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Wallace Roney's live album that bowed last spring is a good record for several reasons, first and foremost because of the trumpet player's dexterity on the brass horn. In our brief review of If Only For One Night, I didn't have room to say much about the contributions of his band, but it should be noted that Mr. Roney doesn't haul around a bunch of slouches with him when he performs live. For one, his keyboardist is one of the most creative and exciting musicians to come out of Cuba in recent years. In case you didn't catch it before in the Roney piece, his name is Aruán Ortiz.
Although a sensation in Cuban jazz since taking home the prize for Jamaica's Best Cuban Composition at the Symposium of Cuban Music in 1995, Aruán Ortiz didn't arrive on the American jazz scene until 2003. It didn't take long for him to find good work though, as his services were called upon by such luminaries as Greg Osby, Terri Lynne Carrington, Esperanza Spaulding, Stefon Harris, Rashied Ali, Lionel Loueke and of course, Roney. His attractiveness to such a diverse array of jazz bandleaders is a testament to his background and mastery of so many musical styles, such as classical, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and good ol' American bop as well as the music of his homeland. In 2004, he released a trio album via the Spanish Ayva Música label and a couple of years later recorded his next album Alameda, which has finally come out this past June 15 courtesy of Fresh Sound New Talent Records.
Ortiz augments his base trio of Peter Slavov (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums) with one or two saxophones for all but a couple of the eight tracks on Alameda. Abraham Burton makes it a quartet for the remaining six cuts and Wallace's brother Antoine Roney adds a second saxophone for three.
This group of seven originals and one adaptation of a Chopin etude reveal an artist well-versed in the intricacies of advanced jazz. His cagey compositions leverage his intimate knowledge of the way Cuban jazz integrates percussion and melody so well, but without ever explicitly aping Cuban jazz. Like Herbie Hancock, he coalesces classical styling seamlessly into jazz motifs, bolstering the elegiac quality of his music.
Alameda," the song, showcases his abilities as both a composer and performer rather well. Based on a knotty groove, he breaks it up with brief segues that act as short breaks between the more active parts. As meticulously constructed the melody is, he leaves it wide open enough to allow for unfettered improvisation, as both he and Burton negotiate the tricky harmonics of the song. McPherson and Slavov combine for a restless time signature that is hard to draw a bead on, but somehow works in perfect tandem with the melody.
And that tune is just for starters. Gregario's Mood" presents two moods, one excited and the other, somber and ruminative. The Chopin piece Etude No. 6, Op. 10" is underpinned by Caribbean percussive elements that bridges the gap between classical in jazz with elegant piano statements by Ortiz. Bird's Motif" is constructed around a loose, bebop theme that provides a fine vehicle for both Burton and Roney to exchange heated licks. Landscape Of A Dry Watermelon" tests the artificial boundaries of jazz with a staggered, almost hip-hop beat and Ortiz himself weaving swerving lines on a Fender Rhodes. Liz's Flower" is a doleful mood piece where Burton and Ortiz together delivering the long, mysterious chord progressions. Slow Motion" is another stellar example of how Ortiz deftly assimilates complex rhythmic patterns with subtle Latin flourishes and Andrew Hill-like melodic invention. The closer Green City" is highlighted by McPherson's cerebral drum improvisations, the roaming melody and the best exchanges between the two saxophonists of the album.
The richly talented Aruán Ortiz puts a lot of facets of his talents on display for Alameda, making it a divergent, probing and nicely performed set, and one of the best jazz records released so far this year. Aruán Ortiz should be on the watch list for a jazz pianist and composer poised to break into the top tier. Certainly, he has put out a top tier effort with this album.