Adam O’Farrill is a force to be reckoned with. The 20-year-old trumpeter from Brooklyn has been on the radar of jazz cognoscenti for some time, having released Giant Peach, the début album of the co-led O’Farrill Brothers Band with his older brother, drummer Zack O’Farrill, in 2011. Sensing Flight followed in 2013, receiving a 4-star review in DownBeat in addition to being listed in the Top 50 Albums of 2013 by JazzTimes.
More recently, Adam has been performing with the likes of pianists Vijay Iyer and Arturo O’Farrill as well as alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, with whom Adam recently recorded Bird Calls (ACT Music), featuring Mahanthappa’s new project inspired by the spirit of Charlie Parker; the album is slated for release in 2015. And if that wasn’t enough, just last weekend Adam competed in and was awarded third place in the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition by a panel of judges that included Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones, Jimmy Owens, and Arturo Sandoval.
We last featured Adam on our stage in April when he appeared with an iteration of the O’Farrill Brothers band called “Super O’Farrill Bros.” This time, Adam leads a group of his own: a chordless quartet called Stranger Days, which will feature Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor saxophone, Walter Stinson on bass, and Zack O’Farrill on drums. The band recently played a string of gigs at Yale University, Williams College, and the Lily Pad in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’re pleased that they’ll be finishing out their run at the Gallery, and we hope that you’ll join us to welcome Adam as he brings the band home.
We recently spoke with Adam about the band, the Monk competition, and recent interests outside of music:
The Jazz Gallery: How did Stranger Days form?
Adam O’Farrill: What happened was my friend had this triple-bill at ShapeShifter Lab in February, and I had wanted to do this big project based on a book by Nathanael West called Miss Lonelyhearts . I realized that I had no time to develop that and really write, so I was thinking, “Who are people I’ve played with a bunch and I could just put together?” So that February gig was our first together.
It’s probably the most personal group I’ve had just. It’s similar with my dad’s group; we’ve always been playing with each other: my dad, my brother, and I. It’s just like goofing around and beating each other up; it’s all the same family. I feel a similar thing with this group. They’re kind of my big brothers and it’s really just amazing to hang with them.
TJG: The band has been gigging a lot recently, hasn’t it?
AO: Yeah, we played over the weekend at Yale on Friday, at Williams College on Saturday during the day, and at the Lily Pad in Cambridge on Saturday night. Those are the first gigs in a while we’ve done with the main members of the band [saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, bassist, Walter Stinson, and drummer Zack O’Farrill].
TJG: Is this gig at the Gallery the last one you have scheduled for now?
AO: Yeah, it’s the last one we’re doing for a while.
TJG: How do you approach writing for this chordless instrumentation?
AO: What happened was that the music I was writing before this was mostly for a sextet. There’s a lot more to work with between the piano, guitar, two horns, bass, and drums, so I think my music was much more scripted and arranged. It’s a lot of notes, you know, and maybe a lot of unnecessary notes in some ways. Having just a quartet like this with tenor, trumpet, bass, and drum, there’s something really natural about it.
You know, I’ve been studying a bit of Indian music lately with Samir Chatterjee and talking about how Indian music has always been an earthly thing, like coming out of itself. Having piano and guitar in there kind of makes it easier to have these chords that are coming out of so many different notes, but with this quartet, it’s much more naked. It’s more from the roots, from the ground up. I can only play one note—right now, at least—and Chad, too. One thing I’ll say is that it’s more based on conversation. We have tunes and we have pieces that have structure, but there’s a lot more freedom.
TJG: At the Lily Pad show, I noticed the use of extended solo horn statements. Solo bass and solo drums are a bit more conventional in this music, so did you deliberately choose to feature the horns?
AO: Yeah. It’s funny: we got to our Williams gig late and Zack was still setting up his cymbals, and Walter was playing on a bass he hadn’t played before so he was trying to set it up and all that, so I just started an intro to one of Walter’s tunes that I always liked. I didn’t want to do another intro for another tune that needed an intro, and I thought about how I’d never heard Chad play by himself, so I said, “I’d love to hear this.” I was just curious what he’d do.
TJG: Has solo horn playing been on your mind recently?
