Jazz Legacy: Zack and Adam O'Farrill Step Out as Bandleaders

Jazz Legacy: Zack and Adam O'Farrill Step Out as Bandleaders
(l-r) Adam and Zack O'Farrill
(Courtesy Jason Gardner)

When I first got to know brothers Zack and Adam O’Farrill, they were traveling with their parents and grandmother in Cuba. Yet that 2010 trip was no family vacation. It was the realization of a dream for their father, Arturo, a Grammy-winning pianist and bandleader.

Arturo had brought his orchestra to the island to perform the music of his father, Chico, who left Cuba for good in 1959, and whose own towering legacy as composer and bandleader forever changed the contours of what we think of as the union of Afro-Latin music and jazz. Now Zack and Adam — Arturo’s sons, and Chico’s grandsons — are making their own distinctive musical mark.


Arturo was born in Mexico, where Chico first landed after leaving his homeland, and raised in Manhattan, where Chico ultimately settled. Arturo toured Europe in the big band led by avant-garde composer Carla Bley while still in his teens. “When I first began to play music, I rejected my father and my inherited culture,” he said. “But a magical thing happened when my father got elderly and he needed help. I got past all the resistance and the fear, and I heard the music as if it was new to me.” In the years since, as founding leader of New York’s Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, Arturo has expanded that legacy to approach something unbound by ideas of geographic borders and stylistic categories.

On that 2010 trip to Cuba, Arturo also premiered an original piece, titled “Fathers and Sons,” for which he brought both of his sons and some guest musicians onstage. Adam, then 16, stood toe-to-toe with some of Havana’s finest young horn players and sounded fiery, inventive trumpet solos. Zack, then 19, eased into the rhythm section of his father’s group and played drums with confidence and elegance.

News of this third generation of gifted O’Farrill musicians had arrived on recordings first via one track of Arturo’s dazzling 2009 CD, “Risa Negra.” We learned more through The O’Farrill Brothers Band’s debut CD, “Giant Peach,” which was released in 2011 and bristled with confidence and creativity. Whereas Arturo initially rejected his father’s legacy, Adam and Zack seem to have easily absorbed their father’s aesthetic; their own music reflects Arturo’s openness to many influences, and a similarly sly way of blending styles without bowing to any one. Adam, now 18, attends Manhattan School of Music, where his father once studied. Zack, 21, will graduate in May from City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College. The O’Farrill Brothers’s new CD, “Sensing Flight” (Zoho), features a loose-limbed yet well-organized young sextet, including tenor saxophonist Livio Almeida; guitarist Gabe Schnider; pianist Adam Kromelow; and bassist Raviv Markovitz. They play “Wrong Key Donkey,” composed by their father’s early influence, Carla Bley, but otherwise mostly Adam’s original compositions. There are hints of Afro-Latin forms here and there, but these are fleeting or subtly ingrained. Mostly, the music fits within a landscape of inventive jazz from a generation of players in New York who are catholic in their tastes, fluent in many styles, and capable of great compassion within a band.

I caught up with the O’Farrill Brothers via email to dig into their influences, musical beginnings, and thoughts about the current jazz scene. There were two rules: Each had to reply out of sight of any family members. 

Given your background, was it obvious that you two would be musicians?

Adam: Growing up in that environment was no doubt beneficial to where I’m at now, but early on when they made play piano at age 6, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a musician. Then I picked up trumpet at age 8, got into that, and soon after my dad started working with me on improvising.

Zack: It wasn’t necessarily obvious for us to become musicians. They wanted us to have some musical experience, but we were never forced into playing or performing. It really became obvious more because of what we’ve experienced in music than because it’s what our parents wanted us to do. For me, it was toward the end of high school when I realized that there were so many other things I could do besides music, but that music is all that I really wanted to do.

How has your dad affected your music?

Zack: He always taught us in terms of playing, it’s more than just the notes you play — it’s how you play them, and even deeper, why you play them. He’s always shown us that we don’t have to be confined to one style or concept, and that the world of “jazz” is much larger than it is taught as being. So it’s our mission to constantly try to expand and redefine (or destroy the definition of) the music, and to always challenge ourselves artistically.

Was is Arturo who led you to “Wrong Key Donkey” and Carla’s music?

Zack: Our dad definitely introduced us to Carla Bley’s music really early on. Look for the record “I Hate to Sing,” and you’ll hear him featured singing, which always cracked us up. Carla Bley’s music has been very important for us artistically because she was someone who never compromised herself as an artist, even when mainstream popularity eluded her for her entire career. She also has a huge sense of humor in her music, which is something that is seriously lacking in most jazz today. “Wrong Key Donkey” was a discovery of mine in an old book of her published music that I found in a bookshelf here at home one day.

Adam, do you see yourself in a line of composers from your grandfather to father to you?

Yes definitely, and what’s interesting is that my grandfather, father, and I each take a lot from a particular composer from a relatively similar era. For Chico, it was Stravinsky; my dad, Messiaen; and for me, it’s kind of been a combination of Ravel, Debussy, and Poulenc.

How has the Afro-Latin legacy that you clearly both understand l affect this music? Or does it?

Adam: Well, I’ll admit that the Afro-Latin music has influenced me least of anyone in the family. It’s not that I have anything against the music — on the contrary, I love it — but for whatever reason, it never really hit me as hard. However, I am very influenced by how the music came to be. Afro-Latin music is a mixing pot of countless sounds, ideas, and influences from countless places and people. Right now, I’m really working on making music that’s also a mixing pot, but of jazz, classical, rock, electronic, Middle Eastern, hip-hop, and many more, in the same way that Latin music was created.

Zack: The biggest way the Afro-Latin legacy has affected my music, including how and why I play, is that music from Latin America is still deeply in touch with dance roots and sense of music as a natural and necessary part of community. Latin music is still largely about dancing or based on dancing. Jazz has completely forgotten about its dancing, African roots. African music is all about community, and that’s why I feel Afro-Latin music is so important for jazz.

How did your trips to Cuba affect you?

The trips to Cuba illustrated to me how much importance the Cubans place in the arts (particularly music), compared to other parts of the world. Every other street in Havana, there’s either a hand percussionist, a street band, or a folkloric instrumentalist, while you may get billed or stopped for playing in a public park in New York. Same thing for education. All the youth is classically trained — Cuba has some of the best trumpet players I’ve ever seen — and they have a strong balance between artistic and academic work, while in the U.S., music programs are being cut out of schools left and right.

Zack: The trips to Cuba affected me artistically because any sort of artist down there, even the jazz musicians, recognizes that history of art as manifestation of community that I alluded to before. The jazz musicians down there can all play son and rumba, and understand the African, socioeconomic, historical, and spiritual roots of what they do and they use this information in creating art.

How would you describe the jazz environment you are coming up in? What does this experience mean in terms of those who say jazz is dead or dormant?

Adam: Well, I don’t think jazz is dead, but I think there are a lot of people who do, and are holding it back from really progressing. I’m not criticizing and judging the people who like recording music that was done 50 years before and call it “new,” but I just ask, Why? I mean, it’s just something I don’t really see their side of. I also think the majority of the young people who play this music — and this is largely a result of the jazz education system — are too focused on how good they can play, whether they can play [John Coltrane’s] “Giant Steps” in all keys, or use every pattern in their solos, etc. The jazz education machine — with the exception of schools like New England Conservatory and CalArts — doesn’t support creativity and innovation, and I know this because I’m a student at a school right now that is pretty content with making me play bebop everyday.

Zack: The jazz environment that my brother and I are coming up in today is, for the most part, the opposite of what I said about Cuba. Players here go to jazz school and come out and go to jam sessions where they rehash the useless information they learn in their improvisation classes which should really just be called “Applied Harmony.” There is so much wrong in the jazz scene here. So much of what people think is hip is the same stuff that everyone is doing. I always ask myself, what’s the point of creating art if you’re not at least trying to create something new that hasn’t been done or seen or heard before?

What are some recordings you’ve taken recent inspiration from?

Adam: Rafiq Bhatia, “Strata”; The Dirty Projectors, “Bitte Orca”; The Mars Volta, “Nocturniquet”; Flying Lotus, “Until the Quiet Comes.”

Zack: Blitz the Ambassador, “Native Son”; Rafiq Bhatia, “Strata” and “Yes It Will”; Brad Mehldau, “The Art of the Trio Vol. 5.”