After 16 years with Santana, trumpeter Bill Ortiz releases a sizzling Afro-Cuban-flavored jazz album that…
After 16 years with Santana, trumpeter Bill Ortiz releases a sizzling Afro-Cuban-flavored jazz album that affectionately embraces the Seventies. In the late 1990s, the life of Bay Area trumpet player Bill Ortiz took a took a dramatic, career-altering turn when he was tapped to record a single track on a recording by local legend Carlos Santana. The famed Latin rock guitarist’s 18th studio session, Supernatural, was loaded with guest artists and boasted cross-genre appeal. The presence of blues guitarist Eric Clapton, the Mexican rock band Maná and other headliners all but guaranteed broad global attention. Yet no one could have imagined that within days of its release, a single from the album, “Smooth,” sung by Rob Thomas, would become a virtual overnight sensation. It revitalized Santana’s career as it gobbled up Grammy Awards and devoured Billboard pop charts. And, for Ortiz, who performed on that track, it led to the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It was so successful,” the 64-year-old trumpeter recalls today of the mega-hit, which sold more than 30 million albums and won nine Grammys, “that Santana broke the mold he had used in organizing his groups over the years and decided to add a two-person horn section to his working band. So I was offered the gig, along with trombonist Jeff Cressman, another member of the Bay Area jazz elite, who was with me on the ‘Smooth’ session.”
What resulted was a 16-year tenure in Santana’s high-power band. “We did a lot of shows where there were artists like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter playing with us as guests, so that was always a big thrill for me,” Ortiz says. And he soon learned that Santana, although performing programs of hits for his fans, always enjoyed being a bit unpredictable. “Carlos is very creative minded as far as how he approaches a performance. He likes to change things up. I was fortunate, for example, to get a fair amount of solo space. Being that he had been a friend of Miles, he was always turning around and motioning for me to get the Harmon mute. And it was important to him that the band would always try to bring a new spark of excitement. If you were one of those guys who just played your part and nothing more, you wouldn’t last long in Carlos’ group.”
His formal relationship with Santana began in 1992, when Ortiz was called up to record on the 1992 album Milagro, a session that the guitarist dedicated to Miles Davis. In the easygoing culture of San Francisco of decades past, it was not unusual to have casual encounters with Santana. “Musicians would see him at Tower Records with an armload of LPs,” Ortiz says. “Or checking out a group at a local club. I recall doing a club date with saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics Ensemble when we were backing Don Cherry. Carlos was there, and I had the opportunity to introduce him to Don. Carlos was always fascinated by the avant-garde players.”
Today, influenced by more than four decades of playing experience in myriad styles, Ortiz serves up a retrospective of the stylistically fertile 1970s on Points of View (Left Angle), his first solo release since leaving the Santana band in 2016. Building on a foundation of Afro-Cuban rhythms with funk and R&B seasonings, the trumpet master celebrates the period through the compositions of notables whose work reflects the vibe of the times. Included are songs by Jaco Pastorius (“Okonkole y Trompa”), co-written with percussionist Don Alias; trumpeter Eddie Henderson (“Fusion” and “Sunburst”), Wilton Felder (“Ain’t Gon’ Change a Thang”), Lonnie Liston Smith (“In Search of Truth”), Wayne Shorter (“Oriental Folk Song”) and Gil Scott-Heron (“A Toast to the People”).
Many musicians flocked to the Bay Area in the late ’60s, when San Francisco was the epicenter of the counterculture “flower power” movement, the bastion of psychedelic rock and the birthplace of a new genre of music, Latin rock. Ortiz, however, is a true product of the neighborhood. Born into a local family, his father was of Cuban descent. While no one in the family was a musician, his parents loved music, and there were always plenty of records in the home, including many by Louis Armstrong. “We had recordings of Louis with the Hot Five and Hot Seven groups,” Ortiz remembers. “The way he played was so engaging — how could you not love it?”
His involvement as an aspiring instrumentalist began one day at his elementary school, when the high school band paid a visit to recruit new members to the school music program. “The trumpet just seemed like the horn I wanted to play, and I remember getting the instrument on a Friday and taking it home for the weekend,” Ortiz says. “But I was given no instructions on how to play it. Nothing! But I tried! It didn’t sound like much, but I had fun trying to figure it out!”
The fledgling musician began delving into jazz in his early high school years, when a private trumpet instructor helped him understand the creative process of soloing. Unsurprisingly, the music that truly caught his ear were songs with horns, and because he was listening to Top 40 radio, that meant Motown. Ortiz started playing gigs when he was 16, and early on, he was drawn to jazz influences such as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown and Donald Byrd. Later, Lee Morgan became an important stylistic touchstone, as well as Blue Mitchell and Kenny Dorham. As his interest in Latin music grew, he tuned in to the work of Dizzy Gillespie, Chocolate Armenteros, Luis “Perico” Ortiz (no relation) and Arturo Sandoval.
