Exclusive Interview - Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Two highly accomplished artists - one long established, the other solidifying his legacy - are bought together on Random Dances and (A)tonalities. Clarinetist and saxophonist Don Byron and pianist Aruán Ortiz have performed together in larger ensembles since 2014. In late 2017, they met in Zürich, Switzerland to record this eclectic set which plays to both artists' broad musical sensibilities.  


ArkivJazz: It's truly a pleasure to hear this new disc, which is a fantastic collaboration. Don, how did you and Aruán initially get together?

Don Byron: He introduced himself at a gig I played with Wallace (Roney), which I think was Winter Jazzfest. My group played and Wallace’s group played, and Aruán was also there. I was using (pianist) Ed Simon a lot at that period, and later I found that I couldn’t get him (Simon). So Aruán started to come in for tours I did with bassist Cameron Brown. I stuck him in and then we just started doing more stuff together.

AJ: Aruán, your previous CDs for Intakt were trios...all very good. You've been forging your own sound, and whenever I listen to your music I feel like I'm listening to someone I definitely have not heard before.  Do you teach where you live?

Aruán Ortiz: No, I do some other things…sometimes when I tour I do masterclasses. But I’m not teaching. I think I consider myself a learner, like a student of music. Sometimes I do masterclasses overseas and here also. I’ve been invited to different places as an artist in residence. 

AJ: Intakt seems to have built up some good relationships with a wide variety of artists, including many on the Brooklyn scene. How did you get in touch with them?

AO: That was interesting. I knew them of course for all the work they’ve done, so I sent them some music but I didn’t hear back until after I was playing with Andrew Cyrille at the Zinc Bar in New York, in a series I put together called “Music and Architecture”. Andrew introduced me to Patrik (Lanoit, owner of Intakt). He was at the concert and liked my playing. I sent them my CD Hidden Voices and I heard from them immediately. They told me they loved the recording and said: “Let’s work together and collaborate”.

AJ:  Let's talk about the new disc. Aruán, you bring a lot of different things into this CD that makes the whole disc stand as a strong musical statement. The album starts off with “Tete’s Blues.” Tete Montoliu was very underrated in the United States but built a strong following with pianists around the world. Did you ever meet him?

AO: No, I never met him, but while I was in Spain I heard him, which was in 1996 before he died. He wasn’t really playing that much towards the end of his life, but I knew who he was. He played all over Europe in the 60s, 70s and 80s and many musicians from here that toured Europe called him to play with them. It happened that I was in school in Barcelona, studying jazz with a few different teachers. One of them, Horacio Fumero, was Tete Montoliu’s bassist for over twenty years and introduced me to Tete’s music. We have a great relationship to the point that he called me to play with him. Also, my older son Damian…I call him “Tete.” So, the song “Tete’s Mood” is kind of about my son Damian, but also in tribute to Tete Montoliu’s career. I always find more than two meanings of one thing. I try to angle it from many different aspects, different corners, and different layers.

AJ: Who were some of your other influences? I imagine that growing up in Cuba, that Gonzalo (Rubalcaba) and Chucho (Valdés) must have had some presence in your musical life...

AO: When I started listening to jazz,  I was in the music system in Cuba. Both Gonzalo and Chucho were making great albums for anybody that considered themselves a progressive musician. Gonzalo’s first albums were hugely important...and also Chucho, who was in Irakere. They were my first attempts to listen to progressive jazz. My first approach was Cuban jazz, which was very solid back then, thanks to both Chucho and Gonzalo. Having them as a musical reference, I was then able to discover all the rest - Herbie (Hancock), Chick (Corea), and later on Kenny Garrett and then the Yellowjackets and the Brecker Brothers – all of those groups and sounds. And then, once I left Cuba, I was able to go back to the original sounds. My piano teacher was the one who introduced me to Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Bud Powell, and Monk. 

AJ: Speaking of angles and inspirations, I was just listening to “Black And Tan Fantasy” which is a brilliant piece that you both play marvelously. To hear that as the second tune on the disc really felt like a flash back and a flash forward at the same time. Then you get to “Joe Btfsplk”, which is named for an unpronounceable character from the Lil’ Abner comic strip. That’s a typical Don Byron inspiration, to take something from a cartoon and turn it into something real. It’s quite a piece…

AO: Oh my god, yes. I fell in love with that piece. I played with Don for years and then he brought this piece to the session, and I was like, “what?!” The melody is so powerful and, believe it or not, it comes from the “Donna Lee” chord changes. I found the melody that Don wrote was so strong that I decided to highlight and embellish it, and create a dialogue from it instead of from the chord changes. The changes are something that you use to improvise, but that melody was so powerful by itself, that it didn’t really need to be held together by the changes.



AJ: Moving on, one of the highlights on the disc is “Dolphy’s Dance” by the late Geri Allen.

DB: The original is on her record “Maroons”. But, yeah I played that piece with Geri; I played in quite a few of her different bands, even the one when she had a live tap dancer [laughs]. When I’m playing with somebody, I usually enter all the charts into Sibelius [musical transcription software] so I have them and can transpose them with different instruments. So when Aruán decided he wanted to play that song, I already had the score at hand.

AJ: It’s a little slower than the original if I remember correctly…

AO: Yes it is. That piece blew my mind back in the ‘90s when I first heard it. I was still a kid and literally couldn’t understand it then, so going back to that piece was special. In this album the interaction, the dialogue, and the conversation with Don was the main concept of the album. So all the pieces were gravitating around those kinds of conversations and space for each of us. “Dolphy’s Dance” was perfect for that. 

AJ:  It’s one of the highlights of the disc. I take my hat off to Intakt for getting this released.

DB:  I think it’s as much a classical record as it is a jazz record in the way that it was recorded. I think the sound of the CD is important. The piano sound of it is kind of like a classical recording.… I think of it as a piano and vocal record of a certain type, made in Europe at certain periods. It has that type of resonance. The place where we recorded it (Radio Studio, Zurich) is where they record super-classical recordings and vocal/piano and solo piano kind of records. It had that ‘Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’ kind of vibe. That old RCA Studio (in midtown Manhattan) where they recorded a lot of classical and Broadway stuff had that kind of sound.

AJ: Was it a big room?

DB: Yeah. The room is really a little concert hall, but with acoustic elements that you can control. The Swiss Radio used to have gigs in there. I think that was the place where a select few got to hear Glenn Gould, back when they would put it on the radio. It was a room like that – really big with orchestra-style seats, where you could have an audience.

AJ: Well, it really worked and this is certainly a great disc

DB: I’m glad you like it, we had a great time making it.


Random Dances and (A)tonalities is available via Intakt Records