Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #31 — Aruán Ortiz

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

Pianist-composer Aruán Ortiz was born in Santiago de Cuba, in 1973, but has been in the States for a decade and a half, having earned a master’s in composition at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now residing in Brooklyn, he has been making a real impact on the scene. He has collaborated closely with musicians from Don Byron to Esperanza Spalding, along with composing scores for films, dance companies, chamber ensembles and orchestras. As a leader, Aruán’s work has been documented over the past few years via a hugely exciting series of recordings for the Intakt label: two studio albums, Cub(an)ism (featuring him on solo piano) and Hidden Voices (a mighty trio disc with Eric Revis and Gerald Cleaver); plus Live in Zurich (a trio set with Brad Jones and Chad Tayor). Reviewing Cub(an)ism, the Observer described the album as “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. Stunning.”

Aruán performed previously in the Sound It Out series as a member of the excellent Michaël Attias Quartet. On December 6, 2018, he makes his debut as a leader in the series; this very special evening presents two sides of his talent, as improvising pianist and as composer of chamber music. The night’s first half features Aruán solo. Again, about the solo disc Cub(an)ism, The Guardian said: “Aruán Ortiz is a rising piano star with a sweeping contemporary technique – and enough imagination and keyboard-power, fueled by deep awareness of Cuba’s traditions, to be an enthralling one-man band, too… 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.”

The Dec. 6 concert’s second half will consist of two chamber pieces composed by Aruán: Living in the Midst of a Twisted Globe, to be performed by the trio of violinist Mary Rowell, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler & pianist Geoffrey Burleson; and Ogguere (when the soul of the earth, dances around spectral motions), to be played by a brass quartet plus double-bass, with Daniel Blankinship and Nate Wooley (trumpets), Michael Fahie (trombone), Eric Davis (French horn) and Nick Dunston (bass). About Aruán’s ambitions as a composer, JazzTimes said: “He is well aware of his roots but has no intention of being confined by them.” — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

My Spanish Heart by Chick Corea.

  1. What do you think is one of the most overrated jazz albums ever?

The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett.

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

I have more than one! J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion led by John Eliot Gardiner, O by Damien Rice, Siwan by Jon Balke featuring Amina Alaoui, Frank Emilio Interpreta a Ignacio Cervantes

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

Crisol Habana by the late Roy Hargrove. Yes, I love that recording – it means a lot to me.

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

Cinema Paradiso by Ennio Morricone; also, Wolfen by James Horner.

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

I’m still and will always be in love with music – it’s a never-ending love affair. The last concert I attended was by the Ben Monder Trio, at Bar LunÁtico in Brooklyn. I really enjoyed it. 

  1. Which are your very favorite and least favorite venues for live music?

My favorite venue is the Bimhuis, in Amsterdam; it sounds great, and the piano is amazing. Least favorite: Hmm, maybe Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

“It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” You can apply that quote to anything in life!

  1. If you could have a drink with any late visual artist of the past, who would it be?

Wilfredo Lam or Alberto Giacometti!

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

Patience, color and balance.

  1. What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

Cell phone.

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?

Being curious – always looking for sources of inspiration outside the music world and translating them into an original narrative.

  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

My mother, for her commitment and tenacity in doing what she always thought was the best for her and her family.

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most despise?

None. Even the most despicable people in this world have some humanity, and most of them are trapped in their own vortex of insecurities and fears.

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

Fiesole in Tuscany. It has an amazing landscape, it’s a very peaceful place, and the weather is gorgeous (not to mention the food and wine).

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

I suppose being a black person and an immigrant in this country means that this question carries many concerns and thoughts… Aware of the many struggles black people have had to live with and overcome, we have now found a way that we can talk openly about racial injustice through the years. This is something that was very hard to do a few decades ago without jeopardizing your own life.

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

1984 by Michael Radford, based on George Orwell’s book.

  1. What aspect of the past do you miss most – and what’s one thing you look forward to about the future that doesn’t yet exist?

Things that I would like to experience in my lifetime would be interoceanic train rides, impulse by the ocean currents, human holograms in real time, and how to live using quant­um computers – that would be so cool! I miss from the past our ability to meet with people without the necessity of checking your phone every two seconds.  Or using maps instead of GPS, and actually enjoying being lost without a phone network.

  1. What would you like your last meal to consist of?

Caprese salad with mozzarella di bufala, pasta carbonara and tiramisú – anywhere in Rome!