In the liner notes to their latest record, Pa’lante (Quadrant Records), drummer Zack O’ Farrill of the collective Marques-Stinson-O’ Farrill writes:
Together we’re not sure how to label the music we play. International rural-suburban-urban through-composed free Latin groove jazz? The label isn’t important. What is important is that this music is the product of three friends, none of whom really fits in with any group of people.
Bassist Walter Stinson and pianist Albert Marques make up the other two pillars of this band, and we caught up with the trio by phone to talk about how the band came together, musical eclecticism, and Power Rangers, among other things.
The Jazz Gallery: How’d you guys meet?
Zack O’ Farrill: When Albert first came to New York from Paris, he started coming to a youth jazz orchestra that my dad and I run at Fat Cat. He started coming and playing, and even though he was just a little bit older than the other students—like, between 7-10 years old than anyone else there—I thought it was very humble of a young pianist to come. He wasn’t looking to come and press my dad and get my dad’s sponsorship as a new pianist—he really just came to hang out. It was actually a few weeks until I spoke to him.
Albert Marques: I moved here from Paris without a visa, money, or contacts. I knew zero musicians and had zero money.
ZO: Albert was working 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a restaurant and then going to jam sessions every night until 4 or 5. And on Sunday, his one day off, he went to rehearse with us!
AM: But you know what, you have to love it!
Walter Stinson: I met Albert first; he had a concert at his house and I met him through a friend. We played one gig at his house and then we were playing in the same band, and I remember Albert said, ‘Yeah man, we’re going to do something. It was really nice to play together.’ He told me he had met this drummer Zack, whom I had met very briefly at Purchase—
ZO: Small world story right there.
WS: —And we didn’t formally meet then, but Albert set up a band and I had just moved to New York. It was exactly what I needed at the time: we met and played and that’s where it started, at our first rehearsal at City College.
TJG: What does the idea of a “group sound” mean to you?
WS: I think the idea of a group sound reminds me of collectively playing together. We were just talking about orchestras, actually, and that motivates me because it’s through-composed music that’s possibly very old and that’s been played many times; we have this huge group of people making this one sound together. It’s so moving to me, and I want to dance, to scream, to cry! That’s the greatest thing I can think of for a group sound—one unified sound, really egoless, and there’s no one person who’s saying, ‘Oh, I make this music.’ No, you have to check that at the door because you’re making music with other humans and making one vibration collectively. I think you can have a lot of groups that don’t have a sound, that sounds like individual musicians together. Whatever they’re playing, it’s like five egos or five individuals playing. It’s not collective; it’s not shared.
ZO: For me, it’s all about the synergy: the total is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s almost like Power Rangers, when they’re fighting the bad guys together but they form the Megazord—it’s way stronger. In our case, a real group sound is when all the parts can come together. It’s deeper and more powerful than just a combination of the parts—it elevates into something else.
AM: The first thing that is very important is that, historically, there has been something that was not there in jazz history. When I say Bill Evans Trio, I’m not thinking about the Bill Evans Trio, I’m thinking about Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian. For Miles Davis, I’m thinking about how he’s playing with Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams. In jazz history, marketing or whatever it is put the emphasis on the leader. In jazz history, it makes lots of sense to finally call a band what it is: to put all the names of everybody, or not put any names, like in rock.
The other thing is, how many bands do you know—for example, piano trios—that were collaborative trios? It has never been done seriously, like seriously. I don’t mean Keith Jarrett ten years ago with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, it’s still Keith Jarrett’s trio. I mean putting three names on the bill, and having compositions from each of them, and giving the opportunity for each one to conduct at least part of the album or concert. We don’t have references—it is something that hasn’t been done, or at least hasn’t been done seriously, I think.
Another thing that hasn’t been done seriously: there is an obsession, which maybe comes from marketing, that says that when you do something, you should simply try as much as possible to have a very particular sound. For example, the Brad Mehldau Trio is associated with a very particular thing. That makes lots of senses in a capitalist society—you really have to reduce what you propose to have a product that is very, very easy to recognize. But, you know what? I hate capitalism! Not only that, I like too many things—I don’t want to choose. And that’s another thing that we do and we don’t have references. When you listen to the album, you’ll hear that there are lots of different things. I’ve never been in a concert where what they proposed was that diverse; some might see it as a weakness, but I don’t. Why do we have to choose that much?
TJG: Eclecticism seems to be a major trend across various disciplines and arts today. Are there times when you find that it’s hard or impossible to combine sounds or sensibilities in your music?
ZO: Personally, I don’t think so. If you’re not forcing it, if it happens naturally, it does come together. I naturally grew up playing jazz and Latin music and listening to all sorts of other types of music, so when I play, even when I’m not making an effort to combine influences, they find ways into our playing. For the synergy thing, it’s a matter of naturally playing, but also personally, because of the upbringing I have and the fact that I’m a history nerd, hip-hop, pop, rock, and other genres are not separated. I don’t have any sort of hierarchy with them or separate one as something that at any moment is any more valid than another.
WS: This is interesting to me becacause when you think how reggae was born, when jazz was broadcasted over the radio from New Orleans, but the frequencies was off, what they were hearing was not exactly how it should have sounded, but they were influenced by it, regardless. Music doesn’t exist separately in a vacuum, and all kinds of music are based on something else; everything comes from something.
