Cuban-born, Brooklyn-based pianist Aruán Ortiz explores the crossroads of Cuban tradition and Cubist abstraction on his breathtaking new album
Cub(an)ism, Ortiz’ first solo release since his little-known 1996 debut, takes inspiration from Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz experimentation, and modern art
"[On Santiarican Blues Suite], Ortiz's pen shines in a new light, the music lyrical, dramatic, creating suspense." — John Ephland, DownBeat Magazine
"Ortiz belongs in the ballpark of time-bending piano experimenters such as... the late Paul Bley” — John Fordham, The Guardian
Born and raised in Santiago de Cuba, pianist Aruán Ortiz has consistently followed his vision of ever expanding musical horizons. Beginning with an exploration of Cuba’s musical heritage, Ortiz combines elements from a range of genres to form an unmistakable personal style with foundations in the polyrhythms of Afro-Cuban music. On his latest album, Cub(an)ism (out June 16 from Intakt Records), he brings that unique blend of modernism and tradition to the solo piano, offering an undiluted excursion into the crossroads of Cuban rhythms and Cubist abstraction.
Cub(an)ism arrives twenty years after Ortiz’ last solo album, his very different debut release, Impresión Tropical. Recorded in Spain when he was still in his early 20s, Impresión Tropical reveals the blend of influences that would come to mark Ortiz’s mature style in their nascent form, with Cuban rhythms formalized into contemporary classical structures and refracted through a modern jazz lens. His approach to that combination would become exponentially more complex in the coming decades, and Cub(an)ism finds them in full, expansive flower.
Ortiz’s compositions for solo piano release traditional sounds and forms from their original contexts, channel them and feed on them as free information within his genre-boundary-busting musical world, which, like tradition itself, is by definition constantly in movement, never following a firm set of rules. On Cub(an)ism, Afro-Haitian Gagá rhythms (see “Louverture op1. (Château de Joux)”) and the traditional genres of Afro-Cuban Rumba and Yambú form constantly permuting rhythmic frameworks for improvisation-heavy jazz modernism, leaving room for recollections of contemporary classical music, while specific toques of Tumba Francesa such as Yubá, approach the musical world of John Cage (see “Monochrome”). Ortiz’ intellectually playful keyboard art makes its way through an expansive musical cosmos in which the mathematical rigor of architectural structure and emotional freedom are interlocked (see “Sacred Chronology,” a piece based on the Fibonacci sequence).
Especially relevant in this context is the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, whose masterpiece “The Jungle” is the inspiration for the signature track “Cuban Cubism.” Like Lam’s painting, Ortiz’ Cuban cubism is based on an original, multi-layered game of perception, and key cubist devices can be recognized in his painterly music. A major theme is sliced into jigsaw pieces which are hidden within the overall sense, as in “Passages,” in which phantom notes are emphasized that are not actually there. In the collage-like piecing-together of heterogeneous, geometric pieces, Ortiz’ penchant for architectural sound structures and the juxtaposition of rhythms and patterns can be heard. There is also a cubist sense of multiple perspectives and simultaneity in the sense of multiple views of an object, or a musical structure, heard in tracks such as “Passages” and “Intervals,” both based on a similar conceptual idea of melodic or rhythmic permutation from a different perspective each time.
Cub(an)ism is the result of an in-depth conversation with a range of musical idioms and styles, and various experiences from the phases of Ortiz’ life, in Cuba, Spain, France and the USA which have formed his eclectic concept of music. He began his musical career with the violin, switching to the viola at 10. His devotion for this instrument allowed him to win countless prizes and play several viola concertos with an orchestra when he was a teenager. The choice of piano only came at age nineteen, in 1992. Although Ortiz had been familiar with the instrument for years, in the early 1980s piano lessons were an obligatory part of a musical education in Cuba. When he finished his studies in classical music, he left the island for Barcelona where he transitioned from being an autodidactic jazz aficionado to the pursuit of a formal jazz degree.
His teachers included Horacio Fumero, who educated him on the historical evolution of jazz piano playing. Following the period in Spain when he recorded Impresión Tropical, he moved to Boston in 2002 to study at Berklee College of Music with teachers including Joanne Brackeen and Danilo Pérez. There he encountered the free jazz movement, which was to have a lasting influence. In 2008 Ortiz relocated to Brooklyn, the epicenter of innovative musical personalities, where he is based today.
In recent years, Ortiz has written music for jazz ensembles, orchestras, dance companies, chamber groups, and feature films. In 2012, he composed and conducted “Santiarican Blues Suite,” a five-part score that references a wide timeline of Cuban, Afro-Haitian, and contemporary classical vocabulary that received 4.5 stars from DownBeat Magazine. His most recent release, the acclaimed Hidden Voices, features an adventurous trio with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver, conjuring boundary-stretching music where Ortiz’ Afro-Cuban and jazz roots are implied, but not explicitly stated. Over the years he has received numerous accolades, including the Doris Duke Impact Award in 2014. He has also recorded collaboratively with bassist Michael Janisch and pianist/electtonic musician Bob Gluck, and played, toured, or recorded with Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Wadada Leo Smith, Don Byron, Greg Osby, Wallace Roney, Nicole Mitchell, Steve Turre, Cameron Brown, and Nasheet Waits, to name a few.