Pianist Aruan Ortiz Moves Afro-Cuban Grooves Deep into the Jazz World

"Music was in the air in Santiago. It had a huge influence on me," admitsCuban-born pianist, composer, and bandleader Aruán Ortiz. "It's there on every corner. Trova, folk dances. Every day when I'd walk to the conservatory I could hear it. People would play and rehearse with their doors and windows open."

9/12 & 9/13; Brooklyn, NY: Channeling Santiago, Carrying the Funk: Cuban Pianist Aruán Ortiz Moves Afro-Cuban Grooves Deep into the Jazz World

Ortiz is quite simply one of the best jazz pianists on the scene today, named a "Cuban wunderkind" by BET Jazz. He works equally intelligently leading a band, as a sideman, or composing for others. But whatever he's doing, it always has its root is the area Santiago de Cuba where he grew up, in his neighborhood's shouts and the sounds, the smells, the familiar faces of people

"Every note I play or ever will play is based on my town, my neighborhood "Los Hoyos," Ortiz says firmly. "It's the culture I absorbed."

Musically, that culture is proud and deep. The city, the second largest in Cuba, is home to the venerable Casa de la Trova, where so many Cuban musicians (like Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista Social Club fame) have made their mark over the years. But it's not just one house or club; all of Santiago is full of music.

The diversity and intensity of those sounds Ortiz heard as he was developing his own ear and feel for jazz mark the music he makes, which has received a steady stream of critical praise and recognition. Now, thanks to a recent deal with forward-thinking European jazz label ACT and on tour in Europe and North America this summer and autumn, the piano whiz kid is poised to woo fans worldwide.

Although Ortiz's main instrument until he was 19 was viola - he even followed his Conservatory teacher to Spain to continue his studies - the piano quickly became his great love. "I feel more connected to it," Ortiz explains simply.

After moving to Boston in 2002 to study and teach at Berklee College of Music, he found himself playing with local jazz greats, before commuting regularly to New York as a member of Wallace Roney's band. After six years he decided to cut down on the travel and live in Brooklyn.

By then, he'd also already established himself as a bandleader, performing and recording with his own trio and quartet. It gave him the freedom to build on his musical influences and experiences, putting together Afro-Cuban and classical music, with the jazz of seminal figures like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell in an exploratory, creative stew that crackled with creativity. The first quartet album, Alameda steeped in funk and soul, received four stars in Jazzwise magazine (U.K.), and was reviewed as "a sophisticated outing of modern jazz" and the follow-up, Orbiting, cranked the groove even higher and was named one of the Ten Best Jazz CDs of the year 2012 by the online magazine Something Else.

"When I was with Wallace, I had to play several keyboards at the same time," Ortiz recalls, "so I had to carry the funk. I immersed myself in '60s and '70s soul - James Brown, Sly Stone, people like that. I brought in David Gilmore on guitar because a sax wouldn't work for the riffs I wanted. Then we began chasing those grooves deep into the jazz world. We recorded both albums in just a day each."

With another studio album planned for 2015, the quartet will be taking to the road this autumn, with Rez Abbasi replacing Gilmore on the six strings, and the powerhouse angular grooves more elastic than ever. It's a band that captures all the emotion of soul through the language of modern jazz. It takes music into new, sometimes strange waters. But that's the place where Ortiz feels most comfortable. He relishes anything that makes him change his thinking, which is one reason he also enjoys working as a sideman.

"It's beautiful," he enthuses. "They're bringing tunes and I bring my approach to their music. They know what they want and I'm learning. It can change my entire creativity."

Along the way it's led him to work with a host of people, including the singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding, the Award winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Don Byron and the Afro horns, an outfit that mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms and chants with the avant-garde, led by Sun Ra alumnus Francisco Mora Catlett.

It's all fuel to fire the music Ortiz writes, and the inspiration comes in different ways. "It's shapes, textures, colors, motions," he says. "I try to go note by note, shape by shape, texture by texture."

That sense of shape was the inspiration for the Music & Architecture monthly Series Ortiz led in New York last year, working with renowned jazz improvisers like Oliver Lake, Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille. "It's still composition," Ortiz notes, "but it's in real time, and I've learned a lot from the way other people approach it."

Those compositional skills, in real time or not, have served Ortiz well or a huge range of commissioned pieces, covering everything from dance pieces to writing for a symphony orchestra. Most recently, he composed the score for the upcoming film Sin Alas. "That was a different mindset," says Ortiz. "But it was a beautiful process. Writing for dancers I knew about contrast and using music to create the story behind the story you see. You have to get inside the characters and create melodies or fragments; each character is a challenge."

Challenge, though, for Ortiz, is absorbing music in all its forms-then digging in and playing it.

"You're in the moment, you take chances, you try to make things a little different." It's a philosophy he applies to his own groups, especially the Quartet. "I try the change the tunes, to find something in them I haven't been playing before so it's different to the album. I don't like just one sound, I'm following my own esthetic. And live, it's so important to connect with the audience, to thrill them."

Powering that connection, feeding that thrill, is that neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba where he grew up, at the root of it all. "It imprinted itself on my life," Ortiz admits. "I've internalized it and conceptualized it, and it's there in everything I do."

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