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Otmaro Ruiz - Sojourn (2008)

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By Pico

These days, there's very little in the way of positive vibes coming out of Venezuela to U.S., so to balance things out, I'm going to offer up one: Otmaro Ruiz.

Ruiz hails from Caracas, but his muse---not to mention his abilities on piano---brought him to the musically rich environs of Los Angeles as a young man. It wasn't long before he was landing quality gigs playing for the likes of John McLaughlin, Tito Puente, Arturo Sandoval, John Patitucci, Frank Gambale, Peter Erskine, Charlie Haden, Robben Ford, Jon Anderson and the great Gino Vannelli. Noted jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves thought enough of his talents to not only make him her pianist, but her band's musical director as well. As you can tell from the list of leading lights he's performed with, Ruiz can do it all: jazz, rock, Afro-Cuban, fusion, and more.

Ruiz has also shown much ability as a composer and leader, and last year brought the release of Ruiz's fifth album Sojourn. This is one Ruiz self-released about a year ago, and it's been on my rotation for a while. But I can't let this CD slip out of the playlist before making a few remarks about it, because still sounds fresh and listenable long past the point when most albums start to sound stale and boring.

Sojourn is one of those records that's not quite jazz, not quite fusion. It's too fluid and euphonic to pass for straight, improvisational jazz but too intelligent and complex to pass for smooth jazz. It's like having your cake and none of the calories. What's more, each song (all written, arranged and produced by Ruiz) is a new, distinct journey. His band's setup also straddles the line between modern, electric jazz and a traditional, acoustic one: Ruiz's piano is lightly supplemented by a Fender Rhodes and “additional keyboards" (read, synthesizers) that are tastefully employed well in the background, when they are called for at all. Meanwhile, Ben Wendel is put in charge of woodwinds, Carlos Del Puerto, Jr. the stand up bass and Jimmy Branly, drums and percussion.

All throughout these twelve songs, Ortiz deftly blends ear pleasing harmonies with sophisticated sonic structures. “And Then She Smiles (Maya's Song)," named for his two-year-old daughter, has the wonderment and playful disposition of a child her age that disguises a tight, well-built melodic line. “Claveao'" is what Ruiz calls Afro-Cuban, and it is, but then again he throws in chord progressions and tempo changes that aren't native to the form. He gives the same unique treatment to the nominally calypso tune “Tobago Road." And yet, his hybrid treatment serves to bolster these tunes.

“In The Shadows (Sides Of Truth)" has a wandering, winsome melody like the kind the late Don Grolnick used to write. “Nube Negra" is a “sort-of" samba with a darker, sultry melody that's captivating. “Living Pictures," on the other hand, is jaunty and festive (and includes a hearty bass solo from Puerto). For “Easy To Say," Ruiz mans the Rhodes for this light, Latin-flavored tune, a song that's reminiscent of the first, Brazilian incarnation of Return To Forever. “Road Stories" has a strongly melodic bass/piano line that Chick Corea has long been fond of doing for his songs.

So much of jazz is hard to sink into for lots of people, but many get to appreciate its many turns, subtleties and surprises whenever an artist is clever enough to present these qualities while making the music pleasurable to listen to. Sojourn is one of those records. An after-the-fact addition to my 2009 Best-Of List for Mainstream and Modern Jazz. Or does it belong in the Fusion Jazz list? Either way, it's one of the better of either to have come out last year.


Purchase: Otmaro Ruiz - Sojourn

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