Brooklyn’s own Adam O’Farrill will debut a new quintet at the PLG Arts Music Festival on Thursday, May 18. The festival will also be making its debut; although the event’s sponsor, PLG Arts, has been supporting arts in Prospect-Lefferts Garden for ten years. The weeklong series of jazz and classical music at venues around the neighborhood is a new initiative for the group.
“We’ve been talking about making a bigger splash in the neighborhood,” PLG Arts co-president Rina Kleege said. “This seemed like a good way to do it.”
Trumpeter O’Farrill made quite a splash with his quartet, Stranger Days, last year with the release of an eponymous album, but he found many of the band’s musicians weren’t available for the upcoming festival date. “I saw it as an opportunity to try something different and play with some other people,” he said, so he put together a brand new group for the show.
The festival’s lineup is largely shaped by the venues that partnered with PLG Arts to stage the shows, but the group hopes to expand the repertoire in future years. “We don’t want to give the impression that we are limited to jazz or chamber,” Kleege said. “We want to be open to all kinds of music and all kinds of art.”
The son of Grammy-winning pianist Arturo O’Farrill, Adam O’Farrill is a third-generation jazz musician. His grandfather, Cuban-born Chico O’Farrill, was a composer, arranger and bandleader who helped create Afro-Latin jazz.
On the eve of his PLG Arts show, O’Farrill sat down with BKLYNER to talk about growing up in Brooklyn, learning jazz, and planning for Thursday’s show.
You grew up in a musical family, and your first instrument was the piano. How did you end up choosing trumpet?
Honestly, I wish I had a better story. But I heard trumpet in my older brother’s middle school band, and I liked it because it was loud and shiny. When I was 4 or 5 though, I blew into one of Dizzy’s old horns, under the ownership of the late Mario Rivera, so maybe that had something to do with it.
One of the musicians at home was your brother Zach, who is a drummer. Your own playing is remarkably self-assured for a young musician. Do you think part of your musical confidence comes from all the hours you spent playing with Zach as you grew up?
Absolutely. Getting to play with someone on a daily basis, especially someone in your family, is immensely rewarding. We’ve grown and experienced a lot together, introducing each other to new ideas constantly.
In some ways, it spoil[s you] to have the opportunity to form such a deep musical connection with someone your whole life, and then be expected to form similar connections with others. But in another way, it has taught me to value the deep bonds we can form and friendships we make.
Also in the house was your father, a Grammy-winning jazz pianist. Did you soak up things from him simply by watching, listening and learning, or did he give you more direct musical education?
My dad exposed me to a lot. Going to watch his rehearsals growing up was very educational. He also got me to let go of my fear of improvising, in the sense that he wouldn’t accept me not trying. My mom is also a pianist, and both my parents decided it would be best if I had an outside teacher for piano. In the end, I think it was great for our personal/familial relationship.
Did you also listen to contemporary popular music growing up? Have things like hip-hop, indie rock, or modern R&B left a mark on your playing?
My parents played a lot of different music in some of the car rides we’d take upstate in the summer. Prince, Olivier Messiaen, The Beatles, Tito Rodriguez, Coltrane—they really got me to think about boundaries in music, or lack thereof, at an early age.
These days, I’ve been listening to a lot of Nick Cave. I love his lyricism and the murky resonance of his music. I’ve also been checking out this electronic artist named Cornelius, and some newer artists like Xenia Rubinos and Gabriel Garzon-Montano. I also finally got around to the Radiohead album that came out last year.
How much of an audience for jazz and improvised music do you find among your contemporaries? Is a young audience for this music developing, or does it remain a specialized taste?
I find that the more inclusive your music is, the more people come to listen. It also has to do with how you advertise, and if there’s a theme with the music that taps into whatever social and/or political climate is present at the time. It sounds more simple than it is, but if you give people a good reason to come to a show, then I think they’ll come. My last show was a long-form piece about environmental issues, and featured voice.
I had an especially good turnout because those were somewhat substantive reasons for people to come, and not necessarily because a jazz fan was allured by the personnel- which I think is common thinking when bandleaders want people to come to their show. There’s only so much you can do of that until it gets old, and there’s no doubt that a lot of us are victims to it in different ways.
