Arts & Culture Music

Aruán Ortiz & Don Byron’s Random Dances and (A)tonalities

“Ortiz seamlessly blends a virtuosic voice on piano with contemporary classical and jazz techniques, all while being subtly emotional.” – John Ephland, DownBeat

 “On [Cub(an)ism], Ortiz fuses hard-driving hooks, free jazz, harp-like effects, thudding drum sounds and lyrical reflections on dissonance and intervals, uniting all of it with a creativity of pacing that constantly grips the attention.” – John Fordham, The Guardian

Though their journeys began in different countries and their stars rose a generation apart, pianist Aruán Ortiz and clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron share a sweeping curiosity about the scope and history of music as well as a bold adventurousness that has allowed them to explore that wide-ranging soundscape with keen invention and incisive wit. Their debut outing as a duo, Random Dances and (A)tonalities, finds the pair engaged in a series of scintillating musical dialogues that entrance with the compelling interplay and intellectual spark of the best conversations.

Unsurprisingly given both artists’ expansive tastes, the repertoire they take on together runs the gamut from reverent investigations of beloved classics to radical transformations of jazz standards; rigorous but nuanced renditions of classical compositions along with freewheeling improvisatory ventures; inspired original pieces and heartfelt tributes to mentors and influences. As the title encapsulates, Random Dances and (A)tonalities (out October 19 via Intakt Records) contains multitudes, alternately (sometimes simultaneously) enchanting and challenging, harmonious and fractious, stark and sublime.

“I’m from Santiago de Cuba and Don’s from the Bronx and his family’s from the Caribbean,” Ortiz says. “The element of dancing is always there in our music, even if we’re not playing salsa or calypso. That’s why they’re Random Dances: we expand the idea of dance beyond the dance floor to whenever you hear something that moves you. What does dance really mean? And (A)tonalities comes from the fact that we move freely in and out of a tonal zone, but we always come back.”

The Cuban-born, Brooklyn-based Ortiz connected with Byron through a meeting of the minds long before the two were ever introduced. Playing with longtime Byron collaborator Ralph Peterson, Ortiz was fascinated by the harmonic movement and intricate architecture of the drummer’s compositions. Asked for some insight, Peterson simply responded, “I got all that from Don Byron.”

Over the next several years Ortiz became highly regarded in the jazz world for his daring pianism and profound originality, whether combining his Cuban roots with progressive jazz concepts or combining his improvisatory language with stunning chamber music compositions. He’s collaborated with many of the most advanced thinkers across a range of creative musics: Wadada Leo Smith, Esperanza Spalding, Wallace Roney, Nicole Mitchell, William Parker, Oliver Lake, Terri Lyne Carrington, the Milena Zullo Ballet, DJ Logic, The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole, and countless others.
It’s difficult to summarize the divergent paths that Byron’s music has taken. Having studied with Third Stream innovator George Russell at New England Conservatory, Byron personalized that compositional vocabulary to devise his own unique approach. An avid music historian, he’s focused his attentions on everything from klezmer to cartoon music, the soul fire of Junior Walker and the heavy sounds of the Black Rock Coalition, along the way playing with everyone from Living Colour to Bill Frisell, Cassandra Wilson to Steve Coleman, Allen Toussaint to Uri Caine.

In 2014, Ortiz invited Byron to take part in “Music & Architecture,” a series of concerts inspired by the composer Iannis Xenakis. Soon the clarinetist was calling on the pianist for regular gigs with a variety of ensembles, until finally they decided to try a duo outing. “Don is well versed in so many musical styles and languages,” Ortiz says. “The music for this duo came very naturally.”

The album opens with Ortiz’s “Tete’s Blues,” written in honor of his oldest son, who he nicknamed “Tete” after the great Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu, a major influence. As Byron’s questing lines navigate Ortiz’s strident keyboard surges, tempos collide in elusive ways inspired by the pianist’s studies with Muhal Richard Abrams. The late AACM founder’s concepts also fueled Ortiz’s shadowy “Numbers,” while his “Arabesque of a Geometrical Rose (Spring)” is the full realization of a piece originally recorded on the pianist’s album Hidden Voices, expressing the tune’s interwoven counter-melodies in a way impossible in the piano trio setting.

Byron’s stunning compositional imagination can be heard on “Joe Btfsplk,” a cubist abstraction of the bebop standard “Donna Lee” named for the bearer of bad luck from Al Capp’s classic comic strip “Li’l Abner.” The darkly moving “Delphian Nuptials” was originally penned as part of Byron’s score for a documentary on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, though the duo fully communicates its complex moods without the aid of visuals.