AO: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it lately. I’ve spent a little time with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Peter Evans, who are both really strong solo players and both very assertive. Solo playing is something that goes back so long, like my grandpa [Chico O’Farrill] and these people did all kinds of cadenzas, like Dizzy Gillespie on Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods, and in classical music, too.
I’ve only had one lesson with Peter so far, but he told me, “You have to lose yourself a little bit. You have to unchain yourself and just play. No one else will talk at that moment; you’re the only talking, so you’ve got to talk.” Playing solo has been probably the hardest thing for me.
TJG: Particularly on trumpet compared to, say, saxophone or piano.
AO: On trumpet it’s really hard. Probably one of my favorite solo players is Jim Seeley, who plays in my father’s band. He’s just got so much assertiveness, and that’s really what it is. It’s like giving a good speech: you’ve just got to be assertive about it and go for it, which is what’s hardest for me.
When the rhythm section’s playing, I feel like it’s cool—they’re filling up space and I can just depend on them to create the vibe and the energy and everything—but playing everything solo is definitely different.
TJG: Who are some artists you’ve been checking out lately?
AO: All kinds of people other than just musicians. I’ve actually been really interested in actors lately. Have you seen The Master?
TJG: I haven’t. That’s with Joaquin Phoenix?
AO: Yeah. It’s a really beautiful movie. Joaquin Phoenix plays this lonely World War II veteran, a complete alcoholic, and there are moments in the film where there are close-up shots of his face. He’s not even doing anything with his face—he’s not even saying anything—but you can see in his face and his eyes … he gets so much just from that. I would like to be able to play one note and just give so much from that; I’d like to convey some of that in a way.
Another actor I really love and who I think is really inspiring is Daniel Day-Lewis. He can put on any hat and own it, and that’s the same with some of the best musicians. Chad can get any gig he wants. Patrick Bartley could play any gig, literally any gig: classical, jazz, Latin, chamber music, anything.
For some of the musical aspects for this group in particular, I really love Ornette Coleman’s Love Call and New York Is Now!, with Elvin [Jones], Dewey [Redman], and Jimmy [Garrison]. I’ve also been interested in composing stuff like Mingus’s, like blues—not just from a harmonic standpoint, but also more from the physical and energy standpoint.
TJG: Shifting gears a bit, could you talk about what it was like performing in the Monk competition?
AO: It was great. I was definitely surprised when I made it into the semifinals, so I was definitely surprised when I made it into the top three. It’s funny: the whole thing was really interesting because half of me was really not about the competition, not about the whole “You win and get a career” thing. It’s nothing against the Monk Institute—I think it’s amazing that they give people opportunities like that—but it didn’t seem right for me in some ways. But the other half of me was like, “Yeah, I really am so happy to be here,” to be one of these 13 people they picked from all over the world and to be in such great company.
TJG: How do you get in the right mindset for playing in that kind of context?
AO: I remember rehearsal was a little nerve-racking the night before the semifinals. We didn’t get to run one of my tunes since we only had 25-30 minutes to rehearse, and I didn’t get to know the rhythm section that well. The day of, I just realized that there’s an equal chance of me making into the top three as not making it. Just like everybody else, there was no way to know the judges since it’s such a varied panel, and there was no way to know what they’d be into.
I mean, you could definitely make some theories, but again I’m surprised that I was in it—just because I wasn’t expecting that the panel would be into what I was doing. Anyways, I just felt there was an equal chance of making it and not making it into the top three, so the only thing I could do was just play and just be myself, and I think I did that.
TJG: You’ve also been playing with Rudresh Mahanthappa lately. What’s that like?
AO: It’s amazing. It’s hard; very, very hard. I remember the week of the recording, I wasn’t just practicing a lot, but also actually exercising. I’ve played in similarly high-pressure situations before—like playing in my dad’s small group is awesome fun—but it’s more about the fact that Rudresh was right next to me. Being alongside another horn player is a whole other thing, playing like that. Right from the first note, it’s like you stuffed ten hot peppers in your mouth; you just go for it.
TJG: Are you still playing video games these days?
AO: I just got the new Super Smash Bros. It’s amazing, so good. It takes your mind off of things.
Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days performs this Friday, November 21st, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. Stranger Days features O’Farrill on trumpet, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor saxophone, Walter Stinson on bass, and Zack O’Farrill on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.