Aruán Ortiz taps art, architecture for jazz expression

(Jimmy Katz)

Aruán Ortiz plays against type. The 42-year-old pianist and composer, who comes to Scullers with a trio on March 2, hails from Santiago de Cuba — on the island nation’s southeast corner. Like generations of virtuoso Cuban musicians, he’s well schooled in classical and folkloric traditions, with bravura technique. From his early background, you might expect a repertoire dominated by grooves, traditional dance rhythms, and virtuoso display. But Ortiz’s exciting new trio disc, “Hidden Voices,” owes as much to American jazz’s experimental avant-garde — and broader experiences of multiple art forms — as to the musical traditions of his homeland.

“I’m Cuban, and my Cuban-ness is there,” Ortiz says of “Hidden Voices.” He’s speaking to me from Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and children. It’s been 20 years since he left Cuba, and, as he points out, he’s been “playing with all kinds of people, learning all kinds of stuff. The way I express my Cubanism is in integrating all those influences.”


The breadth of Ortiz’s work in those 20 years has included playing with colleagues as varied as post-bop master Wallace Roney, influential alto saxophonist and composer Greg Osby, and avant-garde sage Wadada Leo Smith, as well as writing for film and dance (including Cambridge’s José Mateo Ballet Theatre), and genre-spanning works like “Santiarican Blues Suite,” a classically influenced treatment of the Cuban tradition.

The distinguished trombonist and Berklee College of Music professor Hal Crook recalls his first reaction on hearing Ortiz when the pianist came to study at the school in 2002: “I want to spend as much time on the bandstand with him as I can.” The two often played together as part of Crook’s weekly residency at AS220 in Providence. He describes Ortiz’s ability as a musical storyteller: “a real artist, not just a technician.”


The “Cuban-ness” of each of Ortiz’s projects has depended on the context. The new album shows Ortiz, with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Eric Revis (Brad Jones will be on bass at Scullers), exploring his multifarious background with varying levels of abstraction. “Caribbean Vortex/Hidden Voices” begins with a stark Afro-Cuban clave rhythm that soon moves around and becomes absorbed into a larger web of defined and free rhythms; “Open & Close/The Sphinx” is a kind of diptych of those two bebop-phrased Ornette Coleman tunes; the theme of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” doesn’t fully emerge until the closing moments of that track; Ortiz’s “Fractal Sketches” experiments with the “fractal” unit of a single triad that morphs into longer statements. No matter how far afield the trio explores, it maintains a tensile three-way rhythmic conversation that never goes slack.

One of the most revealing pieces on the disc is the short closer, “Uno, dos y tres, que paso más chévere,” a traditional Cuban song.

“It’s very popular in carnivals and festivals,” Ortiz says, “a very old song. A friend of mine knows the Chilean version. I know it from my childhood.”

With its plaintive, tinkly treble introduction of the melody, rumbling bass-register chords, and haunting dissonances, Ortiz’s solo-piano version of “Uno, dos y tres” sounds less like a street-festival dance than one of Ran Blake’s brooding, cinematic meditations on a standard.

“Some [Cuban] people will say, ‘Is that really that song?’ ” says Ortiz. He found “Uno, dos y tres” an apt album closer because of the way he was able to personalize it, making it representative of the album as a whole as a kind of self-portrait.


Similarly, he describes his “17 moments of Liam's Moments (or 18),” with its alternating 17- and 18-beat phrase lengths, as a “Cuban-style son,” but not for dancing. “It’s a kind of Cubist way of conceiving son-Cubano . . . if Picasso would do it.”

As his descriptions and titles suggest, Ortiz’s influences extend to disciplines other than music. “Fractal Sketches” is in part about fractal design, and was first performed as part of a six-part New York concert series that Ortiz called “Music and Architecture,” from a title by the composer and architect Iannis Xenakis.

Ortiz says he was encouraged to draw on a broader world of artistic inspiration by the composer Muhal Richard Abrams, patriarch of Chicago’s experimental jazz and improvised-music scene, whom he met in New York. Abrams, says Ortiz, gave him “different ways to push forward.”

Ortiz says that the cover art of “Hidden Voices” is emblematic, an abstract painting by Julio Girona, his wife’s grandfather. “He lived in New Jersey for many years,” says Ortiz. “He was Cuban, but developed his voice in a way that was influenced by so many periods of art. The way that you see the painting doesn’t really reflect that it was a Cuban doing that. But at the same time, if you look closer, you find the Cubanism of his work as well.”

Aruán Ortiz Trio


At Scullers Jazz Club, March 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25. 617-562-4111,

Jon Garelick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick