‘Sideslipping’ in clave: Arturo O’Farrill’s solo on ‘Blue State Blues’ (State of the Blues, part 8)

Arturo O’Farrill is an amazing pianist and composer who has had a long recording and performing career and recently released his first album on Blue Note records, ‘Dreaming In Lions’. He is also the son of a legend of Afro-Latin jazz, the bandleader and arranger Chico O’Farrill, who arranged for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra among other bands central to jazz history. I had the good fortune to teach with Arturo at the Flynn Center Summertime Latin Jazz camp a number of years ago, and he and I also appear on different recordings by Jazzismo, the group led by the late, great trombonist and composer Rick Davies. He has recently made a visit to UVM to perform with his own quintet and the student big band. I began the transcription below of his solo on ‘Blue State Blues’, a blues in B flat from his earlier album ‘Risa Negra’, around the time we got to work together, in an effort to begin understanding his unique approach to melodic improvising. In a workshop with my piano students at UVM a number of years ago, Mr. O’Farrill referred to his improvisational approach as ‘organizational pitches’.

In his first chorus of the solo, O’Farrill stays largely within the key center and uses standard rootless voicings for the Bb7, Eb7 and F7 chords. He follows the bebop practice of using non-scale tones (what Barry Harris calls ‘half steps’) to connect scale tones, often placing the non-scale tones on upbeats in typical bebop fashion. (I’ll add here that, although elements of bop style can be heard in this solo, Arturo is careful to mention that organizational pitches is a different approach from bebop.) In m. 13, he begins to alternate between playing outside the key center and playing inside it. That he does this without chordal comping adds to the stark contrast between the ‘inside’ first chorus and the ‘outside’ second chorus. (I made some guesses about where his left hand may have briefly taken over the melodic line.) At m. 21, he re-introduces chordal comping with standard voicings for Cm7 and F7, briefly re-establishing the key center before finishing the chorus with another ‘outside’ phrase where the chromatic right hand line is complimented by ‘sideslipping’ fourth voicings in the style of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. I put the Bb7 chord symbol in parenthesis here as at this point Arturo has moved away from the standard blues harmony, although the solo eventually returns to it. I hope you enjoy this brief look at Arturo O’Farrill’s incredible playing and that it inspires you to venture further into his wonderful music.

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