When you hear the sounds emanating from the keyboard of Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz, you wonder where he found such inspiration for the unexpected sounds he creates and where he is going with each new quaking chord or upturned phrase. You hear Ortiz swipe at the inner strings of his piano with a lacy motion; you hear him rustle the pages of his music as part of the composition and then you hear him off to the races on a volatile version of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” – a no-holds barred performance with gnarly chord twists and scattering bass notes.
At his live performance held in the intimate confines of Scullers Jazz Club (www.scullersjazz.com) in Cambridge, MA. on March 2nd, Ortiz and his sympathetic journeyman (Brad Jones on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums) took off on a roving and challenging journey through Ortiz’s original compositions (and a few from his inspiring predecessors Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk) that appear on Ortiz’s new release, Hidden Voices [Intakt CD].
In concert, this trio worked beautifully together and their collective synergy was particularly notable on several Ortiz originals that were constructed from an opening repetition of piano notes and simple runs that squirreled away furiously into a whirlwind of sounds and colors – unpredictable in their motion and meter. These included Ortiz’s “Fractal Sketches” which opened the concert with its crisp forceful charge of fragmented piano runs and skittering snare drum. “Analytical Symmetry” grew organically from a start of repeated low piano notes, bowed bass and shimmering mallet drum rolls – all sounding like an ancient amphibian slowly rising from primordial seas. Its long sinuous trail of weaving notes and percussion slowly grew into an evolving dance of stop and starts with a defiant refusal to settle in any clear meter. “Open and Close” was another muscular workout ignited by a agile bass solo from Jones as he utilized big slides of his fingers up and down his frets that sounded like blips of radar bouncing off a silent void.
To this opening deep propulsion, Ortiz entered with a barrage of repeating piano notes clustered in tight concussive volleys. All of this evolved and emerged into a light, airy dance built upon Cleaver’s steady foundation with his robust snare and cymbal work.
In each of these fierce and flowing pieces, the band played with one breakneck dialogue: each player having equal roles in a performance where individual virtuosity sparkled amongst the group chemistry.
As in their live performance at Scullers, Ortiz’s recording, Hidden Voices, is a prickly and challenging work where Ortiz and his trio (here including the inventive Eric Revis on bass) forge deeper into their collective collaboration and their love for intrepid and off-kilter sounds.
The title track rifts off of a single wood stick beat (that ricochets from right to left in the quiet sound field) joined later by a lilting Caribbean beat and repeating chord progressions that twitch and frolic. Ortiz’s composition entitled “Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose” comes in two parts and highlights Ortiz’s reach into classical forms. The first section (“Spring”) is a prankish little solo reminding of Maurice Ravel in its soft wisp of piano colors and notes left hanging quizzically. The second section (“Summer”) speaks of a slow classic waltz in knotty creative free-fall propelled upon heavyweight piano punches and deep bass plummets. The recording captures all of these capacious deep sounds with crisp image dimensionality and an up-front perspective on the shifting action. Cleaver’s drums are bold and articulate and Revis’ bass is full and grooving (his plucks on “Joyful Noises” are resonant little sparks). Piano is one of the hardest instruments to capture on recordings with its great range of colors, percussive effects and harmonics. Here Ortiz’s piano is ensnared in all of its arresting harmonies, cross quick accents and coiled energies – ready to pounce and rumble in his creative dialogue.
Another talented young pianist on the current scene who has taken a different tack to creating his own inspired dialogue is pianist Julian Shore (www.julianshore.com). Shore and his ensemble move to more earthbound inspirations (and washes of light instrumental colors) in which a melodic toehold is there to grasp. Shore’s new recording, Which Way Now? [Tone Rogue Records] is a little gem: an intimate and delicate creation with an overall feel of whimsical lightness in its superb ensemble musicianship and in its dancing, delectable phrases. The recording quality is excellent, particularly in capturing the instruments with crisp outlines and conveying the silences and quick spaces betwixt and between the instrumental surges.
The recording starts off with a beautiful tune “Our Story Begins On A Mountain” combining flowing string accompaniment with Shore’s light touches on his piano. This opening contemplation is followed by the title tune all burbling and light. Shore utilizes a more understated and swinging facility on his piano, preferring a spidery lightness to a heavier percussive style. His piano commingles beautifully with Gilad Hekselman’s soft and swirling guitar solo and with Colin Stranahan’s interlaced percussive touches (his radiant cymbal and snare are captured on this recording like fireflies glowing in a backyard).
