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Aruan Ortiz: long-overdue recognition

Cuban born pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz is just now beginning to receive long-overdue recognition after two decades as a leader or collaborator. More than ten years prior to his new trio release, Hidden Voices, he had drawn favorable comparisons to Chick Corea and Ornette Coleman with Aruán Ortiz Trio Vol. 1 (Pimienta Records, 2004). On Hidden Voices (Intakt Records, 2016) Ortiz' trio includes Grammy winning composer/bassist Eric Revis and the prolific drummer Gerald Cleaver. Hidden Voices is Ortiz' ninth release as a leader or co-leader and he has had an active presence as a side man as well, appearing on more than twenty recordings including those of trumpeters Steve Turre, Wallace Roney and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. Now a Brooklyn resident, Ortiz, a 2014 Doris Duke Impact Award winner, is also a producer and educator. Karl Ackermann, from Chicago Jazz Magazine, talked with Ortiz about his life in music and his new recording. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You play piano with the expertise and passion of someone drawn to the instrument from a very early age, yet you spent the first seventeen years of your professional musical life as the viola soloist in the Santiago de Cuba, Symphony Orchestra. What brought about your transition to piano? Ortiz: I started playing piano when I was 9 years old, as part of the academic curriculum at the Conservatory of Music in Santiago, because all students have to take "Complementary piano", which is piano lessons for non-pianists at the school. Although my primary instrument was violin and later viola, and I did very well, my fascination for the rich sound of the piano came from those years. So when I was a bit older, around 12 years old, I formed a band at the school with my classmates, playing arrangements and versions of popular Cuban songs, where I was the pianist and the director of that band. Later in my teen years, I started to play in popular bands in Santiago at the same time I was finishing my studies. I had a parallel life, playing classical music at the school and popular Cuban music with different bands. When I was in college in Havana, I had the opportunity to listen to many great musicians, and I realized that if I wanted to play the piano professionally I had to commit myself to rigorous study of the instrument, learn the piano literature, and find a teacher in order to play well. At that point I went back to my hometown, and for few years I was very committed to practicing and composing music for piano. When I was 22 years old I signed a contract with the Spanish label, Magic Music, to record a solo piano album in Spain. There, I had the opportunity to study with the great pianist Cecilio Tieles for three years. He guided me toward my goal of learning the fundamentals of the instrument. Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did playing viola help your development as a pianist? Ortiz: Playing viola at the school allowed me to learn the instrument, classical music, and music history, but I didn't improvise with the viola, in fact I never tried, and I found that piano was my natural vehicle of self-expression, because I was able to find myself through the journey of improvisation. Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you come to your affinity for jazz? Ortiz: When I was about 15 years old, a friend at the conservatory showed me Chick Corea's tune, 'Night Streets' from "My Spanish Heart." He was extremely popular in Cuba at the time, and I was so fascinated by that tune that I learned it by ear from the soundtrack of a radio program. Later, I listened to LPs of Cuban Jazz, and I became big fan of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Emiliano Salvador, Gabriel Hernández, Chucho Valdés, Afrocuba, and many bands that were part of the Cuban Jazz scene in the late '80 early '90. However, I didn't have any knowledge of American jazz until I went to jazz school while living in Barcelona. There I studied with Horacio Fumero, a well-known local jazz bass player who had played with Gato Barbieri, Johnny Griffith, Joe Henderson, and Tete Montoliú for many years. He taught me the history of jazz and improvisation, and introduced me to the music of the great Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Monk, Dizzy, and Louis Amstrong, among many others. I also learned to transcribe solos and build my jazz repertoire. I started to understand the evolution of this art form and the different jazz periods and styles. Chicago Jazz Magazine:Your new CD, Hidden Voices, presents your concept of “Cuban Cubism”. How would you explain the concept and is it a different way of articulating deconstruction? Ortiz: I think about my music as something continuously moving and varying, something alive that can be played in different directions. I borrowed the concept of Cuban "Cubism", because I feel deep admiration for the work of the pioneers of Analytical Cubism, such as Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, and Wilfredo Lam, among others, and their impact on the artistic movement of the 20th century. The artistic aesthetic of my creative process is based on deconstructing forms, patterns, or melodic themes and fragmenting them, assigning them in an irregular order to the different instruments, and then re-ordering them again. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You grew up surrounded by musical styles like soukous, rhumba, salsa, and, of course, Afro-Cuban jazz. Is it fair to say that you minimize those root influences in favor of a more eclectic approach to composing? Ortiz: I guess you could say something like that, but the way I try to avoid stereotypical Afro-Cuban influences in my music is related to my admiration of Cuban writers such as Humberto Desnoes, Alejo Carpentier, and Lezama Lima, but also Humberto Eco and Arturo Pérez Reverte. I really like the way they create fictional stories based on the deconstruction of factual events, and sometime fragmenting those events, and re-assembling them in a unique way, taking the story to different territories. I always try to approach any composition from different angles, finding new ways to play it and--like artists in other mediums--do take them to unknown places, or use unfamiliar sounds, reorganizing the material I'm using to make variations. I'll use anything from a popular Cuban song that I like, to a jazz standard, to a classical piece, to revisiting one of my own compositions. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve worked and recorded in the trio format once before on Aruán Ortiz Trio Vol. 1, but with different players. How did you come to work with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver on Hidden Voices? Ortiz: I had the chance to play with Eric and Gerald in LA at the LA Jazz Festival in 2014. I had played and toured with Gerald several times, and I played once with Eric, subbing Orrin Evans on the Tarbaby trio with Darius Jones in Seattle. Chicago Jazz Magazine: But after the trio concert in LA, I decided that I wanted them as the rhythmic section of my next trio recording, because of how solid they sounded, while maintaining an incredible musical dialog throughout the performance. Anything you play with them will sound like it's in the right place. Thanks to funds I received from the Doris Duke Impact Award in 2014, I was able to consolidate all these ideas for the trio, and to convene Eric and Gerald for this recording. Ortiz: You’ve demonstrated an affinity for the music of Ornette Coleman. What is it about Coleman that inspires you? Chicago Jazz Magazine: My first experience with Ornette's music was his collaboration with Pat Metheny on the album "Song X." I was really into Metheny's music back then, and after hearing that album my devotion to Ornette's work was instantaneous. Ortiz: I found the flexibility of his melodic concept very inspiring. It's also amazing how he developed his "harmolodic" concept and how it works in a multidimensional way. I remember talking to Joanne Brackeen at Berklee College of Music about his 12-tone system based on his precise organization of triads, creating multiple melodies that flow naturally and organically in a non-harmonic context. I've been working recently on some music that has that kind of flexibility. Sometimes I construct a harmonic movement related to a specific melodic structure, then I establish two or three parallel counter-melodies that can move in the opposite direction from the main melodic structure, so if you approach them from the harmonic point of view it can give the impression of an atonal melody, but from the melodic approach it makes sense because it's the same melody, just expanded. I like to play with that kind of functional ambiguity. Chicago Jazz Magazine: What does the U.S. represent to Cuban musicians who have relocated here? Ortiz: For me it may be a little different than for others, because when I was in Cuba, the idea of living in the US wasn't part of any immediate plan in any sense. In my wildest dreams I couldn't imagine I'd live in New York City one day. Moving to New York was a long process. When I moved from Cuba to Spain to record and to finish my classical piano studies, I ended up living there for six years. While in Spain and after finishing my piano studies, I attended a jazz school connected with the Berklee College of Music International Network. There they encouraged me audition for Berklee, and I was awarded a scholarship. I moved to Boston in 2002, and lived there for five years. While in Boston I visited NYC often to play with musicians who were already living here. When I joined Wallace Roney's band, I decided that it was time to make the move to the big city. Moving here was a real turning point in for me personally and professionally. Living provides a unique experience to learn in the birthplace of jazz, to pay your dues, hang with the elders, play with your heroes, and find your own voice within an array of extraordinary musicians. The level of commitment, dedication, creativity, and talent I find in this city can't be found anywhere else in the world, and not only in music or the other arts, but everywhere. That's the uniqueness and the engine that has influenced me to keep working and finding my voice in this city. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did the move to New York give you the opportunity to play with some musicians you had looked forward to meeting? Ortiz: Absolutely! Since I've lived here, I've been fortunate to play the music I love with the people I admire. I have collaborated on different projects with the most forward-thinking musicians from different generations such as Henry Grimes, Oliver Lake, Cameron Brown, Mark Helias, William Parker, Adam Rudoplh, Andrew Cyrille, Wadada Leo Smith, Hamiet Bluett, Bob Stewart, Don Byron, Wallace Roney, Graham Haynes, Antoine Roney, Greg Osby, Rufus Reid, Francisco Mora-Catlett, Nasheet Waits, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Revis, Fay Victor, Sam Newsome, Michaël Attias, Tim Berne, Seamus Blake, Darius Jones, Eric McPherson, Brad Jones, Chris Lightcap, and John Hébert, among many others! Chicago Jazz Magazine: Brooklyn has become something of a creative mecca, among artists and jazz musicians and composers. Do you feel like there is a creative energy in this part of New York that inspires your composing? Ortiz: Brooklyn is a great place to live and to raise my kids. I'm very happy being here, and perhaps it does infuse a creative energy in me. But I compose in Brooklyn because I live here, not the other way around. Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was your exposure to jazz music before you moved to the US? Was there a strong presence of the very progressive, avant-garde jazz that you’ve created with Hidden Voices, in Cuba? Ortiz: My appreciation and enthusiasm for avant-garde and progressive jazz came with my admiration for the music of Andrew Hill and Ornette Coleman when I was still living in Europe. Because of their music I was curious to know more about that movement from the 60's with an uncompromised voice, and I was very aware of the social changes from that period. I learned about Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Richard Davis, Charles Tolliver, Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutchison, Charles Mingus, Jackie Byard, and Herbie Nichols, among many others. In my readings I discovered how powerful their music was and how influential they were to the development of jazz as we know it today. Ortiz: When I was living in Cuba, I didn't have any exposure to avant-garde jazz. I remember listen to a midnight radio program called "La Esquina del Jazz", where I first heard Herbie Hancock's blowing on those keys on his Blue Note recordings. I was astonished, because in Cuba back then, Herbie was really popular for his song "Rock it" but when I listened to him in this other context I didn't understand what I was hearing. At that time I was only listening to the top Cuban jazz groups such as Chucho Valdes & Irakere, Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Proyecto, Emiliano Salvador, Afrocuba and Ferver Opus. Chicago Jazz Magazine: As a composer, do you feel like there is a different kind of creative freedom in the US as opposed to Cuba? Ortiz: Cuba has produced a massive amount of progressive and forward-thinking artists from different creative fields. I have always admired the work of those individuals, but in its recent history, there have been some periods when certain artistic expressions may have been more or less restrained. Living outside of Cuba, I've had access to the materials I need to nurture and inform my creative process as a composer and performer, but I also find a lot of my source material on the island, where there's a lot of information about my culture that I still have yet to discover. There have been many great Cuban pianists such as Bebo Valdés, Arturo O'Farrill and Gonzalo Rubalcaba to name a few. How have you been influenced by any of these artists? When I was starting to listen to jazz, I was really into Gonzalo Rubalcaba. A lot of musicians from my generation grew up admiring his talent, his music and his pianism. His music was perceived as something encoded, complex, different, a sort of avant-garde Cuban jazz. He integrated Afro-Cuban music but also jazz and 20th century classical music into his compositions, and his group, Proyecto, was incredibly tight, astonishingly precise. His concept was fascinating to music students from the conservatory like me, so he was very popular among us. But I also liked Emiliano Salvador, Gabriel Hernandez, Ramón Valle, and Hilario Durán, and groups like Irakere, Afrocuba, etc. They were at the forefront of Cuban Jazz, and I was trying to imitate them. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is there any particular event that you feel was a break-through moment in your career? Ortiz: So many great moments in my career I feel were a break-through: recording my first album in Spain, and soon after studying with Cecilio Tieles, moving to the US, attending Berklee, moving to NYC, and playing with Wallace Roney. Also recording Santiarican Blues Suite, my first chamber music album, inspired by Cuban-Haitian heritage in Santiago de Cuba. This work was especially important because it was commissioned and choreographed by José Mateo, for the 25th anniversary of his company José Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Also writing the score for the first American feature film shoot in Cuba by an American filmmaker in more than 50 years. Having the opportunity of attending the premier in Cuba was a milestone in my career. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Jazz has been defined in varying terms but we know that it has very specific roots in Africa. The music, however, manifests itself differently in different geographic, political, cultural and social environment, for example, in Cuba. What do you see as the unique aspects of the jazz that has come out of Cuba? Ortiz: There are many folkloric musical systems in Cuba that also have their roots in West Africa, and they are an essential part of the Cuban musical realm. Within these systems we have different codes in common with jazz music. Elements such as syncopation, call and response, or phrasing we find in both the foundation of Cuban music and in jazz music. In Cuba there is no jazz school, so musicians are kind of self-taught in jazz, and they learn tunes and solos straight from the records. So usually there are certain harmonic continuities missing from their playing. However, I think the way Cuban jazz musicians negotiate with Afro-Cuban polyrhythmic patterns in their compositions and their musical statements is very remarkable. Also, their understanding and abilities to write long and complex phrases, like the popular group Irakere, comes from the very high-level musical training primarily focused on classical music. This training helps build an incredible dexterity and precision on their instruments. This comes from the virtuosity of the Russian school, which was exported to the Cuban music conservatories. Well-known Cuban musicians such as Paquito d' Rivera, Chucho Valdez, Horacio "El Negro" Hernández, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Arturo Sandoval, and others like Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto or Alfredo Rodríguez, among others, started listening to and playing jazz at these music schools, so their level of proficiency was already solid. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve recorded and played in quintets, trios and as a solo artist and there is a certain amount of dexterity that’s involved with each of those situations. Are those kinds of intricacies important to you as a composer? Ortiz: When I'm composing I don't really think about making things specially complex or intricate. I try to focus on the ideas and how to amplify and make variations of the materials I'm working with, and what I want to develop in the score. I also think about roles specific to the instruments, and how to assign them to each instrument without losing the main idea or the direction of the piece. But it depends on what kind of ensemble I'm composing for. Sometimes I like to write just sketches, other times I'm very explicit about what I want, and what kind of sound I want generate, so I follow a specific script for that piece. But even when I have a particular agenda, it can change and go somewhere else. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your live recording, Banned in London, which included Michael Janisch and Greg Osby, included some very forceful extended performances. How would you describe the difference between playing in the studio and playing live? Ortiz: I like to play live a lot. Getting the energy of the audience is very stimulating; you can work on your ideas with a different mindset, reacting in the moment. In my recordings I actually strive to keep the same energy as a live performance, so I don't really like to do many takes, especially during any sort of improvisation section. For me, reflecting the nature of spontaneity is very important. Chicago Jazz Magazine: What music are you currently listening to? Ortiz: I'm listening to a lot of Conlon Nancarrow, one of the most important American composers from the 20th Century. He composed a lot of work for player piano. Also Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, and some music for string quartet. I just heard a marvelous Mark Dresser/Jen Shyu duo CD, "Synastry", the new David Gilmore album "Energies of Change," beautiful album and compositions. Ortiz: I had the opportunity to play some of that music last January. I also listen to a lot of kids songs! At home we are listening to the soundtrack of Triplets of Belleville right now, a great French-Canadian animated movie; my kids love it. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have any immediate plans for how you would like to follow Hidden Voices? Ortiz: I'm working on some pieces for solo piano, and I hope to record them at the end of the year. Also, I'm writing a string quartet that will be played at Vermont College of Fine Arts in August. I also have some other projects that are in different degrees of completion, such as a piece for large ensemble, another score for feature film. Also I hope I can finish writing some pieces for a project called "Societé Florindo", that I hope in the next year or two they can come to light.

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