Jazz Album Review: Adam O’Farrill’s “Visions of Your Other” — Humanizing the Mechanical
By Michael Ullman
I find Visions of Your Other exciting. It is beautifully recorded: these are four musicians who care about their sound.
Adam O’Farrill, Visions of Your Other (Biophilia)
This thoroughly original, often moody recording features the 27-year-old leader Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Xavier Del Castillo on tenor saxophone, Walter Stinson on bass, and brother Zack O’Farrill playing drums. The family connection seems inevitable: the O’Farrill brothers are the grandsons of the great Cuban musician Chico O’Farrill, an innovator in Latin jazz whose recordings go back to the late ’40s: he arranged and conducted Machito’s famous “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” They are the sons of pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who has recorded dozens of his own compositions along with numbers as varied as John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and Carla Bley’s “Walking Batterie Woman.” Adam’s recording career goes back at least to 2009, when he appeared on his father’s disc Risa Negra (Zoho): its opening piece is entitled “One Adam, 12 Mambo.” Many of us will have first heard the trumpeter in other contexts: he toured with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s band for three years and he plays on Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls. He’s also on Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl and last year’s Artlessly Falling, as well as Anna Webber and Angela Morris’s big band recording Both Are True.
According to the leader, the six numbers of Visions of Your Other are partly designed “to humanize something very mechanical.” The mechanism used in the opening number, “stakra,” is the Paulstretch, and it has the ability “to slow down … even draw out … music without changing its pitch.” The rock group Bear in Heaven used the device to make a 44-minute work play for “nearly four months.” “Stakra” is a piece by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto that appeared on his album asynch. Thankfully, O’Farrill is not as extravagant in his use of the Paulstretch as Bear in Heaven. (The trumpeter’s taste and sense of proportion are evident throughout the disc.) This piece starts with high-pitched, seemingly electronic held notes that create a tense background for O’Farrill’s entrance, which is at first heard over the drums in a deliberately overresonant space. The band seems to emerge from this background gradually until O’Farrill and saxophonist Del Castillo are freely improvising together and against each other, sometimes with echo effects. Now in a realistic sound stage, O’Farrill repeats a twisting descending phrase that is probably the focus of the track. Then about three minutes in, “stakra” suddenly quiets down, and O’Farrill and Del Castillo play long tones together until the end. Like the five other performances on this disc, “stakra” is designed to create a coherent mood in varying textures — there is no interest in showing off anybody’s chops. It’s also not about running chords: as with all of the pieces on Visions of Your Other, its chord changes are minimal. The articulate freedom of the soloists and of the group improvisations are what “humanize” the performances.
“Kurosawa at Berghain” begins with a virtuosic open trumpet solo that quickly states the rhythmic phrase that will define the piece. Bassist Walter Stinson composed the tune, but the performance follows the earlier template: the themes on Visions of Your Other are typically treated as rhythmic devices. Berghain is an area in Berlin: it’s also the name of an exclusive nightclub noted for the sexual activities that are purported to take place there. I don’t know what Kurosawa was doing there. O’Farrill’s rendition is brightly up-tempo.”Hopeful Heart” is a slow and melodically rich quartet piece in which trumpet and tenor sax state short lines in ragged unison. Del Castillo is the first soloist: the composition is dedicated to — and inspired by — the occasionally hopeful D.H. Lawrence. What is striking here and elsewhere on the album is how beautifully the bassist and percussionist interact. Here, the saxophone’s jittery phrases are encouraged by, and probably influenced by, Zack O’Farrill’s drums. Free as the improvisation is, one could sing many of bassist Stinson’s lines.
O’Farrill calls the final number, “Blackening Skies,” “both apocalyptic and humorous.” The subject is global warming and the tune begins with the two horns repeating ominous notes. They move between two pitches, apparently switching once one of the horns cues a change. A second section arrives, and it is much livelier, made up of mostly staccato notes that are variations on the initial statements. I hear a faint echo of the sound Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry used to make, playing one of Coleman’s lines in raggedy fashion. O’Farrill explains that the piece was influenced by electronic music: “There’s a perfection to a lot of electronic music that allows for its ideas to be flexibly interpreted by live instruments, which opens up an exciting and endless world of sound.”
I find Visions of Your Other exciting. It is beautifully recorded: these are four musicians who care about their sound. The music is both free and grounded; the performers play exuberantly, and with an admirable awareness of and responsiveness to what the others are doing and thinking.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.