Don Byron / Aruán Ortiz - Random Dances And (A)tonalities

Label: Intakt Records, 2018

Personnel - Don Byron: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Aruán Ortiz: piano.


Random Dances and (A)tonalities, the synergetic duo effort from American clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron and Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz, seduces us with an inviting and diversified repertoire that, besides a few originals, includes very personal renditions of tunes by Duke Ellington, Federico Mompou, Geri Allen, and J.S. Bach.

The album starts off with the magnetic incantation of “Tete’s Blues”, an Ortiz piece baptized in honor to Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu. Patterns with different coloration are part of a taut pianism that is slightly blurred by atonal strokes. The mystique comes from Ortiz’s left-hand with which he creates awe bass movements, while the disquieted dreamy tones are drawn from a series of tone clusters played in the middle register. Byron’s clarinet phrases are set against this background, expressing a luscious spontaneity.

Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” peeks into a different era, striding throughout with a bluesy feel and ending in Chopin’s mode with a citation of his funeral march. Byron plays tenor on this one, opting for a more diatonic approach in comparison with his duo mate. He also plays this instrument on his playful “Joe Btfsplk”, an invitation to free exploration where he establishes a magnificent, nonstop communication with Ortiz, and on the following “Numbers”, an obscure essay influenced by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’s musical concepts.

Their love of classical music bifurcates into the baroque and the contemporary. The former current is represented through a sublime solo clarinet interpretation of J.S. Bach’s “Violin Partita No.1 in B Minor”, and the latter with the formal rigor of a somewhat balletic variant of Federico Mompou’s “Musica Callada”, in which a methodical bass pedal underpins Byron’s unhurried phrases.

All those complex intervallic leaps in the melody of Geri Allen’s “Dolphy’s Dance” are enunciated in unison. Freewheeling improvised lines with motivic flair are also part of this tribute to the late pianist.

Byron’s “Delphian Nuptials” has much to do with pure lyricism and elegant simplicity. The piece was composed for a documentary about African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry and both the motif-based melody and the chord progression are illuminating.

Before “Impressions on a Golden Dream”, an unrecognizable, amorphous take on Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty” that closes out the album, we have Ortiz’s “Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose (Spring)” from his Hidden Voices album, which the duo excavates in search of avant-garde treasures.

Nurturing an uncanny affinity for eccentric texture and dissonance, Ortiz found an excellent accomplice in Byron, whose unpredictable trajectories contribute for a musicality that radiates freedom.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Tete’s Blues ► 06 - Dolphy’s Dance ► 08 - Delphian Nuptials

Aruan Ortiz Trio - Live in Zurich

Label: Intakt Records, 2018

Personnel – Aruan Ortiz: piano; Brad Jones: bass; Chad Taylor: drums.


On November 26th, 2016, Cuban-born pianist Aruan Ortiz showed up at unerhort!-festival in Zurich, Switzerland, for a versatile trio performance that included a mash-up of two originals, a curious interpretation of Bach's classical piece, Ornette Coleman’s music, and a jazz standard. That work is now available through Live in Zurich, a record put out by the Zurich-based label Intakt Records, which had previously released Hidden Voices (2016), with Eric Revis and Gerald Cleaver on bass and drums, respectively, and Cubanism (2017), in which he digs his Cuban roots through solo piano.

For this concert, the pianist swapped in bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor, initiating his trance-like pulsations with a 37-minute medley that comprises “Analytical Symmetry” and “Fractal Sketches”, two coiling originals from Hidden Voices. Having toured for two weeks in Europe, the members of this trio enjoy a special hookup, wielding communication and alertness as key ingredients for their adventurous journey. This first part comes unhurriedly into being, mixing the Afro sounds of Taylor’s mbira and the muted percussive pianism of Ortiz. Whimsical bass plucks are added later, and the bassist opts for the bow before spectacular movements imbued with Cuban tradition, contemporary jazz, and modern classical take place. The passages are sometimes thoughtful and temperate, becoming tension-filled with unmistakable traces of Muhal Richard Abrams (Ortiz dedicated the record to the late free jazz pianist) from the middle point on, bursting up with creative freedom, melodic entanglement, and dazzling rhythms.

