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Afro Latin band brims with energy, fine range of skills

Afro Latin band brims with energy, fine range of skills

It may have taken a full two hours, but Arturo O’Farrill finally got his audience on its feet.

It may have taken a full two hours, but Arturo O’Farrill finally got his audience on its feet.

O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra had just played their first two numbers at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s Little Theater Saturday night when O’Farrill confessed to being nervous.

“You’re sitting here like an audience, but this is not a concert — this is a dance,” he said.

But to no avail, as the audience continued to sit with reverent respect, applauding at all the right moments. That is, until the very last number, a scintillating arrangement of Tito Puente’s “Para los Rumberos,” during which a few brave souls in the packed crowd decided to move about.

Luckily, the band’s energy never faltered throughout the set, even if the audience was a bit shy. The orchestra covers a lot of ground (hence its all-inclusive name), and during its time at SPAC it hit on just about everything within the Afro Latin jazz realm, from Mexican to Argentinian to Cuban.

Things started out with a beautiful, stately piano line from O’Farrill to kick off a rousing rendition of “Picadilo.” From there the band moved on to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” Some sound issues still needed ironing out at this point, with the saxophone solos particularly quiet during these first two numbers. Things were quickly remedied on “Song for Chico,” the title track to the group’s Grammy-winning 2008 album, which as the title suggests is a tribute to O’Farrill’s legendary father, trumpeter and composer Chico O’Farrill.

Here, the audience was introduced to the powerhouse that is alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli. He first soloed with the full 18-piece band backing him up, but his true shining moment came at the end of the number. As everyone else slowly dropped out after a few false endings, Porcelli tore into his sax, alternating between high speed runs and smooth, melodic playing that left the audience spellbound.

“Dia de los Muertos,” a three-movement suite in honor of the Mexican Day of the Dead, began on a slightly more ominous tone. Things soon gave way into an infectious groove for the first movement, “The Flowery Sacrifice,” before toning done to a crawl in the second movement, with O’Farrill’s pensive keys leading the way.

The band continued its eclecticism with the jazz standard “Caravan,” featuring a schizophrenic three-way solo with dueling trumpet, saxophone and trombone. But the best was yet to come with “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” one of Chico O’Farrill’s most famous compositions and a touchstone of the Afro Cuban jazz movement. The lengthy number changed moods and feels so many times it was hard to keep up, swinging from a gentle, laid back introductory melody to full throttle throbbing rhythms and back down within the blink of an eye.

The audience, and the band, needed a bit of a breather, and “40 Acres and a Burro” delivered with its light-hearted melody and comedic breakdowns. Given this was instrumental jazz, the audience’s laughter at key moments truly says something about this band’s ability to portray feelings through this style of music.

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