Burbling percussive grooves also abound on Shore’s version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and on his original composition “Back Home.” Both of these bustle on creative waves of Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms surging on bassist Jorge Roeder’s quiet flourishes (on “Con Alma”), Samuel Torres’ spare wood and chime accents and the deep sinuous breath of Dayna Stephens’ tenor sax surging forth on “Back Home”.
I have highlighted the bold alto saxophonist Godwin Louis in these pages (most recently with his appearance this past summer at Newport Jazz Festival –www.newportjazzfestival.org-accompanying drummer extraordinaire Herlin Riley [their new recording New Direction has just been released on Mack Avenue Records]) and here, Louis fires up Shores’ composition “Moss, Mansion, Sandstorm” with an alto solo that is all twisting and brash in its adventurous high climbs.
Glorious too is the deep soulful sound of saxophonist Noah Preminger (www.noahpreminger.com) who also makes a guest appearance on both tenor and clarinet on this recording.
Preminger adds his slow motion brew and incandescent charisma to Shore’s “Pine Needles,” an intrepid piece that sounds like a cross between a Neil Young ballad, a western swing number and a swaying waltz. This luscious action is all wrapped up in stunning bows from Preminger carousing sax dips, Kurt Ozan’s pedal steel funk and Stranahan and Shore’s rhythmic vitality- all wander and dash. You could inhabit this gorgeous light frolic all day long.
Finally, there is the wondrous world of pianist Aaron Diehl, who concocts such a bounty of keyboard emotions and creativity, (along with his stalwart partners David Wong on bass and Quincy Davis on drums), that I never want to stop eavesdropping on what he says next. I’ve written several times about Diehl, (his own past albums and his artistry in performance and recordings with the intrepid and riveting singer Cecile McLorin Salvant) and now we have a new Diehl recording entitled Space Time Continuum [Mack Avenue Records; www.mackavenue.com; www.aarondiehl.com) in which Diehl and his trio bust out on another inventive journey.
The opening cut, “Uranus” goes for the brisk bop jugular. Diehl exhibits his elasticity in combining sweet seesawing notes with big boogie chord combinations that swing and sway. Wong’s bass is a solid swaggering presence and Davis works up some serious volcanic heat on his drum kit, especially on his locomotive solo at the piece’s conclusion. The ebullience of “Uranus” is also mirrored in “Flux Capacitor” – a short clip of joy from Stephen Riley’s breathy tenor saxophone (watch out for those crackling sharp wood rim hits by Davis!) and also “Broadway Boogie Woogie” in which Diehl sprays piano notes off-axis and precarious, (with brisk bravado), yet always with open-hearted lyricism.
Riley’s fleshy tenor also has a tender breathless presence on Diehl’s “Kat’s Dance,” a little rumba that flows with inventive cool glow on Diehhl’s gorgeously light piano touches and runs. “The Steadfast Titan” is another glowing lyrical treat with the great tenor saxophonist Joe Temperley at the helm. Against the backdrop of Davis’ rising and falling isolated drum rolls, Temperley and Diehl slowly sway and plummet in bluesy camaraderie, lush and rousing, with Temperley hitting some seriously stentorian depths in his rich baritone conversation. The recording captures all of these deep sax register plunges with great tactile and breathy feel.
Diehl also converses in narratives of deep blues on the title piece that concludes the recording. Guest artists Bruce Harris on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor saxophone and vocalist Charenee Wade join in this sprawling independent-minded composition. The piece opens with only silence; the isolated falling of a drum stick on skin and a woosh sound like a breathing beast or the slow exhaust of an ignited locomotive engine. Wade enters with a vocal presence that is riveting: her vocal tone is warm and earthy with an easygoing soulfulness (singing here lyrics by Cecile McLorin Salvant) and a fresh way with her changes of vocal pitch (running baritone deep).
The piece then moves into a swinging undertow with Harris and Golson joining Diehl in bolts of swanky solo fun until Wade appears again (this time in her gravity-free lithe scatting presence) to hurl the piece to its rousing conclusion.
Here is another fascinating new dialogue from Diehl and his talented band mates who deliver everything from blues to rumbas in nimble, effortless and cavorting ways – always collectively searching for the next big adventure in space and time.