If you pay close enough attention to jazz, Adam O’Farrill might have appeared on your radar about a decade ago, when he was still an adolescent. His last name is clearly known — his father and grandparents are Latin jazz aristocracy — yet he stood distinct even then, largely by holding back and letting his trumpet speak for itself.
Since his teens, O’Farrill has prioritized restraint, so that his huge range of inspirations — Olivier Messiaen’s compositions, Miles Davis’s 1970s work, the films of Alfonso Cuarón, the novels of D.H. Lawrence, the contemporary American-Swedish composer Kali Malone — could emulsify into something personal, and devilishly tough to pin down.
“I don’t really feel the need to mimic too heavily,” he said in a phone conversation last month, while visiting family in Southern California. “The point is really how you digest it — and in allowing that be its own thing, and having the influences sort of arise when you least expect.”
That, he said, felt “more thrilling than trying to prove that you’re coming from somewhere” in particular.
Now 26, O’Farrill last year was awarded the No. 1 “rising star trumpeter” in the DownBeat magazine critics’ survey, and there’s no disagreement that he is among the finest trumpeters in jazz — and maybe the music’s next major improviser.
For the last seven years he has led Stranger Days, a foursome that also contains his brother, Zach O’Farrill, on drums, as well as the bassist Walter Stinson. Until last year, its tenor saxophonist was Chad Lefkowitz-Brown; after a brief sabbatical, the band has returned with a new saxophonist, Xavier Del Castillo.
On Nov. 12, Stranger Days will release “Visions of Your Other,” its third album, and O’Farrill’s most melodically appealing effort yet.
With its minimalist roster, the band has allowed O’Farrill considerable freedom to experiment around with dimension, scale and tension in his songs. He thinks of Stinson’s bass as the group’s sonic center, and challenges himself to position his layers of dynamic melody around that point, even if it’s continuously altering.
Near the end of “Visions of Your Other” comes a gem, “Hopeful Heart,” a perfectly balanced melody in an odd meter. O’Farrill begins his solo approximately midway through the tune, and it sounds as if he’s initiating a conversation with a stranger, timid and signaling caution. Then the harmony alters, and he seems to locate a riverbed running through the chord changes: His improvising begins to roll down easily, as simple and exquisite as the trumpet playing on an old Mexican danzón record.
But that rush of momentum only lasts a few bars; soon he pulls back again, holding his notes longer, and quietly alluding towards the influence of the contemporary trumpet great Ambrose Akinmusire. He swings between delightfully diatonic tones and more worrying ones, pushing you to notice both.
O’Farrill grew up enmeshed in New York’s jazz and Latin music scenes, and was mentored by the musicians around his father, Arturo O’Farrill, a Grammy-winning pianist, with whose Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra he now occasionally plays.
He started up on piano at age 6, and was almost immediately producing tunes of his own. He took up the trumpet two years later, and started to study the skill of improvising.
Anna Webber, a rising saxophonist and composer, has worked with O’Farrill in various contexts since he was in high school — though she didn’t realize then how young he was. “He simply had this patience and maturity and assurance to his playing,” she remarked. “Even when he was I think 17 or 18, it felt like it was already there.”
O’Farrill is a skilled at “not dumping all you have into a certain solo,” she added, “always trying to find something new in a given piece, but always letting the music pick which route you go in.”
Webber recently requested him to be a part of the ensemble that recorded “Idiom,” her album of dense and hard experimental works. As she prepared the music, she conducted one-on-one chats with each of the group’s 13 members, to ensure the ensemble would feel like an organism in motion, not a firing squad of hired guns. (That band will perform music from “Idiom” on Sep. 23 at Roulette.)
Moved, O’Farrill said he was inspired to bring this approach to his own large-ensemble project, Bird Blown Out of Latitude, a nine-piece group for which he wrote a suite of electroacoustic music that surges with rock energy and toggles, sometimes abruptly, between borderline over-spill and near-total silence.
Thinking on his son’s sense of efficiency and control, Arturo O’Farrill admitted that training in Afro-Latin music pushes a trumpeter to learn the value of precision and leaving space. But he also touched on another of Adam’s early pastimes: video gaming.
“The golden rule of video games is that you don’t look at the avatar, you look at the shadow,” Arturo O’Farrill stated. “It’s about not declaring. Not stating the obvious, not following the avatar.”
It’s through video games that Adam first found out about Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese artist whose former band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, laid the roots in the 1970s and ’80s for what would become chiptune, or early arcade-game music. “Visions of Your Other” opens with a restive, cyclic cover of Sakamoto’s “Stakra.”
“He’s a great master of taking a lot of pillars of musical convention — whether it’s pop or more Romantic, Schumann-esque stuff — and simultaneously respecting and destroying them,” O’Farrill remarked, explaining what he loves in Sakamoto’s music, but it seemed as if he could be discussing his own work. “That’s what’s so amazing about his voice: It’s both highly individual and very grounded in musical history, and relatable.”