The Portland Jazz Orchestra heads in a funky new direction.
[AFRO-LATIN JAZZ] Wynton Marsalis calls Afro-Cuban music the "roux" of jazz, providing its essential flavor and body. Those rhythms—what Jelly Roll Morton called "the Spanish tinge"—"have been very much a part of jazz from the beginning," says Charley Gray, co-director of the Portland Jazz Orchestra. And they're enjoying a resurgence today, says Gray, a PSU jazz prof who has seen high-school bands increasingly adopt Afro-Cuban jazz as a standard part of their repertoire in recent years. Whether due to the rise of world music, the influx of Latino immigrants, the emergence of new Latin jazz stars, or simply the irresistible danceability of those driving rhythms, Latin jazz is hot again. So on Friday, PJO will bring one of the music's biggest stars, pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill, to town to lead the 18-member band, augmented by Portland's own Latin jazz star, percussion master Bobby Torres, in one of the spiciest concerts of the jazz season.
Arturo's padre, Havana-born trumpeter-composer Chico O'Farrill, was a mainstay of New York's midcentury Afro-Cuban jazz scene, working with stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Tito Puente, and founding the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, which Arturo took over just before Chico's death in 2001. Along with various standards, PJO will play one of Arturo's originals, "Dia de Los Muertos," which Gray describes as "intricate…with angular harmonies—a neat reworking of the approaches of his father."
That modern approach also epitomizes PJO, which Gray and co-founder Lars Campbell designed to be much more than your grandfather's "museum" ghost orchestra. "Our goal in forming the ensemble was to create not a traditional old-style big band but to create something more modern," says Campbell, who also plays in Torres' popular ensemble. "We want it to sound like you're going out to a club and hearing a small group—but with ensemble writing for 15 or more instrumentalists." With members ranging from twentysomethings to musicians in their 60s, "you have the life experience of the older players and the energy and enthusiasm of the younger ones," Gray explains. That makes PJO a model for Portland's many aspiring young jazzers, and is why they made this high-energy concert an all-ages show—with plenty of room for dancing.
SEE IT: The PJO plays Friday, May 15, at the Crystal Ballroom. 7:30 pm. $20-$26. All ages.