Ortiz became familiar with “Black and Tan Fantasy” through the famed Thelonious Monk rendition, while Byron grew up hearing the Duke Ellington original; those two disparate approaches fuel the intriguing tension in this new version. The later Geri Allen was another formative influence on Ortiz, who set out to transcribe “Dolphy’s Dance” from her 1992 album Maroons; as it turned out Byron, who had played often with Allen, had the original chart. The pair undertook this tribute, capturing Allen’s boundary-less artistry.

“It was a great feeling to realize that Don’s career has been connected to someone I have admired for such a long time,” Ortiz says of Allen. “She spans many styles of music; her playing is very solid and rooted yet very avant-garde at the same time. I hold her in very high regard.”

Byron’s clarinet floats airily through Ortiz’s crystalline arrangement of Federico Mompou’s “Música Callada: Book 1, No. 5.” The clarinetist goes it alone for a captivating reading of Bach’s “Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor,” which Ortiz was always thrilled to witness on the bandstand. “Seeing a so-called ‘jazz musician’ in the middle of a so-called ‘jazz concert’ playing a classical piece solo — that made a big impact on me,” Ortiz marvels. “I play and compose classical music as well, but for me it’s just music – and for Don, too.”
The two composers join forces on the album’s final track, in spiritual collaboration with a third composer, the legendary Benny Golson. “Impressions of a Golden Theme,” with its echo of Golson’s name, is a fantasia on the theme of the saxophonist’s “Along Came Betty,” departing in filigreed flights from any suggestion of the original. While on tour they originally performed the tune but over time, Ortiz recalls, “it evolved and evolved, going to a different place every time. So we decided to just sit down and had a musical conversation, not worry what the result would be.”

Aruán Ortiz

Pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz – born in Santiago de Cuba, and resident of Brooklyn, NY – has been an acclaimed figure in the progressive jazz and avant-garde scene in the US for more than 15 years. Named “one of the most creative and original composers in the world” (Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge), he has written music for jazz ensembles, orchestras, dance companies, chamber groups, and feature films, incorporating influences from contemporary classical music, Cuban Haitian rhythms, and avant-garde improvisation. He has received multiple accolades including Mid-Atlantic Foundation US Artists International (2017), Composer Fellowship Award at Vermont College of Fine Arts (2016); and the Doris Duke Impact Award (2014); the Composers Now Creative Residency at Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (2014). His 2016 trio album Hidden Voices (Intakt 2016) was lauded as “a solid and unique new sound in today’s jazz world” by Matthew Fiander in PopMatters, while his solo piano effortCub(an)ism (2017) was called “a genius exercise in the exploration of depth and perception that reveals a bright new wrinkle in the relationship between music and mathematics, reimagining Afro-Haitian Gaga rhythms, Afro-Cuban rumba and Yambú into heavily improvised meditations on modernism that recall John Cage and Paul Bley,” (Ron Hart, The Observer). Aruán has played, toured, or recorded with jazz luminaries such as Wadada Leo Smith, Don Byron, Greg Osby, Wallace Roney, Nicole Mitchell, William Parker, Adam Rudolph, Andrew Cyrille, Henry Grimes, Oliver Lake, Rufus Reid, Terri Lyne Carrington, and collaborated with choreographer José Mateo; filmmaker Ben Chace; poet Abiodun Oyewole from The Last Poets; DJ Logic and Val Jeanty; and German writers Angelika Hentschel and Anna Breitenbach.

Don Byron

An inspired eclectic, clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Don Byron has performed an array of musical styles with great success. Byron first attained a measure of notoriety for playing Klezmer, specifically the music of the late Mickey Katz. While the novelty of a black man playing Jewish music was enough to grab the attention of critics, it was Byron’s jazz-related work that ultimately made him a major figure. Byron is at heart a conceptualist, possessing a profound imagination that best manifests itself in his multifarious compositions. He is a Rome Prize Recipient, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow.

Each of his albums seems based on a different stylistic approach, from the free jazz/classical leanings of his first album, Tuskegee Experiments (Nonesuch, 1992), to the hip-hop/funk of Nu Blaxpoitation (Blue Note, 1998). Byron’s composition “There Goes the Neighborhood” was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and premiered in London in 1994. He’s also composed for silent film, served as the director of jazz for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and scored for television.

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