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Ortiz was privileged to have been born into and nurtured by an urban music scene as unique as any in the world. For a relatively small city, San Francisco spawned a disproportionately large number of acclaimed pop and Latin artists, from Tower of Power, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller and the Grateful Dead to Santana, Sheila E, Chepito Areas and the brothers Coke and Pete Escovedo, both first-call percussionists and co-leaders of the iconic Latin rock group Azteca.
Not only was he absorbing the sounds that literally emanated from the streets, but he was able to score an increasing number of opportunities to perform with notable artists. One such local hero was Luis Gasca, a storied Mexican American trumpet player who was a founding member of Malo, a popular Latin rock group started by Santana’s guitarist brother Jorge. It was all part of Ortiz’s education. On any night of the week in his formative years, he could go to the Keystone Corner jazz club and see world-famous musicians like trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Tony Williams. Sly and the Family Stone was always around. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, with whom Ortiz would study, was a constant presence on the local scene, as was Latin percussion maestro John Santos.
It was with Santos, who plays an indispensable role as the primary percussionist on Points of View, that Ortiz started to get a deeper understanding of African and Afro-Cuban rhythmic traditions. “I started playing with John in the mid-’80s in his Cuban-style group, Orquesta Batachanga,” he says. “They were focused on the charanga — a vintage Cuban style featuring violins and flute. At about the same time, a different Cuban style called songo was emerging. It was very funky, and at that time, I think we were the only band on the West Coast that was playing that kind of contemporary Cuban music. I was really honored to be part of that group because it was very innovative, and I learned a lot.” Points of View is Ortiz’s third release as a leader. The first two, From Where I Stand, his 2009 debut, and Highest Wish, the 2012 follow-up, were both heavily oriented toward R&B and soul, thanks to his long running association with the Oakland-based band Tony Toni Toné. For the new date, Ortiz wants to reestablish his jazz cred and emphasize his improvisational talents and arranging skills.
To pull it off, he recruited musicians with strong ties to the Bay Area scene and a love for interpreting Latin-oriented themes. With the exception of Hammond B3 organ on one track, Fender Rhodes, electric bass and the occasional guest vocalists and percussionists, many of the tracks radiate with the cohesion of a straightahead session. A star of the ’70s Bay Area jazz scene, Azar Lawrence, brings his virile tenor sax sound to five tracks, while drummer Dennis Chambers, bassist Marcus Shelby and pianist Matt Clark, all seasoned on the ’Frisco jazz scene, join Santos in a rhythm section that is all but peerless. For his part, the leader keeps his use of trumpet effects to a minimum.
Ortiz sees the 10 tracks on Points of View as his way of reimaging songs, mostly related to the ’70s, of which he is particularly fond. “It’s not about playing it the way they played it in earlier incarnations,” he cautions. “Every song is a vehicle to express what you want to express. As a musician, you hopefully have your own sound and your own approach with things you like to do when you are playing. I have certain concepts in mind about how I deal with melodies and harmonic concepts I like to use. As a bandleader, I consider songs that offer opportunities for having a lot of interplay among the musicians. The artists that I love the most are the ones that every time they play, it’s a unique event that’s never going to be repeated. That’s the spirit I wanted to capture on this session.”
He cites the Wayne Shorter tune he selected for the album as an example of how he envisions reimaging in an artistically positive way. “‘Oriental Folk Song’ was originally done by Wayne in a swing mode,” he explains, “but, although we kept the walking bass line in the arrangement, we have an Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm on top of it. It really works well with that kind of a feeling. To me, it really feels natural, and as a player, when you are working in that kind of groove, it opens different doors as to what you can express as an improvisor.”
The mystic qualities of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “In Search of Truth,” from the first Cosmic Echoes album (1973’s Astral Traveling), is Ortiz’s tribute to a major influence, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. On the Gil Scott-Heron anthem “A Toast to the People,” vocalist Terrie Odabi brings a gospel mood to the session, complemented by a relaxed tempo and the trumpeter’s bluesy foray. A blistering, up-tempo read of Eddie Henderson’s “Fusion” features uninhibited solos by Ortiz and Lawrence backed by a rampaging rhythm section. This percussion jam segues into a folkloric rhumba rendering of the César Portillo de la Luz bolero standard “Noche Cubana,” with Ortiz in lustrous típico form and an evocative vocal by Christelle Durandy, an emerging Bay Area talent.
“There are certain periods of music that sometimes get overlooked,” Ortiz says. “In mainstream jazz now, certain styles are highlighted, and others are marginalized. For instance, I’ve played with a lot of musicians who haven’t heard a lot of Joe Henderson’s music from the ’70s, and to me that’s landmark music. I think it’s important that we look back and honor it.”
For the album’s closer, Ortiz reached back to the late 1940s, when the Broadway musical The King and I was winning broad acclaim for its score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III. The trumpeter’s pick? The ballad “My Lord and Master,” rendered as a romantic bolero, staying in the Afro-Cuban tradition. “There are a lot of strong melodies and intense moments on the session,” he says. “And, when you get to the end of the album, there’s a beautiful ballad with a wonderful piano solo by Matt Clark. I don’t even solo — I just play the melody. Musically and emotionally, it’s the right thing at the right time.” - Mark Holston