ZO: Exactly, everything is tied together. If you look at the histories of jazz and Latin music, they have the exact same history: they are what happened when African culture mixed with classical European culture. People who say that jazz is exclusively African-American music are missing something because jazz would not exist without white people, without slave owners giving the slaves Sunday off.
Everything cultural in the new world is about a clash of styles and cultures. Jazz and Latin music are more antiquated examples; more modern examples, like hip-hop or break dancing, that whole culture came as much from the black kids whose parents were listening to the funk of the ’70s as the Puerto Ricans whose parents were dancing at the Palladium. The first break-dancers were Puerto Rican, and the first rappers were mixed: black and Hispanic. The declamatory style of rapping and telling stories is eerily similar to sonero: singing about life and how life is difficult, but while still making music about it and dancing.
The reason I don’t have trouble with the synthesis of these styles is that, for me, I don’t see the separation between them. I see them as a bunch of different interpretations of the same message. Even on a technical level, backbeats, triplets, all that stuff, there are ways to see that this is a lot of the same stuff. It’s silly that people separate them the way they do.
TJG: Are there any particular musical goals, or goals beyond music, for this trio?
AM: Each person’s answer will probably be different… *indistinct chatter*
TJG: What was that?
ZO: Albert’s goal is a big F you to the white nerd cult scene and the whole “You have to be black to play this music” thing and a big F you to the racist “Latin jazz, you have to be Latino to play this music” scene. Basically, Albert’s goal with the trio is a big F you to anyone who’s conservative and exclusionary.
AM: I’ll give you an example—the word “wall.” I don’t care if the wall is the border between Mexico and the US or the one between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or the wall between Koreans, or the wall that South Africa is building to stop immigration from the countries around there—walls between black people. I don’t like walls. I think what musicians need to do is to push society to be a little more free, a little bit more open. I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re here, and now, it’s easier to break walls, at least in Western countries, than ever before in human history. We just have to.
WS: That goes into how I see this trio’s direction. Every time we play together or hang out or anything, it’s an opening up. I agree with Albert’s F you but I might be a little less aggressive—not an “F you” but an “Open you up to the music.” To open them to more and more things, like opening up the heart—not opening up the mind, but trying to break down all those prejudices and preconceived things. Everyone has them, but I think my goal with us is just being completely open and composing on the spot and playing on the spot. Always listening to one another and always following and leading and guiding and recording, and that’s really what it is. I would love the audience to feel that way, to hear us and feel more open. I would love them to come and listen, and maybe they don’t like jazz, but they say, ‘Oh, I liked that.’ Genre to me is whatever.
AM: Genre is wall. I think we really try to play for the people, and that’s different. I think in classical music or in jazz, most of the people, especially the young people, are playing for other musicians. At least we try [to play for the people]!
ZO: We’d rather have an audience enjoy what we do than impress our colleagues. Albert and Walter summed up what I think: it’s about breaking down walls and freeing our minds, and breaking down walls and freeing our hearts. I think it’s about both, opening up our spirits and others’ spirits, too.
WS: If we all went on stage and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m the shit,’ we’d be fighting, and the audience would hear that. The music wouldn’t be bad—
ZO: That’s how most jazz is.
WS: —That’s great, that’s how it’s always happened, testosterone fueled and angry; we played a gig like that and people felt that, but there was tension. Albert and I, we bump heads sometimes, but I love it because it adds to the music, the tension and release we have with one another.
There are points we agree on, and we believe in the same thing, but we maybe approach it differently, or the action we take is different. But we respect each other and love each other for our separate opinions. We’re like a married couple.
ZO: I’m the marriage counselor—Doctor Katz, the psychiatrist!
AM: What is very obvious, as you’ve seen, is that jazz is a very macho music. Musicians, they don’t share their feelings as we just did. Hopefully, we’ll have lots of women playing jazz very soon and that will change a lot of things, as it happened with classical music before. In a way, jazz has always been macho and a little bit childish.
It’s not cool anymore to beat your wife, so why should it be cool to act like a super-macho asshole in jazz? It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe that’s how society was when they invented the music, but thank God society isn’t as macho as it was 60 years ago.
ZO: Most of jazz is acting like you’re living in 1963. I hate it! When most of jazz is trying to recreate the ’50s, no wonder that’s why jazz players act like that. You can only play what you live, and we’re trying to live lives where we’re open to people and music and cultures.
AM: I’m not inventing anything, but every artist or musician who I really like, I think the best thing he or she did was to allow him or herself to express whatever he was really feeling. And that meant that when he was there [onstage], he was not forcing it. He was feeling that moment.
ZO: As you can see, with the three of us, you can throw us one word and we can just go off on it.
AM: And one more thing—and then I’ll shut up—we criticize these people who try to play jazz like in the ’40s and ’50s, and that’s pathetic, but it’s also pathetic to try to play free jazz as it was in the ’60s or hip-hop as it was in the ’80s, etc. etc. I think it’s always pathetic to try to act like who you are not. Take hip-hop as an example: you cannot be in the ’80s, in a very poor place in Brooklyn, because it doesn’t exist! It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re playing—you cannot pretend to be someone you’re not. That’s a lie, and you sound like someone who’s playing a lie.
ZO: You can only honestly play music that reflects your life.
Marques-Stinson-O’ Farrill, featuring Albert Marques on piano, Walter Stinson on bass, and Zack O’ Farrill on drums, performs this Thursday, October 24th, at The Jazz Gallery. Sets are at 9 and 10:30 p.m. The first set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. The second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Purchase tickets here.