In naming his exceptional new album Hidden Voices (available in February 2016 on Intakt) Aruán Oritz, an avatar of creative and progressive improvisation, is referring first and foremost to the sounds that permeated his consciousness during formative years.
“Within a radius of two square miles,” the 42-year-old Brooklyn-based pianist-composer recalls of the working-class neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba where he grew up, “anybody could walk on the street and hear groups playing popular music, folkloric dance companies, bembés, comparsas such as ‘Los Hoyos’ rehearsing their procession, random amateur guitar players and singers jamming and singing old trova songs, choirs performing liturgical songs, rumba percussion groups, Cuban-Haitian folkloric groups playing Tumba Francesa, and so on.
“At the same time I was exposed to European classical music from a very early age at the Conservatory of Music. Being exposed to this compilation of styles every day nurtured my ears, and forged a very personal and eclectic understanding of the music.”
Now an avatar in the world of progressive improvisation, Ortiz, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver operate synchronously and creatively throughout Hidden Voices, which comprises seven Ortiz originals, Ornette Coleman’s “The Sphinx” and “Open and Close,” Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” and, to conclude, a traditional song called “Uno, Dos y Tres, Que Paso Más Chevere” that, Ortiz remarks, “everybody in Cuba knows from festivities and carnivals and so on.” In distinction to the bright tempo heard on three separate versions of the song available on YouTube, Ortiz sustains each of the “very recognizable first notes” with calibrated touch and judicious pedaling, transforming it into a stark, legato miniature in the manner of Federico Mompou.
“When you listen to the whole album, the last thing you imagine is that you will find a version of this song at the end,” Ortiz says of a recital full of surprises. “I did it on purpose—the normal reaction would be, ‘No, he won’t play it,’ before you realize what it is. It could be the album’s epilogue, or the prologue if you listen to it again. Everything to me works in a circular motion.”
The concept of circular motion is an interesting way to trace Ortiz’ patient, winding path to the lucid abstractions of Hidden Voices from his long-out-of-print solo debut, Impresión Tropical, recorded in Madrid in 1996, just after he relocated there from Cuba. On that ten-tune recital, Ortiz addressed a mix of originals and pieces from various corners of the Cuban songbook, carving out percolating grooves that might propel celebrants on any Havana dance floor, then transforming the melodic throughline with sudden left turns into the harmonic world of the 20th century Euro-canon. Seven years later, on Aruán Ortiz Trio, Volume 1, a year after Ortiz moved from Spain to Boston to study at Berklee School of Music, he convened bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francesco Mela to navigate nine originals and Coleman’s “The Invisible,” demonstrating a fluent, personal conception of modern jazz piano dialects drawn from master practitioners like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, and Andrew Hill.
Between 2003 and 2015, Ortiz led or co-led the excellent hardcore jazz combo albums Alameda, Orbiting and Banned In London, and spent several years playing piano and keyboards with Wallace Roney, with whom he recorded twice. He composed and conducted Santiarican Blues Suite—a five-part score that references a wide timeline of Cuban, Afro-Haitian and contemporary classical vocabulary—with a camerata of string quartet, two basses, two pianos, flute and percussion.
He produced, arranged and played on two albums with flutist Mark Weinstein—on El Cumbanchero he contributed three originals and seven modern arrangements of first-half-of-the-20th century Cuban songs popularized by Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas, the seminal charanga band that, among other things, would popularize the mambo; on Latin Jazz Underground, he, Cleaver and master percussionist Román Diaz interpreted repertoire by Sam Rivers, Coleman and Hill with well-wrought Afro-Cuban rhythms and a free jazz spirit. Ortiz has also co-produced and performed on three albums since 2010 with the Afro-HORN project of drummer Francisco Mora Catlett, and more recently, has collaborated on several projects with the eminent trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith.
On Hidden Voices, Ortiz consolidates the fruits of intense research and development. Afro-Cuban and hardcore jazz roots are implied, not explicitly stated. “I have been writing tunes flirting with atonal and serial music for quite a while, finding harmonic movements that might not be familiar to some ears, and adding some Cuban Cubism to the palette,” he says.
The album gestated in 2013 when Revive Music, the New York-based presenter and online hub, offered Ortiz a six-concert series at Manhattan’s DROM and Zinc Bar. Titled after the Iannis Xenakis tome Music and Architecture, the events included a who’s-who of New York’s hardcore jazz and Afro-Caribbean practitioners, for whom Ortiz generated works focusing “on specific themes related to architectural patterns and using information drawn from non-musical contexts,” often beginning “with simple materials to which I add layers, creating something more complex by juxtaposition.” Funds garnered from a Doris Duke Impact Award in 2014 enabled him to consolidate his ideas for the trio context, and to convene Revis and Cleaver in March for this recording.
“They are top professionals, who have played, toured and recorded at a high level for many years,” Ortiz says of his partners. “For me, every note and beat they generate sounds like a composition, which made it easy to do this record. I didn't say much musically on the session, and we never did more than one or two takes. You don’t have to demonstrate anything to them.”
Ortiz’ intuitive interaction with his partners reflects the notion of hidden voices. But he reiterates that, however long a distance he has traversed during the past two decades, the title most meaningfully singles out his “friends and mentors and teachers who have nurtured my hunger for knowledge, and the forces in Santiago de Cuba that catalyzed my development and are now my source of inspiration.”
He adds: “But they are also the voices that appear when we listen to ourselves. For example, I admire the prominent figures who established Cubism, like Picasso, Braque and Lam, for their ability to deconstruct reality, inviting you to look closer inside the piece to start to understand what's in it. Their main theme is usually fragmented and hidden inside the painting. It takes time and patience to see that hidden theme. I feel that the more you listen to this album, the more familiar you get with the songs and melodies, the more they will start to resonate and unfold.”