Aruán Ortiz Wins Guggenheim Award for Musical Composition

Aruán Ortiz, born in Santiago de Cuba in 1973, is the recipient of the Guggenheim Award in musical composition for 2024. He joins two other Cubans who have recently garnered the award, Manuel Valera (2019) and Elio Villafranca (2021), both composers and pianists. Ortiz is a versatile composer, with his music being performed by jazz groups, classical orchestras, dance companies, chamber music groups, as well as film. Classifying his astonishing creativity is another matter, since his music incorporates elements of jazz, contemporary classical, melodies and rhythms from Afro-Cuban and Haitian traditions, and free jazz improvisations. Tyshawn Sorey’s word about his own music is perfect for Ortiz: “postgenre”.

Aruán has played with great figures of jazz such as Wadada Leo Smith, Don Byron, Greg Osby, Wallace Roney, James Brandon Lewis, Nicole Mitchell, Andrew Cyrille, and Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera. He has recorded fifteen albums as a leader, starting with his solo piano album “Impresión Tropical” (1996) all the way to his most recent production “Pastor’s Paradox” (2023). However, it is not until 2005 that he started recording discs with a certain regularity, as well as collaborating with different musicians. For a while he played with Wallace Roney (1960-2020), the fine trumpetist who was one of Miles Davis’s disciples, but at that stage Ortiz was also making a presence with his third album “Alameda” (2009), critically acclaimed and selected by the UK magazine Jazzwise as one of the ten best jazz records of 2010.

Since 2012 Aruán has recorded twelve albums, among them “Santirican Blues” (2012), written in 2011, a ballet commissioned by the José Mateo Dance Theater. It is for a chamber group (ten musicians) and incorporates Haitian rhythms like the tahona, the tumba francesa and what has been called Haitian tango. Aruán is of Haitian heritage, and he handles these traditions (and Cuban ones) with great skill, all within a contemporary musical context. It is a stunning, rigorous, and accessible composition.

For fans of more improvised music, “Hidden Voices” (2016), with Eric Revis (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), and the extraordinary collaboration with Don Byron (clarinet and sax), “Random Dances and (A)tonalities” (2018) are bold and poetic explorations that also elicit delight. For those who want to listen to Aruán on solo piano there’s “Cub(an)ism” (2018) and “Cuban Nocturne” (2021). The first, as the title indicates is more prismatic, made of sound constellations and unexpected rhythms. The second is perhaps his most lyrical recording in the conventional sense, and it has Cuban popular classics such as “Tres lindas cubanas”, “Danza negra” and “Los tres golpes”.  Here we find Aruán reprising the Cuban pianistic tradition but remaking them in his own vision.

It bares mentioning that Ortiz’s collaborations with U.S. saxophonist James Brandon Lewis (b. 1983), with whom he has recorded four albums from 2020 to 2024, in quartets that also feature Brad Jones (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums). These collaborations have nourished Aruán’s work, propelling him to new explorations. His most recent project, “Pastor’s Paradox” (2023), is an homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., using his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. He is joined by Don Byron (clarinet, bass clarinet), Pheeroan Aklaff (drums), Lester St. Louis and Yves Dhar (on cello, different tracks) and Mtume Grant (spoken word). The work has a symphonic element to it in seven movements, lasting about forty minutes. Aruán not only employs Dr. King’s words for their significant content but also their cadence and musicality. He says: “As a composer, I always go after form and structure in my music. I see a lot of connections between Dr. King’s speeches and jazz compositions and improvisation.” From Cuban and Haitian music to the speeches of Martin Luther King, by way of jazz and vanguard music, Aruán Ortiz continues to show that he is one of the most audacious and creative voices in our contemporary musical scene.

Alan West-Durán (Havana, 1953). Poet, essayist, translator and critic. He has published the poetry collections Dar nombres a la lluvia (1994) and El tejido de Asterión (2000). Of literary-cultural criticism he has published Tropics of History: Cuba Imagined (1997) and Cuba A Cultural History (2017). He has been editor-in-chief of African-Caribbeans: A Reference Guide (2003), Latino and Latina Writers (2004) and Cuba: A Reference Guide (2011). He has translated Rosario Ferré, Alejo Carpentier, Luisa Capetillo, Nancy Morejón, and Nelly Richard. He is a professor at Northeastern University (Boston).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related posts


Latest posts

Cuban Artist Luis Manuel Otero Interviewed from Prison

More than two and a half years have passed, half of his sentence, since the jailing of artist Luis Manuel Otero, one of the...

I Have a Friend in Gaza

I didn't know I had a friend in Gaza. In the Facebook profiles of street animal rescuers, cats and dogs are always the protagonists....

‘Veritas’: The Reverse of Bay of Pigs (Special)

Introduction Veritas goes beyond simple historical narration; it is a cinematic essay that unveils a crucial event of the Cold War: the invasion of the...