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Otmaro Ruiz Quartet

Otmaro Ruiz

Ben Wendel

Greg Swiller

Jimmy Branly

Photos by Rudy Lu

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A Place For Jazz
The Whisperdome, First Unitarian Society
Schenectady, NY
September 25, 2009

by J Hunter

“I live near Hollywood,” Otmaro Ruiz chuckled, “and I got discovered in Schenectady!” The concept obviously tickled the Venezuelan-born pianist as he spoke to a near-full house at A Place For Jazz. By the end of the night, a lot more people had discovered the live-wire energy and artistic accomplishment that surges through Ruiz’ music, and they would be a lot better for it.

Now, Ruiz wasn’t exactly a non-entity before coming to the Whisperdome: He’s worked with notables like Charlie Haden, Paquito D’Rivera and Dave Valentin, and he got a Grammy certificate for playing on Dianne Reeves’ 2000 disc In the Moment – Live in Concert. But Ruiz’ accomplishments as a leader were unknown in these parts until his music caught the ear of local keyboard champion Peg Delaney. Her campaigning got Ruiz on APFJ’s radar screen, and her efforts culminated with Ruiz’ appearance alongside his longtime quartet.

Ruiz stared things off with a whimper and not a bang on “Tobago Road”, playing soft chords with his left hand while plucking piano strings with his right. Bassist Greg Swiller and drummer Jimmy Branly picked up the intriguing figure while Ben Wendel added flesh to the melody on tenor sax. Wendel dropped out after the head, though, leaving the field clear for Ruiz, who began a spare, economical solo that showed more than a little classical influence. Bit by bit, Ruiz widened the solo’s scope, adding percussion to the expression; Branly responded in kind, turning up the drums and cymbals to equal Ruiz’ intensity. By the time Wendel stepped in for his cataclysmic out-solo, the band was in full flight and the crowd was whooping and clapping, their musical appetites sufficiently whetted.

Ruiz’ compositions have a real sense of personal investment. Introducing “And Then She Smiles”, a wonderfully soaring piece Ruiz wrote for his daughter Maya when she was 3 years old, he told us, “I don’t believe in people who have a baby and then write a lullaby. You don’t have time to write a lullaby when you have a baby!” The white light and gratitude in “Smiles” was also prevalent in “The Simple Life”, written for Ruiz’ late father and inspired by people who “can find pleasure in simple living.”

One of the things Ruiz was happy about was being able to play with this group, “which has been the same group of guys! That’s not always the case!” The chemistry Ruiz and his partners share is undeniable. For instance, “Not an Exit” started as a wildly complex figure that quickly shifted into an easy blues… only, little by little, Ruiz increased the speed of the piece until it was flying like a car with no brakes, and Branly & Swiller moved with him effortlessly, without any outward communication. The same thing happened on the epic closer “Road Stories”, another intricate piece that had everyone guessing what time signature Ruiz was playing in – and not just because he’d give away a copy of his disc Sojurn to whoever got it right. (FYI The correct answer was “9/8.”)

Apparently Wendel hadn’t kicked enough butt when he appeared with Ignacio Berroa at Lake George Jazz Weekend, so he spent most of the night kicking all of ours: He ripped off blinding sheets of sound without let or hindrance on “Claveao’”, and he easily picked up Ruiz’ breakneck pace on “Exit” and made some powerful statements of his own. Branly’s talent for texture is only matched by his inherent explosiveness. His background work on “Tobago” let Ruiz paint the picture in his own time; conversely, Branly’s tradeoffs with Swiller and Ruiz on “Living Pictures” were devastating. Swiller’s foundation work let his partners find their own voices, but his expressive solo on the opening to “Simple” had a lot to say, as well.

Before introducing “Road Stories”, Ruiz told us, “This means a lot bringing my guys to play in front of such well-trained ears.” Indeed, APFJ audiences are as well-versed as they are lucky: A Place For Jazz has been presenting big-name acts at bargain-basement prices for over three decades. But the series does an even bigger service when they turn us on to people we haven’t heard for years and years. As much as Otmaro Ruiz felt it was “a big, big honor” to play in the faraway place where he was “discovered”, the pleasure was all ours.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.