Dense yet rewarding, Ortiz champions the abstract while still honoring his musical roots on his first solo piano record in 20 years.
Solo albums can be complicated affairs. Separated from the comfort (or restraint) of other musicians the individual has complete freedom to compose, arrange, and improvise unbound from any sense of ensemble. Results, which can range from well-crafted statements to self-indulgent nonsense, depend on balancing chaos with restraint. Solo outings from jazz musicians, in particular, can widely vary considering their operative world of extended harmonic language, rhythmic nuance, and opened ended improvisations.
On Cub(an)ism, his first solo recording in 20 years, the Cuban-born Aruán Ortiz finds inspiration in Cuban-Haitian rhythms, jazz improvisation, and modernist compositional leanings. In his own words, the record reflects his idea that “everything connects", a maxim that extends not just throughout music but virtually every artistic medium -- including film, paintings, and literature. Specifically, Ortiz takes cues from the abstract language of Cubism in visual art with its segmentations, reorganizations, and reinterpretations of form and movement. Undeniably complex yet purposeful and thoughtful, Cub(an)ism rewards listeners who can navigate its blend of Latin and avant-garde influences.
“Louverture Op. 1 (Château de Joux)” opens the album with a driving 3-3-2 rhythm (popular in many Latin and South American musical cultures) and playful melodic gestures before suddenly shifting into something much more angular and chaotic. There is an odd beauty to the madness here reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow and rhythmically dense and nearly physically unplayable compositions for player piano. Ortiz’s affinity for experimental music permeates the album, notably with “Density (Golden Circle)” considering its melodic lines harmonized with murky chords and chromatic twists. Both works epitomize the dissonant trajectory championed throughout Cub(an)ism.
“Cuban Cubism", the longest track at over 10 minutes, is based on painter Wilfredo Lam’s The Jungle, a landmark work that blends Cubism with influences from Afro-Cuban culture. While the folkloric meets contemporary sensibility of The Jungle is certainly well-represented throughout Cub(an)ism as a whole, “Cuban Cubism” undeniably leans more towards the modernist end of the spectrum. Extended techniques, such as muting and plucking piano strings, permeate the work’s texture. The track does not easily reveal itself, yet attentive listeners can pick up on elements that rearrange and overlap one another, solid examples of Cubism’s presence in Ortiz’s music. Listening to this work on headphones or through speakers makes each textural turn a surprise; one can’t help but imagine the impact of seeing Ortiz performing this in concert.
With its lumbering accompaniment and skittering lines “Yambú” is the closest connection to jazz on the record. That said, considering what we’ve heard thus far, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s more on par with a modernist Ethan Iverson excursion than a classic Count Basie standard. Music theory nerds will enthrall at the chance to listen to “Sacred Chronology,” a work based on the Fibonacci sequence while reading the score to work out its structural puzzles. Curiously, however, Cub(an)ism concludes with the accessible “Coralaia.” Sauntering like the romantic hymn Frederic Chopin never wrote, it's a tonal reprieve from the avant-garde onslaught of the preceding nine tracks.
Ortiz deserves praise for the complexity and scope of the compositions on this recording. Twenty years after his debut solo outing, Cub(an)ism solidly like a portfolio of compositional experiments fleshed out and realized. That said, for all its maturity, most of the album feels academic, a dense recording that will undoubtedly be a challenging listening experience for many. The album is a bold and unflinching statement, one that may reward only the most adventurous of listeners.