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Arturo O'Farrill puts piano in the foreground on 'Legacies'


This is FRESH AIR. Cuban Mexican American musician Arturo O'Farrill has led New York's acclaimed Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra for two decades. Before that, he'd run the Latin big band of his composer father, Chico O'Farrill. Back when Arturo started out, he just wanted to be a jazz pianist. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says his new album puts piano in the foreground.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Arturo O'Farrill on the 1935 tune, "Obsession," written by the great Puerto Rican bolero composer Pedro Flores while he was living in New York. On one level, O'Farrill's new trio and solo album "Legacies" is about intersections of jazz and Latin Caribbean musics that reach back nearly a century. Like so many before him, the pianist steers between formal Cuban dance syncopations and jazz's spontaneous liberties with a beat.


WHITEHEAD: Pianist Arturo O'Farrill with his son Zack O'Farrill on drums, who, like his father, caught the jazz bug early. When Arturo was 19, composer Carla Bley heard him playing a bar gig and drafted him into her 1980s big band. He plays one of her elegantly simple ballads from that period. Its Norwegian title translates as "Development Song."


WHITEHEAD: Arturo O'Farrill shows commendable restraint there, but he goes the other way, playing Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" as a solo. Monk was a less-is-more type guy, but his interpreters don't have to be. O'Farrill is an orchestra leader. He likes big gestures and a busy sound. But sometimes he'll get so swept up in the moment, he forgets to come up for air. Even non-horn players need to take breath pauses.


WHITEHEAD: Arturo O'Farrill balances freedom and discipline, covering a 1951 tune where pianist Bud Powell made his Afro-Cuban influences clear, from Max Roach's cowbell to its Spanish title, "Un Poco Loco." O'Farrill really flies on his version. All that history he knows doesn't weigh him down. Liany Mateo is on bass. She also plays in Arturo's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.


WHITEHEAD: Here or there on the solo pieces, Arturo O'Farrill nods to Jelly Roll Morton, who encouraged Latin influences in jazz and hints at limber, early jazz stride piano. One of the solo ballads is "Pure Emotion" by Arturo's bandleader father Chico O'Farrill. So counting drummer Zack, three generations of O'Farrill's are represented on the album "Legacies," reminding us what tradition is at heart - our ongoing conversation with those who came before us and those who come after.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Legacies," the new album by Arturo O'Farrill. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with actor Joel Edgerton, humorist Samantha Irby and historian Matthew Dallek, author of a new book about how the extremist group The John Birch Society radicalized the American right, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And just a reminder that you can subscribe to our free newsletter written by two of our producers. It's a fun read with a behind-the-scenes look at our show, staff recommendations and more. It will arrive in your email every Saturday morning. You can subscribe at freshair.npr.org.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. FRESH AIR's co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTURO O'FARRILL'S "DOXY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.