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The trumpeter Adam O'Farrill's art of avoiding the obvious
Adam O’Farrill plays the trumpet at Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park on Aug. 19, 2021. The son and grandson of Latin jazz royalty is releasing a new album with his quartet Stranger Days, and it’s their most melodically engaging yet. Camilo Fuentealba/The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello



NEW YORK, NY.- If you pay close enough attention to jazz, Adam O’Farrill might have landed on your radar about a decade ago, when he was still an adolescent. His last name is immediately recognizable — his father and grandfather are Latin jazz royalty — but he stood apart even then, mostly by hanging back and letting his trumpet speak for itself.

Since his teens, O’Farrill has prioritized restraint, so that his huge range of inspirations — Olivier Messiaen’s compositions, Miles Davis’ 1970s work, the films of Alfonso Cuarón, the novels of D.H. Lawrence, the contemporary American-Swedish composer Kali Malone — could emulsify into something personal, and devilishly tough to pin down.

“I don’t really feel the need to pastiche too heavily,” he said in a phone interview last month, while visiting family in Southern California. “The point is really how you digest it — and in letting that be its own thing, and letting the influences sort of surface when you least expect.”

That, he said, feels “more exciting than trying to prove that you’re coming from somewhere” in particular.

Now 26, O’Farrill this year was voted the No. 1 “rising star trumpeter” in the DownBeat magazine critics’ poll, and there’s little disagreement that he is among the leading trumpeters in jazz — and perhaps the music’s next major improviser.

For the last seven years he has led Stranger Days, a quartet that also features his brother, Zach O’Farrill, on drums, as well as bassist Walter Stinson. Until last year, its tenor saxophonist was Chad Lefkowitz-Brown; after a brief hiatus, the band recently returned with a new saxophonist, Xavier Del Castillo.

On Nov. 12, Stranger Days will release “Visions of Your Other,” its third album, and O’Farrill’s most melodically engaging effort yet.

With its spare lineup, the band has given O’Farrill ample room to play around with dimension, scale and tension in his compositions. He thinks of Stinson’s bass as the group’s sonic center, and challenges himself to orient his layers of dynamic melody around that point, even if it’s constantly shifting.

Near the end of “Visions of Your Other” comes a standout, “Hopeful Heart,” a neatly balanced tune in an odd meter. O’Farrill begins his solo about halfway through the track, and it sounds as if he’s starting a conversation with a stranger, tentative and broadcasting caution. Then the harmony shifts, and he seems to find a riverbed coursing through the chord changes: His improvising begins to roll down easily, as simple and elegant as the trumpet playing on an old Mexican danzón record.

But that flood of momentum only lasts a few bars; soon he pulls back again, holding his notes longer, and subtly gesturing at the influence of the contemporary trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire. He alternates between beautifully diatonic notes and more worrisome ones, asking you to notice both.




O’Farrill grew up enmeshed in New York’s jazz and Latin music scenes, and he was mentored by the musicians around his father, Arturo O’Farrill, a Grammy-winning pianist, in whose Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra he still occasionally plays.

He started out on piano at age 6, and was almost immediately composing tunes of his own. He took up the trumpet two years later, and started to learn the art of improvising.

Anna Webber, a rising saxophonist and composer, has worked with O’Farrill in various situations since he was in high school — though she didn’t realize then how young he was. “He just had this patience and maturity and confidence to his playing,” she said. “Even when he was I guess 17 or 18, it felt like it was already there.”

O’Farrill is an expert at “not throwing everything you have into a particular solo,” she said, “always trying to find something new in a given piece, but always letting the music choose which direction you go in.”

Webber recently invited him to be a part of the band that recorded “Idiom,” her album of dense and rigorous experimental compositions. As she prepared the music, she had one-on-one conversations with each of the group’s 13 members, to ensure the ensemble would feel like an organism in motion, not a firing squad of hired guns. (That band will perform music from “Idiom” on Sep. 23 at Roulette.)

Moved, O’Farrill said he was inspired to bring this approach to his own large-ensemble project, Bird Blown Out of Latitude, a nine-piece group for which he wrote a suite of electroacoustic music that surges with rock energy and toggles, sometimes abruptly, between borderline over-spill and near-total silence.

Thinking about his son’s sense of efficiency and control, Arturo O’Farrill acknowledged that training in Afro-Latin music forces a trumpeter to learn the importance of precision and leaving space. But he also touched on another of Adam O’Farrill’s childhood pastimes: video games.

“The golden rule of video games is that you don’t look at the avatar, you look at the shadow,” Arturo O’Farrill said. “It’s about not declaring. Not stating the obvious, not following the avatar.”

It’s through video games that Adam O’Farrill first found out about Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese musician whose old band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, planted the seeds in the 1970s and ’80s for what would become chiptune, or early arcade-game music. “Visions of Your Other” opens with a restive, cycling cover of Sakamoto’s “Stakra.”

“He’s a real master of taking a lot of pillars of musical convention — whether it’s pop or more Romantic, Schumann-esque things — and both respecting and dismantling them,” O’Farrill said, explaining what he loves in Sakamoto’s music, though it sounded as if he could be describing his own work. “That’s what’s so brilliant about his voice: It’s both deeply individual and very grounded in musical history, and relatable.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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