It’s a bit of fib to say that I saw dancers gliding in front of me while listening to the opening section of the …dreaming in lions… suite for the fifth or sixth time, but one thing’s certain: combined with Arturo O’Farrill’s compositional craft, his ensemble’s performance skills make it easy to imagine a troupe’s expressive maneuvers unfolding before your eyes. Indeed, these two extended works were written in collaboration with the Malpaso Dance Company, and their rendering occasionally prompts visions of animated choreography.
That magic is due to the graceful kinetics of O’Farrill’s pieces. Whether it’s the sweeping Caribbean polyrhythms of “Struggles and Strugglets,” or the catchy cascade of “War Bird Man,” this powerful music resounds with poise. Arranged with a sage balance, the rich parade of moods essayed by the 10-member Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble in “Despedida” and “Dreaming of Lions” is calibrated to introduce myriad blends and various emotions. There’s true inspiration in the way the shaker/trombone/trumpet intro to “How I Love” morphs into a full-band exposition of the theme. And the musicians are locked in tight.
Inspired contrast is key to their success; instrumental evolution takes place throughout these pieces. Flutes and muted trumpets twirl, piano and bass duos throw jabs, a Rhodes mixes it up with hand-percussion – the band’s transitions are remarkably limber. Pulse beats, clave grooves and breezy swing come and go with a fluid feel, bolstering ensemble eloquence. With mentors Carla Bley and Chico O’Farrill in the rear-view mirror, and a Borges poem and a Hemingway tale the inspirational triggers, O’Farrill reaches new heights of articulation with his Blue Note debut.