Pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill will present his father’s rarely performed seasonal composition “Oro, Incienso y Mirra” (“Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh”) in a free performance on Christmas Eve at All Saints’ Church. The piece was commissioned more than 40 years ago for a holiday performance featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Machito at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
A teenager at the time his father, Chico O’Farrill created the work, O’Farrill has fond memories of its inception. “I was playing, already, somewhat professionally,” he said. “I was hanging out watching my father record this masterpiece, and there was a synthesizer part that needed somebody to play it. Since I was there, my father said, ‘Why don’t you play it?’ That’s the first high-level recording that I’m on.”
Memories of his father helped O’Farrill choose the piece for a celebration of the church’s 150th year. “I have Chico’s handwritten score. I really think it’s one of his greatest pieces,” he said, “and I think it’s really appropriate that it should be a gift to the people of Park Slope and All Saints’, because it does represent a musical picture of the three kings and the gifts that they brought.”
To present his gift, O’Farrill’s bearing the cost of bringing his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, winner of five Grammy awards, to perform “Oro, Incienso y Mirra.” It’s part of the church’s Festival Holy Eucharist, which will also feature a choir singing Christmas music.
All Saints’ has issued a special invitation welcoming all for the service. “All Saints’ is a very welcoming church,” O’Farrill said. “If you are an atheist, or anybody who has any kind of faith, or lack of faith, or philosophy or ideology, you’re welcome. It’s a beautiful place where nobody judges anybody. If you just want to come and hear the music, this is a great evening to do so.”
“Oro, Incienso y Mirra” opens with a majestic fanfare, appropriate for a piece honoring the three kings and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Critic Raul da Gama noted “its complex rhythms of African and Cuban percussion as well as harmonies redolent in the shimmer of brass and glistening woodwinds.”
“It’s avant-garde classical music meets mambo with jazz soul,” O’Farrill said. “It’s an interesting piece because it involves a lot of very atonal writing and a lot of very Afro-Cuban rhythms, and the heart of it is, of course, jazz improvisation. I would just describe it as one of the most complete pieces of music that you could envision. Africa meets Asia meets the New World meets Europe.”
The cultural mix of the work echoes the tradition that has grown around the stories of the three kings. Unnamed in the Bible, they’ve come to be recognized as Melcnior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representatives of Europe, Asia and Africa, brought together for the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
The story could be a metaphor for the diasporan communities of Brooklyn, O’Farrill noted. “Not only is it Brooklyn, but in a very special way it’s All Saints’ and it’s Park Slope. A real multi-cultural, diverse neighborhood.”
The holiday and the traditions it has inspired also have a very personal meaning for O’Farrill. Working on a book that explores the experience of “syncretic culture,” he recalled one of his own earliest memories, “having a Three Kings Day cake on my terrace in Mexico and getting the baby.”
His Cuban-born father brought his family to Mexico, where O’Farrill was born and lived for the first five years of his life. They celebrated Three Kings Day with a rosca de reyes, a pastry baked with a tiny figurine of the Christ child hidden inside.
“I got the baby! It’s one of my earliest memories. I got the slice with the baby, and so many worlds unfolded for me on that day, you have absolutely no idea,” O’Farrill said.
Years later, O’Farrill is able to celebrate some of those many worlds with this special performance—his father’s groundbreaking composition, his own achievements as a musician, his Brooklyn neighbors, and All Saints’ Church.
“It’s a gift of love,” he said, “and I think that’s an antidote to all the hatred that’s happening in the world right now.”
“Oro, Incienso y Mirra” will be featured at the Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’ Church, 268-88 Seventh Avenue (at 7th Street), Park Slope, 10pm