What about the Brooklyn audience for jazz? Is your home borough a good place to play? Are new fans of improvised music developing here?
I don’t know if I look at things in terms of “Brooklyn audience” or “Manhattan audience” or whatnot. I’ve seen people at my shows in Brooklyn that live in Staten Island, and I’ve seen people at my shows in Manhattan that live in Queens. New York City is more decentralized than ever, and I think people go wherever for shows now.
There are “scenes” within certain neighborhoods that maybe have a local following, but I usually look at it in terms of whether I like the venue and whether I see potential for a good audience there.
You were born and raised in Brooklyn. What do you think of recent changes here?
I’ve seen Brooklyn change a lot since growing up here, although I grew up in Park Slope, and Park Slope has always been THE friendly neighborhood, so I don’t feel that it’s changed drastically. But it is always sad when you see a restaurant or other kind of “mom-and-pop” institution close, and a bank or real estate office open in its place. That really does have a diminishing effect on the personality of a neighborhood.
One of the worst instances of that corporate permeation occurred a few years ago. There was an amazing, small BBQ place called Fort Reno on Union Street, that my family would go to all the time. Then, a few years ago, the vastly inferior, but franchised, Dinosaur BBQ opened its Brooklyn branch four or five buildings down from Fort Reno, and a few months later, Fort Reno closed. It was the classic example of a big company taking out a small business.
With the rapid growth of the borough, are we in danger of losing some things you would want to keep? What do you worry about disappearing in Brooklyn?
I think with Brooklyn, I’m most worried about the disappearance of a sense of inclusiveness for different kinds of people. For instance, there is no way my parents would be able to afford the house we live in now, since they’re both musicians, if they were to buy it today. You have to have a high-salary gig to live in Park Slope, and so fewer and fewer artists live in the neighborhood these days. For me, as an artist who grew up there, it’s off-putting to say the least.
You’re appearing at the PLG Arts Music Festival with a quintet. Although the personnel are different, I think the lineup matches your Stranger Days ensemble with the addition of a guitar. How did you put the new group together?
Walter Stinson, the bassist in Stranger Days, is playing, but it’s always exciting to see those guys in different contexts. The guitarist, Gabe Schnider, is someone that I’ve known for about seven years. We’ve played together a lot over the course of that time, but not as much in the past year or two—I think because we’ve explored different stylistic paths. But we wound up on a gig together with saxophonist and composer, Jonathan Ragonese, a few months ago, and he was blowing my mind with all the new stuff he was playing. It’ll be really great to connect with him again.
Matt Chalk, the saxophonist, is somebody that I haven’t played with a lot, but I’ve always been an admirer of his work, and lately his painting. Honestly, I was incredibly intrigued by how his experience with visual art might affect his music making, so that played a big role in me calling him.
And the drummer, Robin Baytas, is somebody I’ve known since I’ve known Gabe and Matt. The three of us did a high conglomerate jazz program called Grammy Band in 2010. We’ve been playing together more recently, and I think it’s his ability to really surprise me that made me want to play with him. You know he’s gonna be solid, but there are also moments that you don’t expect from him—in a great way.
Are you playing any of the Stranger Days material at the Festival? What do you have in store for that show?
We won’t be playing any Stranger Days music. In fact, a lot of it will be new tunes I’ve written for the occasion, as well as hopefully some music by the other members of the band. After doing the Jazz Gallery commission in April, I wanted to write some simpler music, and we’ll playing some of that at this show.
Adam O’Farrill will perform two sets with his quintet on Thursday, May 18, at KD’s Bar & Lounge, 408 Rogers Avenue, at 8pm and 10pm.
On Saturday, May 20, at 2pm, the Rachel Therrien Latin Jazz Quartet will present an outdoor concert at Parkside Plaza (Parkside Avenue and Ocean Avenue). Greenlight Bookstore will host an interactive music event for children featuring Miss Nina at 1:30pm on Sunday, May 21.