relase date: March 20, 2020 via Intakt.
Upcoming release from renowned Swiss Intakt label from Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz accompanied by Andrew Cyrille and Mauricio Herrera is bringing us together to the rhythmic perfection and sunny side of the spiritual and melodic aspect of the Sol, the music that will light your heart up before you even think of moving hand towards the toggle. Its infectious, mesmerizing and joyful – listen to it and keep your enjoyment flowing.
Liner Notes by Adam Shatz
Aruán Ortiz has long dreamt of making an album that would evoke “a cascade of rhythms going over me, almost dragging me to fall.” This feeling of being overtaken by rhythm is one he knows well, having spent his first 23 years in Cuba. Born in 1973, Ortiz grew up in a working-class family in the city of Santiago de Cuba in the island’s southeastern province, Oriente – the cradle of Afro-Cuban music and a veritable “vortex of rhythm,” as he recalls. To walk to school each morning was to hear “a global symphony”: the blare of radios, the sounds of musicians practicing and people talking and laughing at loud volumes in their apartments, whose windows were always open to the street.
Ortiz captures the symphony of everyday life in Oriente on his arresting new album, Inside Rhythmic Falls. It draws richly upon the changüí, a style of guitar-and-drum music created by slaves in the sugar cane refineries of the early 19th century, fusing the Spanish canción with Bantu percussion; and the tumba francesa, a genre introduced by slaves from Haiti. But rather than copy these styles in some literal sense, Ortiz deconstructs, reconfigures, and distills them: inconspicuous and yet ever present, they supply the music with its deeper frequencies, its spectral force. The luminous surface of Ortiz’s playing conceals a teeming density of references and allusions, or, in his words, “hidden voices.”
Afro-Cuban music was always marked by such voices – hidden, as Ortiz points out, for reasons of existential necessity: slaves were forced to “express their identity through, and underneath, the master’s cultural aesthetic.” The enigmatic air of Ortiz’s art, the way it suggests the repressed, the clandestine and the fugitive, owes something to his Afro-Cuban heritage. But it also reflects his passion for artistic modernism, his commitment to “abstracting” (a favorite word of his) the vernacular and transforming it into a new expressive language. In this he is an heir not only of European composers like Bartok, Stravinsky and Ligeti, whom he studied at a conservatory in Tarragona, but of Cuban composer-pianists of the 19th and 20th century, such as Manuel Saumell and Ignacio Cervantes, both students of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ernesto Lecuona, a protégé of Ravel. And he is very much in the line of composer-pianists such as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and his teacher and AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams, pioneers of the African-American jazz avant-garde.
But why limit ourselves to musical references? Ortiz certainly doesn’t, and his understanding of his work has also been profoundly shaped by study of Nicolás Guillén, an Afro-Cuban practitioner of poesía negra; the novelist Alejo Carpentier, one of the leading figures of the Latin American boom and the author of a major monograph on Cuban music; and, above all, the outstanding painter Wilfredo Lam, an artist of black and Chinese origins who created a uniquely Cuban version of Cubism. Indeed, Ortiz’s superb 2017 solo album Cuban Cubism – the most immediate precursor, he points out, to the sound-world of Inside Rhythmic Falls – can be heard as a tribute to Lam’s influence.
In his classic 1953 novel The Lost Steps, Carpentier writes of a Latin American composer plagued by a creative impasse in New York who travels to a remote village in a South American jungle. There, “far from concert halls, manifestoes, the unspeakable boredom of art polemics,” he experiences the “marvelous real,” the magical nature of Latin American reality, and finds himself “inventing music with an ease that astounded…To the relentless sound of the rain, I wrote with feverish impatience, as though driven by an inner demon.” Ortiz wrote the music on Inside Rhythmic Falls in New York, but he did extensive research on Cuban Haitian rhythms and Afro-Cuban religion, and made a number of trips back home, traveling to villages in the woods and attending performances by local dancers, percussionists and singers. This album is very much, to borrow Aimé Césaire’s phrase, “the notebook of a return to the native land.”
“I think of myself as a storyteller,” Ortiz says, “and each of the album’s ten tracks tells a story about Oriente province.” The first, “Lucero Mundo,” is a poem addressed to a Elegguá, a god in Santeria, hailing the arrival of the Bantus from the Kingdom of Congo. Marléne Ramírez-Cancio recites the poem with fierce authority. She is then echoed, at canonic intervals, by Ortiz, in a softer, mellifluous voice, and the spoken word/singer artist Emeline Michel, who repeat her incantation with rhythmic accompaniment from the drummer Andrew Cyrille and the percussionist Mauricio Herrera. “It’s an offering to my ancestors, using the words as rhythm to create this sense of something circular, a vortex.” The austerity of “Lucero Mundo,” hypnotic in its circulatory, calls to mind Carpentier’s hero in The Lost Steps, who is “striving for a musical expression that should come from the unadorned word, from the word prior to the music.”
Words matter to Ortiz, whose titles are indicative of his desire to honor his native province. The slow, meditative piece “Cantos y ñáñigos,” for example, refers to members of a men’s fraternity known as the Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban secret society; another track elegizes “Argeliers’ disciple,” a somewhat cryptic allusion to the anthropologist Argeliers Léon’s protégé Danilo Orozco, a specialist on the music of Oriente, whose lectures Ortiz attended.
It doesn’t hurt to know the background of these titles, but it’s not a requirement: the music speaks for itself, plunging us deep inside the rhythmic interplay of Ortiz, Cyrille and Herrera. Cyrille, who at 80 years of age is enjoying a late-career renaissance, spent a decade as the drummer in Cecil Taylor’s great “unit,” and his enthralling call-and-response with Ortiz often recalls his celebrated collaborations with Taylor. “I wanted his freshness, his in-the-moment energy,” Ortiz says. “He has this incredible range of dynamics, and an ability to anticipate exactly what part of the piano I’m gravitating to. Because he knows where you’re moving, he knows how to move in the drums at the same time.” Ortiz, who is part-Haitian on his father’s side, also suspected that Cyrille’s Haitian roots would help them to “merge our knowledge and our styles.”
To get a sense of just how right Ortiz and Cyrille sound together, listen to the album’s boppish fourth track, “Golden Voice” (the title alludes to the nickname of the great changüí singer Carlos Borromeo Planche, known as Cambrón). Ortiz begins in the upper register of the piano, and Cyrille in the lower register of the toms. By the end, they’ve switched places, turning the entire piece upside-down. This delightful inversion grew out of the serendipity, and synergy, of improvisation, not from any plan.
As Cecil Taylor said, “Rhythm is life…the space of time danced through,” and inside rhythmic falls everyone is possessed by the dance, both leading and following. On “Marímbula’s Mood,” Herrera plucks a slightly ominous beat on the marímbula (a musical box used in changüí), and Ortiz accompanies him with spare, slinky commentary. “Sacred Codes” (the second part of the title track) features a percussion orchestra of sorts, with Ortiz covering the strings of the piano with musical paper and turning the surface of the instrument into a drum.
“The experience of the marvelous presupposes a certain faith,” Carpentier wrote. “Those who do not believe in saints cannot cure themselves with saintly miracles.” But when music is this glorious, it has the power not just to conjure spirits but to inspire belief and help us experience the marvelous. Or, as Carpentier also put it, the marvelous real.