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Jazz Review

Pianist Ruiz Adds Venezuelan Rhythms

March 20, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Venezuelan jazz pianist Otmaro Ruiz has been living in the United States since 1989. But, although his dossier includes performances with everyone from Steve Winwood and Gino Vanelli to Dianne Reeves and Arturo Sandoval, he has never abandoned the connection with his musical roots.

On Sunday afternoon, in a Da Camera Society Chamber Music in Historic Sites concert, Ruiz led a quartet in a program that offered a remarkably successful blending of jazz with Venezuelan rhythms. Performing in an ocean-facing room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey, Ruiz apologized several times for the potential hazards of the jet lag he was experiencing, having just flown in from the East Coast. But the technical aspects of his performance left nothing to be desired. True, the program started with what might best be described as an overly polite quality, the notes all in the right places, but rendered with only a modest level of fire and spirit.

That all changed a few numbers into the program, when Ruiz and tenor saxophonist-flutist Gary Meek began to engage each other, and the improvisational flames were turned up. A piece titled "Las Tres Marias," based upon a traditional Venezuelan rhythm of 5/8, was a stunning example--a superb blend of musical synthesis between Ruiz's brilliant soloing and the foundation of drummer Aaron Serfaty (also Venezuelan) and bassist Chris Colangelo.

Another original, "Not an Exit," was equally impressive, its rapid-fire line--reminiscent in some passages of the Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh partnerships of the '50s--was executed with stunning force by Ruiz and Meek. And the Venezuelan folk melody "Suelto y Difrazao" revealed yet another example of Ruiz's capacity to empathetically blend two seemingly disparate musical forms.

Then, just to quiet the potential reservations of any jazz police in the crowd (there could hardly have been many), the group moved into a gorgeous, sensuously laid-back version of the classic standard, "Body and Soul." Meek found his own path through the chord changes that have challenged every tenor player since the classic Coleman Hawkins version, and Ruiz's set of variations was once again the work of an inspired musical imagination.

At its best, the performance of the Ruiz ensemble turned out to be the sort of event that defines the best of what the Da Camera series is all about--chamber music, jazz in this case, that challenges the intellect, delivered with a passion and intensity to trigger the emotions.

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