Contemporary Cuban Pianists

By West-Durán, Alan | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Cuban Pianists


West-Durán, Alan, ReVista (Cambridge)


MUSIC FANS MIGHT THINK OF CUBA IN TERMS of salsa or nueva trova, but the country's pianistic tradition has built its world reputation. Few countries have had pianists as gifted as Cuba: from the 19th century, with the likes of Cervantes, Saumell and Espadero, to the 20th and beyond, Cuba has been blessed with figures such as Gonzalo Roig, Antonio María Romeu, Ernesto Lecuona, Lilí Martínez and Peruchín (Pedro Justiz), not to mention Bebo Valdés, Rubén González, Frank Emilio Flynn and Emiliano Salvador. They were followed by a host of other pianist-composers like Chucho Valdés, Ernán LópezNussa, Hilario Durán, Omar Sosa, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Arturo O'Farrill, the last three born in the 1960s. They have been followed by new waves of pianists, but in what follows the focus will be on three pianists from the 70s and 80s who loosely fall within the tradition of "Latin Jazz" and contemporary music.

Aruán Ortiz (1973), born in Santiago de Cuba of Haitian descent, was trained as both violinist and pianist. While he draws on Afro-Cuban forms, he is at ease with classical and free improvisation as well. Ortiz is hard to pin down, as he can go from hard post-bop idioms (as in his first two albums, Volume 1 and Alameda; 2005, 2009) to the rigorous exploration of sound textures evident in his album with Bob Gluck (on piano and Moog Synthesizer; Ortiz, piano and computer) to a contemporary re-interpretation of tumba francesa and Cuban song with the blues as in his Santiarican Blues Suite (2012). A recent album, 23:54 Get Moving (2014), a trio with saxophonist Biagio Coppa and drummer Rob García, has Ortiz on piano and electronics, going from Monkish riffs to eerie atmospherics to funk.

Overall, Ortiz is a restrained pianist: he does not go in for dramatic changes in dynamics, crashing chords, splashy ornamentation, Lecuona-ish lyricism or son montuno guajeos. His approach, while fluid, is slightly jagged and with a keen sense of the overall architecture of the song. He can move up and down the keyboard with considerable velocity but not in a way that calls attention to itself (a la Chucho Valdés or Art Tatum). Both his first albums and the recent live recording Banned in London (2013) illustrate this: on tracks like "Jitterbug Waltz" (Fats Waller) and "Orbiting" (Ortiz), he performs extended solos, and despite some Tynerish flourishes, the notes come out soft, deliberate, as if a kitten were walking over the keys.

His Santiarican Blues Suite is an ambitious project, originally written as a ballet for the José Mateo Ballet Theater in 2011 (titled "Pagan or Not"). The suite has five movements, beginning with "Diaspora," and opens with percussionist Mauricio Herrera playing a slow beat on timpani, followed by a dark mournful segment on strings which quickly turn spiky, then joined by a dissonant flute. Eventually, the strings are accompanied by the tahona rhythm (brought from Haiti by former slaves and considered a precursor of the rumba). The tahona also bears some similarities to the tumba francesa, prominently featured in the second movement, "Pa'l Monte" (To the Hills), which has inspired singing against the rhythmic presence of the catá. It is followed by "San Pascual Bailón" (part III), a Catholic reference, but musically alludes to the danzón tradition, originally influenced by what was called the tango haitiano. "Sagrado" (IV), inspired by Sindo Gary's "Perla Marina," begins in a slow and melancholy fashion with string instruments dominating. Slowly it begins to crescendo, with percussion joining in, then slows down with strings accompanied by a gentle flute. The final and longest movement, "Jubilee/Comparsa." opens with violin and percussion, then flute. It continuously quotes and reworks a Cuban classic "Drume Negrito," but in bits and phrases. Slowly the rhythm picks up, then accelerates into a flurry of percussion (becoming a comparsa) with strings and piano providing a strident counterpoint with jabbing notes and ends with a final beat of the timpani. …

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