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Past, Present and Future in the Music of Aruán Ortiz



Pianist, Composer Aruán Ortiz - Photo by Palma Fiacco
Pianist, Composer Aruán Ortiz - Photo by Palma Fiacco

The music of Africa – music played in Africa by African people, or those who they choose to allow into their inner circle – is not angry. It may be dolorous, if the occasion demands it, but it is mostly joyful – even funeral music turns from sadness to joy as the dead ancestors are ushered into heaven. This is not the case, however, with the music of the African Diaspora – from Europe to the Caribbean and North and South America – in response to the blight of slavery the shackles of modern economic colonialism, newforms of ghettoization arising from economic deprivation, police brutality and everything uncivilised that Western societies could dream up in the name of civilisation.

 Aruán Ortiz is a black Cuban. The country of his birth has been demonised in the name of democracy by a 60+year economic blockade. And yet Mr Ortiz appears to have benefitted from an education in Cuba – especially a historic music education [in every sense of the word] that is second to none; an education which many Black US Americans have been deprived. Genius fueled by such restless creativity by definition can rarely be contained, not by geography or by musical school of thought. But with childlike zeal, it is driven by the pursuit of the proverbial Holy Grail contained in the momentary evanescence of music.

Aruán Ortiz - Photo by Luciano Rossetti
Aruán Ortiz – Photo by Luciano Rossetti

The continuum of music is, of necessity, abetted by the wonderful reality of tradition [which, in the case of Afro-Cuban music, includes the untold riches of Arab-influenced Spanish music as well]. Mr Ortiz who is expertly schooled in the Western and Afro-Cuban traditions, is ever-cognisant of the fact that the inner dynamic of tradition is to always innovate. He acknowledges this in his uniquely beautiful and defiantly provocative music, positioning himself in creative conflict with archetypal models and age-old protocols. In his compositions and his pianism there is no such thing as what “ought” to work.

By actively throwing overboard melodic, structural, and harmonic hooks that have been become expressively blunted from overuse, he builds from what might – or might not – be left. This instinctive radicalism might make Mr Ortiz a source of endless controversy in many corners of the musical world. But Mr Ortiz is not in the business of audience-ingratiating beauty typical of commercial music. His aim is to silence the mind just enough to make room for new pathways of perception.

He creates music in which nothing – no subplot in the narrative; no emotion of the characters or reaction to both those aspects can be omitted, not a single turn of the melody, not even a single modulation. It requires the strictest attention to every detail of expression, a fine – but not over-refined – execution of each intonation. And so, when he plays – and exhorts his performing partners to play – you can be sure that there is a real sense that responses come from deep within the music’s substance.

Aruán Ortiz: Pastor’s Paradox
Aruán Ortiz: Pastor’s Paradox [album cover]

Aruán Ortiz: Pastor’s Paradox The Cambridge Dictionary defines paradox as a noun [countable or uncountable] denoting “a situation or statement that seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics”. It provides the following example: [+ that] “It’s a curious paradox that drinking a lot of water can often make you feel thirsty”. Such an unsatiated thirst may then be seen as a metaphor for the plentiful water of civil rights that first left Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost dying of thirst, so to speak.

Mr Ortiz’s edgy music dedicated to the Pastor in the narratives and word-paintings of Pastor’s Paradox is as edgy but stops short of anger. It is almost continuously strident in tone – intent on creating a feeling of discomfort in the listener’s consciousness. Yet in the force of its melodic and harmonic conception – and even in the rhythmic propulsion – it is never violent. Dr. King, after all, was a non-violent Gandhian in thought, word, and deed for the ‘dream’ that Dr. King dreamed remains unfulfilled despite the legislation that it helped facilitate more than 50 years ago.

But the lament of this music by Mr Ortiz is real in these works, melded together like a symphony of sorrowful songs. It is a cathartic vision of post-Civil Rights March, post-racial equality. The heartache of the theme and content of this music has been deeply interiorised by the performers. The clarinet and bass clarinet played with incomparable mastery by Don Byron might represent the elemental wail of mothers [like the mother of George Floyd for example]. The celli of Lester St. Louis and Yves Dhar might represent the heartache and the collective wail of those left behind to mourn for the dead. The portentous rolling thunder of the drums of Pheeroan akLaff and the ominous hiss of his cymbals seem to say: “time’s up!”

And just in case you didn’t get the message, we have the emotional, expressive recitation of thought-provoking poems by the spirit voiced Mtume Gant whose elemental wail on Autumn of Freedom, The Dream That Wasn’t Meant to be Ours and The Interval Hope stabs at the listener’s heart. Both dream and passion – and the rarefied impulse that the performers convey with penetrating insight is manifest throughout this remarkable disc.

