RANDOM DANCES AND (A)TONALITIES / ORTIZ: Tete’s Blues. Numbers. Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose (Spring). ELLINGTON-MILEY: Black and Tan Fantasy. MOMPOU: Musica Calleda: Book I, V. (crochet = 54). BYRON: Joe Btfsplk. Delphian Nuptials. G. ALLEN: Dolphy’s Dance. J.S. BACH: Violin Partita No. 1: II. Double (arr. Byron). BYRON-ORTIZ: Impressions on a Golden Theme / Don Byron, cl/t-sax; Arúan Ortiz, pno / Intakt CD 309
Cuban-born Arúan Ortiz has quickly become one of my favorite jazz pianists and composers. His music, deeply complex both structurally and harmonically, is a perfect fusion of jazz and classical music. I’ve admired clarinetist Don Byron since his days, roughly 33 years ago, playing with the Klezmer Conservatory Band in Boston led by Hankus Netsky, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure how well he could keep up with Ortiz’ brilliant and discursive musical mind.
In a sense, this is a mixed program, combining three compositions by Ortiz, two by Byron and one duo collaboration with one piece by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley, one by the late Geri Allen, and two jazz reworkings of classical pieces, one by Frederic Mompou and the other by J.S. Bach. Byron does a nice job of working around Ortiz’ odd chord changes and bitonal melodic line in Tete’s Blues, and in a certain sense I noted that his improvisations here vacillate between improvising on the chords and improvising on the melody. The latter is a very difficult art, so difficult in fact that it has virtually disappeared from jazz in the years since 1940. It’s just much easier to go off on a tangent using the chord structure as your basis than to pay attention to the melodic line. Ortiz, too, employs both approaches in his own solo here, sounding a bit like an atonal Thelonious Monk.
Naturally, I was curious to hear what they would do with the early Ellington piece, which dates from c. 1927, not least because Ellington had not only very specific rhythms in mind but also unusual textures using the very individual and sometimes odd-sounding musicians in his band. The duo retains Ellington’s rhythm and general tempo. Byron switches to tenor sax on this one, with Ortiz feeding him steady staccato chords through the first chorus, shifting to moving chromatics in the middle section. It almost put me in mind of some of the things that Marcus Roberts has done with older jazz material. In Byron’s arrangement of Mompou’s piece from Musica Calleda, we enter a different world although, ironically, it is played at almost the same tempo and with a similar beat to Black and Tan Fantasy. Here, however, Ortiz maintains the same chord through a large part of the piece, only changing at the ends of phrases, while Byron is the one playing the more adventurous harmonies. Yet I felt that this piece went on too long and didn’t say very much.
Byron’s Joe Btfsplk, named after the weird little Dogpatch guy in the Li’l Abner cartoon who always had a rain cloud over his head, is a similarly weird little piece using a serpentine melodic line played around chromatic harmonies on tenor sax. This is a very interesting, complex and humorous piece, although the humor is very much tongue-in-cheek. Ortiz’ single-note piano lines reminded me of Lennie Tristano while his later keyboard splatterings put me in mind of Cecil Taylor. Ortiz’ Numbers begins with amorphous keyboard figures, after which he plays a strange chromatic line which Byron doubles on tenor. The music then continues to wind its way along, with improvisations intersecting with Ortiz’ written passages. This is a piece that never resolves itself; it completely lacks a tonal center.
Geri Allen’s Dolphy’s Dance is a piece in a similar vein, albeit taken at a quicker tempo. Byron is back on clarinet for this one. The Bach Violin Partita “Double” is played very nicely by Byron on clarinet, a cappella. Delphian Nuptials also starts out with just Byron’s clarinet, with Ortiz entering after the introduction. From this point on, it seemed to consist of Ortiz playing tonal block chords while Byron played atonal, jagged figures in the foreground.
Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose (Spring) sounds neither geometrical nor rosy, but rather ominous and dark, with a melody that keeps trying to resolve itself but never quite makes it. The finale, Impressions on a Golden Theme, is a slow-moving piece featuring Byron in his chalumeau register, working his way up through soft, breathy, winding passages around the constantly shifting harmonic base. Mood plays as much a part in this composition as the form itself.
This is certainly a strange album which, like all of Ortiz’ work, grabs the mind and holds it fast, though its relationship to jazz lies strictly in his use of improvisation as well as using forms and modes from earlier (mostly experimental) jazz musicians in a quasi-classical setting. Good stuff!
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge