Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Musical Autobiography from Aruán Ortiz

Aruán Ortiz, Andrew Cyrille, and Mauricio Herrera (photograph by Holger Thoss, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

Those that have followed my writing for some time, perhaps reaching back to my tenure at, probably know that I have had a long-standing interest in the jazz offerings of the Zürich-based Intakt Records label. I was drawn to this label by the pianist Aki Takase; but, more recently, I wrote about alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s move from ECM over to Intakt. As a result, when I learned that Intakt was releasing an Afro-Cuban-inspired album, my curiosity was easily piqued, particularly when the combo included Andrew Cyrille, a drummer I had known best through his work with Cecil Taylor.

The title of the album is Inside Rhythmic Falls, and it amounts to a unified suite of compositions by Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Aruán Ortiz leading a trio with two percussionists, Cyrille on the usual drum kit and Mauricio Herrera playing Afro-Cuban rhythm instruments. Ortiz was born in 1973 and grew up in Santiago de Cuba, located in the southeastern province of Oriente. He spent the first 23 years of his life in Cuba, amalgamating what he called the “vortex of rhythm” based in Afro-Cuban music with a diversity of more “formal” sources.

Through his conservatory education he became familiar with twentieth-century modernists that had also been inspired by indigenous sources. These included Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and György Ligeti. He also came to know the work of Cuban pianists such as Manuel Saumeil and Ignacio Cervantes, both of whom had studied with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ernesto Lecuona, who had been a protégé of Maurice Ravel.

The influences behind Inside Rhythmic Falls, however, are far more recent. Beyond Cuba Ortiz’ most influential teacher was probably Muhal Richard Abrams, the first President of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who worked with both Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Ortiz was also drawn to influences from Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and, as might be guessed, Taylor.

Ortiz explained the title of this album in terms of wanting to make music that would evoke “a cascade of rhythms going over me, almost dragging me to fall.” That sense of cascade is very much evident across all ten tracks of the album. Over the course of those ten tracks, the attentive listener quickly realizes that any roots in Afro-Cuban tradition are just that, a foundation out of which new styles and performance technique would grow in rich proliferation. To put this in a local context, this is music that one would be more likely to encounter under the auspices of Other Minds or at the Center for New Music, rather than among the cheerleaders in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center.

The recording is packaged with a rich set of liner notes by Adam Shatz. However, the listening experience is probably best enjoyed simply by letting the movements of this suite unfold at their own pace. One quickly grasps how Herrera and Cyrille each contribute to that “cascade of rhythms,” each in his own highly personalized way. Ortiz’ piano work, on the other hand, tends to reflect the role of an observer encountering this rich panoply of rhythmic patterns. It is almost as if the piano’s harmonic progressions serve as the canvas on which that diversity of rhythms emerges as a series of brushstrokes until one encounters the completed painting in which final track is not one of Ortiz’ compositions but is, instead, the popular Cuban love song “Para ti Nengón.”

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