Delivering a few more thrills, the three-movement Part 2 lasts less than 18 minutes and includes a three-minute bass improvisation that is simultaneously knotty and spontaneous; an urban reimagining of Chopin’s “Etude #6 Op 10”, here subjected to a modern groovy treatment; and a collage of two compositions by Ornette Coleman: “Open or Close/The Sphinx”, an exercise in rhythmic endurance and density with a remarkable two-hand pianistic control.

The album comes to a close with “Alone Together”, tackled with an impassive caravan-like pace and tweaking harmony, and blossoming as a balladic contemplation while eschewing any swinging surge.
At the piano, and in excellent company, Ortiz skillfully blends poetic gravitas with a fearless, intense sense of rhythm.

       Grade  B+

       Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Part 1 ► 02 – Part 2

Aruan Ortiz - Cubanism

Label/Year: Intakt Records, 2017

Lineup – Aruan Ortiz: piano and composition.

Joining a powerful musical concept to a far-reaching technique, Cuban-born, New York-based pianist/composer Aruan Ortiz releases the second solo album of his career, 20 years after Impresión Tropical, his 1996 debut CD recorded in Madrid, Spain. The evolution is abysmal, and his contribution to the current elasticity of jazz is phenomenal. Lately, he has been a ubiquitous presence in the creative New York scene, appearing at the side of folks such as Michael Attias and Nasheet Waits, whose albums are part of my personal selection for this year’s best new releases, and gigging with other artists with a similar craving for exploration.

The ones who had the chance to listen to his previous work, Hidden Voices, recorded in trio with Eric Revis on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, already know about Otiz’s amazing skills, both as an improviser and composer. However, his new outing, Cub(an)ism, offers a completely different vision, deliberately merging Afro-Cuban roots and rhythms with progressive jazz idioms where artistic abstraction and timbre acuity are prevalent.
The opening piece, “Louverture Op. 1”, reveals Ortiz’s independence of hands, each of them obeying to distinct lines of thought that envision to tell a story. At first, he holds to a reverberant, deep-voiced pedal with his left hand while flipping a ritualistic confluence of exciting rhythms and melodies with the right. The song, influenced by Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, a representative voice of Cubism and revivalist of the Afro-Cuban spirit and culture, proceeds in a cyclic procession of rapid phrases and intriguing pulses.

Fairly dreamy, “Yambú” is a beautiful dismantlement of a Cuban rumba assembled into an evergreen musical inspiration whose low voicings and high-pitch trills are sensationally tone-controlled.

The longest piece on the record, at nearly 11 minutes, is “Cuban Cubism”, which echoes with suspenseful atmospheres, assimilating some darkness amidst its geometric shapes and interlocking planes. Silences provide the space to breathe and the dance is made through minimal pointillism, sporadic abrupt sweeps, and irregular multi-pitched grooves with strong percussive character. Similar guidelines are followed in “Monochrome (Yubá)”, in which Ortiz emulates the sound of a djambé or conga by smothering the keys with his left hand while designing simple upper melodies. Yubá is a toque of Tumba Francesa whose origins are Afro-Haitian.

The pianist throws in considerable amounts of tension on “Dominant Force”, a disjointed dance full of tone clusters that magnetize and liberate, and also on “Sacred Chronology”, a rhythmically daring composition containing sinuous lines, dissonant intervals, and tumultuous left-hand strikes.

Opposing to these while searching for an inner peace, “Passages” and “Coralaia” glide in quiescent silver waters. Although transpiring affability and composure, the former still searches reservedly, while the latter touches musicality with an auroral beauty.

Aruan Ortiz has so much music inside of him that we can feel the intensity when he touches the piano. Breeding ground for metaphoric poetry, Cub(an)ism is a  hybrid feast of heritage and novelty.

        Grade  A-

        Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 – Yambú ► 03 – Cuban Cubism ► 10 – Coralaia