HIDDEN VOICES / ORTIZ: Fractal Sketches. COLEMAN: Open & Close/The Sphinx. ORTIZ: Caribbean Vortex/Hidden Voices*. Analytical Symmetry. Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose: Spring; Summer. 17 Moments of Liam’s Moments (or 18). ORTIZ-REVIS-CLEAVER: Joyful Noises. MONK: Skippy. R. ORTIZ: Uno, Dos y Tres, Que Paso Más Chévere / Aruán Ortiz, pno; Eric Revis, bs; Gerald Cleaver, dm; *Arturo Stable, Enildo Rasúa, claves / Intakt CD-258
Aruán Ortiz is a Cuban-born pianist-composer whose proclivities lie more in the field of modern, even avant-garde music rather than the standard Latin jazz most of his cohorts prefer. He has been described as having “a taste for abstraction,” but as Ortiz himself has explained, he had a great deal of exposure to “European classical music from a very early age at the Conservatory of Music. Being exposed to this compilation of styles every day nurtured my ears, and forged a very personal and eclectic understanding of the music.”
But along with his classical influences, Ortiz also seems to have deeply absorbed the offbeat jazz of Thelonious Monk, whose Skippy appears in this set, and Ornette Coleman, who contributed Open & Close/The Sphinx. Much of this can be heard immediately in his opening piece, Fractal Sketches, which sounds for all the world like a combination of Monk and modern classical techniques. Ortiz, unlike Monk, doesn’t just play around with time within the confines of a steady 4, but indulges in constant meter shifts and rhythmic displacements to create something that sounds like “Monk in Outer Space”—or Inner Space, if you prefer. What I enjoyed about Ortiz’s playing was his sheer enthusiasm; he is not a light player, submerging his ideas in a soft keyboard touch, but a bold pianist who, like Monk himself, attacks the keys boldly if not quite with that odd flat-fingered, splayed-hands approach that Monk himself had.
As a sidelight, I would like to make an important observation: for many decades it was said, in a disparaging way, that classically-trained pianists gravitated to Art Tatum but either didn’t understand or couldn’t stomach Thelonious Monk, but I, who was also classically trained, always found Monk’s playing utterly fascinating because of the way he played “stress beats” in the “wrong” places, which thus “unbalanced” his phrases, and I also said that as more and more classical pianists come from modern classical music and not from the Beethoven-Chopin-Rachmaninov field, the more they will come to admire what Monk did without disparaging Tatum. And I seem to be right, because just this year I’ve heard recordings by at least three classically-trained pianists who very obviously love Monk. OK, end of musicological lecture.
Ortiz brings his command of asymmetry and Monk-like harmonic sense into the world of Ornette, who as we all know stood Western harmony on its head and purposely avoided playing with pianos for most of his life. The second half of this track, apparently based on Coleman’s The Sphinx, shows Ortiz in a sort of combination Lennie Tristano-Cecil Taylor mood (or, for those who never heard him, Paul Bley), exploring rapidly-shifting double time runs in bitonal and atonal ways while continuing to shift and shuffle the beat. Bassist Eric Revis seems to be able to catch up to anything Ortiz is able to play, just as Charlie Haden did for Coleman, although he is not very prominently recorded. Drummer Gerald Cleaver, more closely miked, contributes greatly to Ortiz’ ongoing explorations with outstanding digital manipulation of his sticks and cymbal washes. In Caribbean Vortex/Hidden Voices, a series of close left-hand chords come into play as Ortiz’ right hand becomes somewhat less busy, driving the music forward.
Intriguingly, Asymmetrical Symmetry finds the pianist balancing a steady beat in his left hand with single notes in the right before then moving into a strange sort of basso continuo playing against an equally odd meter in the right. This then dissolves into sparse, soft chords while Revis gets a rare solo. This dialogue continues for some time, with Cleaver eventually joining in on cymbals, then his playing becomes even sparser, sounding almost as if he were simply playing a commentary on the bass and drums.
The two-part Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose starts with a slow, spacey piano solo (“Spring”), reflective but not quite lyrical as it doesn’t have an identifiable melody. The second part, “Summer,” assumes an almost plodding beat, with both Ortiz and Revis doubling down on the heaviness of the bass line while the pianist explores single-note lines in the right hand. In the second half, Ortiz’ playing becomes even heavier and louder, his right hand exploring chords against the continual single-note pounding in the left.
17 Moments of Liam’s Moments (18) has a distinctively Monkian flavor about it, particularly the mechanical-sounding beat, here divided into quarter note triplets. It’s so short (1:44) that it’s almost over before you start to get into it! The “collective” composition, Joyful Noises, is exactly that—merely a collection of off-the-cuff explorations by each member of the trio (with Ortiz plucking the strings of the piano at one point). I wasn’t really sure if you could call this piece music, however…as Charles Mingus once wisely said, “You can’t improvise on nothing!” But by golly, they give it the old College Try.
Ortiz’ interpretation of Monk’s Skippy completely deconstructs the music, exploring deep bass triplets in the left hand while the right doubles the tempo of the original and redistributes the rhythm in a way Monk would never have recognized—only near the very end of this track would he possibly recognize his own tune. Yet it works, and works brilliantly. The rhythm section does their part to scramble the beat, particularly Cleaver, while Revis revels in another bass solo of exceptional invention.
The final track, Uno, Dos y Tres, Que Paso Más Chévere, starts out with sparse notes being tinkled on the high end of the keyboard. This almost has the feel of a pure improvisation, yet there is a little melody that appears and reoccurs. This being a piano solo, it just sort of fades into nothingness at the end…a very appropriate ending for this unusual album.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley