful heart and the love of those around you. Tia y Tio, you are my heroes!
The great American songbook is misleading because it should be called the great U.S. songbook. America is one contiguous landmass encompassing many nations and peoples. One of the most heralded songs of the Americas is Pedro Flores’s Obsesion. It is de rigeur for any young Latin and Latin Jazz musician to know this piece. It is like learning Green Dolphin Street or Stella by Starlight. Except it grooves.
Oh Danny Boy
I cannot watch bagpipers without a tear coming to my eye. This is an ode to the other side of my roots. The O’Farrills were originally from Longford County in Ireland. It is also a tribute to the fallen New Yorkers on 9/11. Their spirits weigh heavily in the hearts of any true New Yorker, not those that use their memory for political or personal gain, but for those of us who couldn’t bear the hole in the ground for years afterwards. The siren in the beginning was unplanned but intentionally left there. I lived that date with my family and will never forget the violence and heroism of that hour.
The spirit of Africa, Latin America and the United States lives in the hearts of those who practice open hearted, open minded, non exclusionary improvised Jazz. The gamut of the complete Americas is revealed in the healthy respect a pianist must have for all traditions. It is my sincerest desire that my playing reveals a strand between all the rigidly defined categories we insist on having, as shown in a simple stride rendition of Charles Mingus’s tribute to the self proclaimed “father” of jazz.
Even then Jelly Roll Morton understood that “without the Spanish Tinge . . .it isn’t jazz”.
After the piano was covered, the recording equipment packed, and the museum closed, it dawned on me how much I loved recording this project. I felt cleansed as if an epiphany had taken place. A musical baptism of sorts. If you look closely at Noguchi’s sculptures you will see a recurring theme in the surface textures. He will place highly polished and “finished” areas next to rough, untouched surfaces. This seeming dichotomy, implies an unfinished quality to some of his works. I like to think that it is also his statement on what his works of art truly were, masterpieces in progress. Ultimately I’d like to imagine that it is what he thought we human beings are: all slick and presentation, yet at the same time raw material waiting to be shaped and revealed for what we are and what we truly could be. If I have put some of that idea across in my piano imaginings then for that I am very grateful. Thank you, Maestro Isamu Noguchi for your visual music and most of all thank you friend, for reading, for listening and for taking your part in this ongoing experiment.
March 16-17 2012
New York City
My deepest appreciation to George Juergens, Amy Hau, and Jenny Dixon of the Noguchi Museum. I am proud to be a Steinway Artist and thank Vivian Chiu at Steinway and Sons. Thank you Zack O’Farrill and Michael Sacks for Artrio. A special thanks to Jamie Affoumado and Puppets Jazz Bar for giving me a chance to workshop this material weekly. My best friend Alison did not miss a single one of those. Much love to Adam, Lupe, Susan, Jake, Jane, Mark, E, and my extended family at Birdland, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Alliance and board of directors. Most especially to those of you who still listen, read, observe, think, react and stand in awe. God is good.
A special thanks from Arturo O'Farrill and ZOHO Music to the Noguchi Museum for granting permission to do the recording at the Museum, and for permitting the usage of photography of Noguchi artwork in the CD package design and publicity materials. NOGUCHI™ is a trademark of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York and is used with permission. All Isamu Noguchi artwork shown in the CD package design and publicity materials © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum.
Produced by Arturo O’Farrill and Eric Oberstein.
Recorded on October 17, 2011 at The Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City, New York, 11106. Engineered by the great Peter Karl. Mixed and mastered at Peter Karl Studios December 23, 2011.