Lester St.Louis, Aruan Ortiz, Pheeram AkLaff, Don Byron at GB Juke Joint Recording Studios Feb 2022 NYC - Photo by Holger Thoss
L to R: Lester St. Louis, Aruan Ortiz, Pheeram AkLaff, Don Byron at GB Juke Joint Recording Studios, February 2022 NYC – Photo by Holger Thoss

Music – 1: Autumn of Freedom; 2: Pastor’s Paradox; 3: Turning the Other Cheek No More; 4: The Dream That Wasn’t Meant to be Ours; 5: From Montgomery to Memphis [to April 4th]; 6: The Interval of Hope; 7: No Justice, No Peace, Legacy!

Musicians – Aruán Ortiz: piano, voice and composition; Don Byron: clarinet, bass clarinet and voice; Pheeroan akLaff: drums and voice; Lester St. Louis: cello [1, 2, 4 – 6]; Yves Dhar: cello [3, 7]; Mtume Gant: spoken word [1, 4, 6].

Released – 2023
Label – Clean Feed/Trem Azul [CF648CD]
Runtime – 39:22

Aruán Ortiz Trio: Serranías
Aruán Ortiz Trio: Serranías [album cover]

Aruán Ortiz Trio: Serranías – Sketchbook for Piano Trio Once again Mr Ortiz shows how he loves to write in musical metaphors. Here he does so in creating music that scales the heights of the proverbial Serranías – mountain ranges which not only is the Kingdom of Heaven – or Valhalla to the Vikings, the world beyond to Astral Travellers and ancient pagans and the After World to many others – but among which reside his [Mr Ortiz’s] many musical ancestors. According to the repertoire on this album, to Ignacio Cervantes.

There are also numberless others encoded in his insolent technical virtuosity. Right out of the gate we are treated to a brilliantly original interpretation of Shaw ‘Nuff, a musical doffing of the hat to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But in keeping with Mr Ortiz’s interminable traversing, back-and-forth through the musical continuum one may encounter Johann Sebastian Bach in the three-way contrapuntal conversations between Mr Ortiz and bassist Brad Jones and drummer John Betsch. And one may never tire of the evocatively reimagined echoes of the batanga of Bebo Valdés, a changüi – played montuno-style – by the ingenious composer and pianist.

The creativity in redefining tradition – both the Afro-Cuban and the Afro-American ones that have been subsumed into Mr Ortiz’s sensibility – is instantly palpable. His playing is gloriously effervescent throughout. His contemporaneous redefinition of music that includes every music and dance idiom from Cuba – from Tumba Francesa and many others that are collected in one fell sweep across the beautiful island of Cuba provide an invaluable and fascinating glimpse into Cuba’s past.

The rhythmic poetry of Mr Ortiz’s pianism is infectious and a perfect catalyst for his partners – in harmony [Mr Jones] and rhythm [Mr Betsch]. The repertoire may sound familiar to Spanish speaking listeners, but sonically the almighty surprises come fast and furious. En Forma de Guajira, even with its loitering rhythm that lead naturally from the rolling bass line melody from the staccato and rumbling left hand find a shimmering reflection in soft, rapid figurations of the right hand.

This is only one instance of radical invention of traditional music and dance by Mr Ortiz. The album is full of this as he climbs the proverbial summit of the Serranías. His creative effervescence is infectious. It inspires both the bassist and the drummer to scale the heights of the mountain even without being born into the Cuban tradition. However, this copasetic empathy gives truth to the fact that music of the African is universal among its diasporic inhabitants, irrespective of where they came from in the so-called New World. There was but one mother that begat the cultural topography and that is Mother Africa.

Arua?n Ortiz, John Betsch, Brad Jones - Photo by Palma Fiacco
Aruán Ortiz, John Betsch, Brad Jones – Photo by Palma Fiacco

Music – 1: Shaw ‘Nuff [into un bombo]; 2: En forma de Guajira; 3: Memorias del monte; 4: Los tres golpe; 5: Canto de tambores y caracoles [solo]; 6: Huellas… [interlude]; 7: Serranías; 8: Black Like a Thunder Stone [one]; 9: Like a Changüi [montuno]; 10: …and Shadows [interlude II]; 11: Lullaby for the End Times.

Musicians – Aruán Ortiz: piano; Brad Jones: contrabass; John Betsch: drums.

Released – 2023
Label – Intakt [CD392/2023]
Runtime – 59:16

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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