Many jazz albums (not all, so save the hate mail) can be set into two categories: Serious and Upbeat. Serious jazz albums can have earnest titles such as CONFLICT or COMPULSION, which generally means you might not put such a disc on to celebrate anything or while preparing for a night out. Slow and dirge-like tempos, lots of low-volume passages, and angst-ridden soloing are the order of the day. Upbeat jazz albums are full of bright soloing, breezy swing, and swaggering in-the-pocket grooves, in fact the chances are high that at least one song title will include the words "groove," "street," or "funky." Nothing "wrong" with either extreme, but too much of any one thing can be.... unfulfilling, or just plain tedious.
Occasionally, there’ll be a disc that can be both cerebral and loaded with joie de vive, such as many by Mingus, Carla Bley, and Gil Evans. Add to that the latest opus by Arturo O’Farrill, Risa Nigra. The son of noted Latin/Afro-Cuban jazz arranger Chico O’Farrill, one might expect Arturo’s style to be, well, similar. To a degree, it is, but he doesn’t stop with Caribbean and Latin American sounds. Risa Negra is essentially (for sake of expedience) post bop with plenty of international influences, but Arturo O’Farrill integrates them so deftly and judiciously it can be difficult to tell (or care) where one leaves off and another begins. There is a lengthy two-part suit of sorts, "Tabla Rasa," that draws upon aspects of Indian music as well as bebop (the suite is subtitled "Tintal Tintal Deo," a tip-o’-the-fedora to Dizzy Gillespie’s "Tin Tin Deo").
Stylistically, it’s all O’Farrill Arturo’s, that is. While there are some pensive and intricate goings-on, there’s always swing/forward motion and it never becomes ponderous, self-absorbed, or overly solemn. "Goat Check" evokes the blue-sharp hard bop a la Blakey’s Messengers yet there are some subtly funky underpinnings recalling Herbie Hancock circa his Mwandishi Sextet and early Headhunters periods. Throughout, the soloing (Jim Seeley crackles, David Bixler soars & sizzles) is fiery and occasionally a bit caustic but there’s little or no anger, but rather elation and the elusive thing our French cousins call joie de vive. The closer "Alisonia" is O’Farrill solo, and he tosses another curve or two it’s spare, oblique, and spiky, also contemplative, devastatingly lyrical, Bill Evans meets McCoy Tyner on a Casablanca kind of night all this in two and a half minutes. I could say more, but why ruin the surprises? Risa Negra has enough verve, imagination, and gladness for five jazz discs this IS one of the best of 2009, count on it.