Aruán Ortiz: Inside Rhythmic Falls

Aruán OrtizInside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt, 2020)

booklet_339.inddTo my suburban ears, the term “Cuban,” applied to music, means flamboyant costumes and screamy horns. But Cuban-born Aruán Ortiz’s Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017) was a solo piano album characterized by careful motion and stern, lingering chords. His aesthetic allows for surges of free jazz — I’ve seen them live — but Ortiz’s music is a lot about patience.

Same for Andrew Cyrille. His recent work on ECM has explored quiet spaces and the hovering flow of slow time. They make a fitting pair on Inside Rhythmic Falls, which is mostly a duo album with Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera joining occasionally.

Fitting, to the point where this sometimes sounds like a drums album that happens to have piano on it. Pensive tracks such as “Argelier’s Discipline” use Cyrille’s quiet taps as a narrative, with Ortiz adding color on piano.

Even the brisk, spattering “Conversation with the Oaks” has a cerebral side, providing plenty of space to savor Cyrille’s restrained backdrop, his watercolor dabs of snare.

Among the less abstract tracks, “Golden Voice” romps rhythmically, and the spacious “De Cantos y Ñáñigos” has the feel of a deconstructed ballad. “Inside Rhythmic Falls, Part I (Sacred Codes)” is a busy moment featuring Herrera, a forest of clacking behind Cyrille soloing on toms. It feels serious rather than celebratory; this is not made-for-TV Cubanism. It’s more like a a canvas for Cyrille’s soloing, and it’s about communication and culture, not excess.

The album starts with Ortiz’s poem “Lucero Mundo,” spoken by loose overlapping voices over quiet drums. The contrasting closer, “Para ti nengón,” backs Ortiz with rhythmic voices chanting a popular Cuban song. It’s a fittingly quiet coda, with Ortiz casually tossing around some jazzy licks and runs.

Casual Bombast on Piano and Drums

Paul F. Murphy and Larry WillisExposé (Murphy Records, 2008)

murphy-exposeI know Paul Murphy’s drumming through his work with saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Glenn Spearman. I remember the aptly named Trio Hurricane, with Spearman, Murphy, and bassist William Parker bringing heavy thunder.

Exposé is now more than a decade old, but when it showed up on eMusic’s “recent additions” list, Murphy’s name caught my eye. I didn’t know what to expect from him in a duo setting, especially paired with a piano, although he’s apparently recorded with Larry Willis multiple times. Exposé presents powerhouse drumming from a subtler angle — lots of tapping cymbals and feathery tom rolls on the solo track “Labyrinth,” for example. Willis brings the crystalline sounds of jazzy piano, but in an edgier vein than cocktail music, with the right improvisational spirit to keep the session outward-facing.

The title track starts slowly with what might be a nod to Cecil Taylor — not in terms of torrential playing but in the kinds of harmonies Taylor composed with. From there, Willis goes more lush and bright, weaving through jazz idioms while Murphy keeps up a continuous rustle, busy but not overwhelming.

The phrase “Liquid Dance” makes for an excellent track title. Murphy keeps up a busy, almost relentless patter but at a low volume, while Willis applies the right restrained, contemplative splashing to fit the name.

Some contemporary mainstream jazz leans in this direction. I’m thinking of labels like Origin Records — pleasing to the ear, but striving to create something new out of familiar cloth. This session wouldn’t be out of place there. Murphy fills space in a way that might be off-putting to some listeners, but I came here for the drums, so I’m happy to focus on the robust energy more than the relaxing moments.

Learning from the Drums

In seeing live shows for the past decade and a half, I’ve learned more about drums than any other instrument. Partly because it’s transparent: You see what’s being played. (By contrast, I still have no idea how a saxophone works. And I just don’t believe in trombone. There’s no way an instrument with no keys can make all those sounds. They must be faking it.)

Some of the revelations were small and technical: Gino Robair turning his snare drum upside-down once, to play the metal ball-bearings on the drum’s underside. I’d never known what a snare drum was made of before.  Or seeing the rich bag of tricks most drummer/percussionists bring to the gig — which helped explain the panoply of sounds I was hearing from Jim Black on those Tim Berne albums.

Most of what I learned, though, came gradually, through repeated observation. Here’s what’s possible. Here’s what the instrument can do; here’s how it mixes with others. Here’s what it sounds like outside the boundaries. Here’s what a mistake sounds like.

What counts in percussion?  Speed is a great tool, but there’s so much more. Precision, inventiveness, texture. I suppose that last is a throwaway term; for me, it’s a measure of the drums’ contribution to mood and atmosphere, the fabric they weave.

I’d once heard the comment that to have a good rock band, you need a really good drummer. Most casual rock listeners think of the drummer as the last kid picked, but when you consider that the drums (and bass) usually “write” their own parts, the value of capable band members becomes more obvious.

This struck me once while listening to The Glass Intact, a nice 1998 pop album from the band Sarge (whose songwriter, Elizabeth Elmore, would go on to The Reputation and then a legal career). It was probably around 2003 when I gave the album a re-listen and realized how impressed I was with the drummer, Chad Romanski. He added snap and crackle to the catchy tracks and great subtle choices to the more somber ones, especially his  snare drum on the song “Charms and Feigns.” It coaxes a foreboding, darker mood while keeping a pop-music feel.  Great choices. In a new way, I realized the difference the drums can make.

It’s no exaggeration to say that going to see improvised music helped deepen the way I listen to pop. It comes from broadening my understanding of the instrument, from watching Robair and Moe! Staiano and Donald Robinson and so many others.

So, don’t ever let anybody tell you this avant-garde stuff is an indulgent dead end. It’s the opposite.