I remember listening to Esperanza Spaulding’s debut album a decade ago and being tickled by the then-buzzed-about, now-acclaimed bassist’s youthful authority. But I also recall being impressed by the pianist on that date, a wily improviser I hadn’t heard much about, a guy who used his instrument to not only forward a melodic agenda, but a percussive one as well. As he wound his way through Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty,” he made it clear that he liked his beauty to be limned with a little friction. A provocative blast of notes from the right hand, an itchy groove from the left – Aruán Ortiz brought a perpetual flux to Spaulding’s music. The Cuban-born, Brooklyn-based leader has been enhancing his approach and broadening his rep ever since, and with Hidden Voices (Intakt) a trio session recorded with an enticing sense of verité audio-wise, he’s made his most articulate album yet.
There’s a choppy feel on several of these pieces, but it’s oddly engaging, giving the music a seductive turbulence. Because he bends traditional Caribbean rhythms in myriad ways, and because he’s smitten with everything from minimalism to mathematics, there’s an unusual buoyancy at work. Many of the beats are slippery – they often support an overarching rhythmic statement built on a string of intricacies. But as Ortiz’s outfit – a stellar combo of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver – churns though the changes, all the hook-ups are made. “Analytical Symmetry” is brooding yet propulsive, a study in contrasts that comes off like Andrew Hill pondering the meaning of life after a double expresso. Ortiz’s melody is built on a cascade of hard-hit notes, but everyone surfs it so well that coherence carries the day.
That kind of connection binds the action across the board. Unity is the key trait “Caribbean Vortex/Hidden Voices,” where the group is joined by two clave players. A cross-hatch of Cuban beats are put into play and even the most discursive moments have a clattering forward motion – heady, but lyrical. That’s probably the most exact way to describe “Fractal Sketches,” as well. Cleaver, who is becoming one the New York’s most eloquent powerhouses, brings a glorious rattle to the piece – a string of mini explosions sets off lots of fireworks. Even the totally free “Joyful Noises,” with its inside-the-piano string plunking, is made valuable by the trio’s attention to detail.
A Xenakis fan who thanks Muhal Richard Abrams for some lofty mentoring and duets with Wadada Leo Smith, it’s not surprising that Ortiz’s work has such reach these days. He’s penned charts for a Cuban ballet company, helmed a 2013 East Village series ‘Music and Architecture,’ and turned lots of heads with a group that features Greg Osby – a cagey rule-breaker himself. But there’s always room for masters and tradition in his search. Perhaps the most thrilling moments of Hidden Voices arrive when he totally refracts the melody of Monk’s “Skippy” and makes a mash of Ornette’s “Open & Close” and “The Sphinx.” Some trad swing, a few inside-out designs, the kind of well-placed dissonance that keeps everything on edge – like much of the album, these “standards” boast a playful approach that breaks a sizable chunk of conceptual ground while still delivering plenty of pleasure.