Many top jazz albums recorded in 1959 were exhaustively celebrated this year in print on behalf of their 50-year anniversaries. The list includes Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um and The Shape of Jazz to Come. One recording that's in the same league but has been strangely overlooked is Art Farmer's The Aztec Suite, with arrangements by Chico O'Farrill. Recorded on July 29 and 30, 1959, The Aztec Suite appeared on United Artists Records, which was largely devoted to recording UA movie soundtracks. Today The Aztec Suite is somewhat submerged as part of Art Farmer's Brass Shout (Blue Note).
How big a deal is The Aztec Suite? Pretty big. To give you an idea, here's the lineup of musicians:
Quite a band—and a spectacular trumpet section for those in the know. O'Farrill wrote The Aztec Suite specifically for Farmer [pictured], who recorded it just after he returned from a European tour with Gerry Mulligan. Farmer was months away from recording The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones and Meet the Jazztet, the first of his series of collaborations with Benny Golson. Farmer was at his peak, and he delivers an extraordinary performance throughout on trumpet rather than flugelhorn, which he would come to play more often in the years ahead. O'Farrill's writing is truly stellar, laying down a rhythmic obstacle course for Farmer to navigate. The suspenseful explosions of sound and beats are positively exhilarating. After this album, O'Farrill [pictured] would begin an extensive period of swing arranging for Count Basie, a relationship that would last throughout the 1960s.
In truth, The Aztec Suite isn't really a Latin-jazz album in the traditional sense. The emphasis is on jazz. Like O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite of 1950 or his Second Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite of 1951, jazz leads with a range of Latin beats following. For The Aztec Suite, O'Farrill created enormously complex and exciting charts, resulting in an album that can only be equated to Johnny Richards' Something Else for Bethlehem in 1956. French horns soar while the all-star trumpet section hammers away, with the percussion constantly on the prowl. O'Farrill's reed writing also is exceptional here.
In a 1999 interview with Luis Tamargo of Latin Beat, O'Farrill touched only briefly on The Aztec Suite:
CO: I thought of that title because I wrote the suite in México, but if did not have anything to do with Mexican music (LAUGHTER). I played it again with Art farmer a few years ago.
There are six tracks on The Aztec Suite. The lengthy title track runs 16 1/2 minutes and puts Farmer through many different sequences of varying levels of intensity. The suite frequently shifts tempos and moods, building from bump-and-grind film-noir ballads to flaming mambos. The normally staid and perspicacious Farmer rips through the dramatic passages in fiery form, and his blowing is all out.
The suite is followed by Heat Wave, an uptempo Latin burner that includes a tenor sax solo by Zoot Sims [pictured]. Delirio is a Latin ballad with a fabulous reed section sound. Woody 'n' You's theme is taken in waltz time before breaking into 4/4, featuring another terrific tenor sax solo by Sims. Drums Nagrita is mid-tempo cha-cha-cha, while the standard Alone Together is treated as a Latin-flavored ballad. Best of all, the album functions as one big suite, with one song naturally following the next as part of a larger statement.
The only drag is that there weren't four more albums like this one. O'Farrill's cinematic arrangements here are simply breathtaking, no matter how many times you listen to the album.
It's also a shame The Aztec Suite wasn't re-issued this year with extensive liner notes, alternate takes, photos and all the love and respect an album of this magnitude deserves.
JazzWax tracks: The Aztec Suite can be found as a download at iTunes and Amazon as part of Brass Shout, an album Art Farmer recorded two months earlier in May 1959 with a tentet. If you want to download just the six Aztec Suite tracks from iTunes, you may need to rearrange the order. They appear out of sync. Here's the correct lineup: The Aztec Suite, Heat Wave, Delirio, Woody 'n' You, Drum Negrita and Alone Together.
JazzWax clip: There were no clips of The Aztec Suite at YouTube to share with you. But here's Chico O'Farrill leading an orchestra playing his Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, which was first recorded in 1950. It gives you a fine sense of O'Farrill's powerfully restless arranging style...