For the 65th birthday anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Hilton Ruiz (May 29, 1952-June 6, 2006), here are the liner notes that I wrote for his final CD, Enchantment, a 2002 release, plus the interview that we conducted for those liner notes and a WKCR interview from 2000.
Liner Notes For Enchantment:
It’s long-established that Hilton Ruiz, now 49 years old, is a virtuoso of the piano. Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in midtown Manhattan, cater-corner from the old Madison Square Garden and two blocks from Musicians Union headquarters, Ruiz studied Puerto Rican folkloric music and European Classical repertoire in early childhood. By 18, the wunderkind was a professional jazzman, gigging with Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Frank Foster, and Jackie McLean, and making an impact on the Latin circuit with soñero Ismael Rivera and Mongo Santamaria. Through extensive tutorials with ancient-to-the-future pioneer Mary Lou Williams, a lengthy apprenticeship with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and postgraduate work with George Coleman and Tito Puente, Ruiz learned how to imprint his personality on a surfeit of styles that encompass the jazz timeline; he’s equally comfortable laying down idiomatic two-handed stride and the blues at its most primal, morphing the piano into a drum on a nasty montuno, carving wicked elongated Bud Powell bebop lines with bell-like clarity, and soaring to the outer partials of abstraction.
Ruiz internalized from his mentors the old-school credo that technique is nothing more or less than a means to communicate and entertain; as he puts it, “Making people feel good, putting on a great show and still playing valid, beautiful music is what it’s all about.” On Enchantment — a seamless set comprising 12 cannily sequenced songs, each referencing some aspect of his professional experience — he does precisely that.
The connecting thread, Ruiz notes, is how the compositions “lend themselves to the ear; even though some might be complex or angular, basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record.” His bottom line: “Play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can recognize them and hear the song. The improvisation is the other part of it. But those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.”
The pianist’s fierce two-chorus improvisation on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the set-opener, gets the juices flowing, not least because of the mighty groove set by bass veteran Lisle Atkinson and young Venezuelan trapset whiz Marlon Simon. Then Ruiz plunges into the title track, recorded by long-time colleague Dave Valentin a few years back. The pretty refrain blends Brazilian and Caribbean elements; Ruiz improvises elegant bop-inflected lines with a Barry Harris connotation atop a smooth carpet of rhythm-timbre set forth by Simon and Panamanian percussionist Renato Thoms on cowbell. Note Ruiz’ keen comping over Atkinson’s brief solo before he launches into his final theme-and-variations, climaxing with an immaculately executed parallel octaves sequence.
The versatile tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman comes on board for “I’ll Call You Later,” a swinging blues with a bebop melody. After a horn-like Atkinson solo in the upper register, Freeman uncorks an intense solo with a resonant sound that channels the spirits of Chicago ancestors Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan; lest you forget his modernist affinities, he concludes his declamation with a series of crescendoing arpeggios. Not to be outdone, Ruiz follows with another logical, crisply executed bop statement that contains not one excess note.
Ruiz first played with Freeman as a sideman on the 1977 album, Beyond the Rain [Contemporary], while the tenorist was a member of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine; in the mid-’80s, they worked in the initial iteration of The Leaders, with Don Cherry, Arthur Blythe, Cecil McBee and Don Moye. “Chico’s playing transcends the ordinary,” Ruiz says. “As a listener, he captivates me, takes me to a spiritual level. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking.”
Freeman sticks around for “Sweet Cherry Pie,” an irresistible line with a cha-cha/boogaloo groove that trombonist Juan Pablo Torres recorded in the mid-’90s. It’s the kind of feel Ruiz danced to — and played — on countless occasions in his teens.
The ’60s were a golden age for Latin music, and Ruiz recalls them fondly. “It was great,” he says. “I got a chance to see Barry Rogers, Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn, and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel in Brooklyn would have 14 bands going all night. You’d take the IRT to Clark Street, go up in the hotel, buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got TNT, the Lebron Brothers, the Meditation, Eddie Palmieri, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, and Johnny Pacheco; there was constant dancing and grooving and partying. I’d get back on the subway early in the morning.
“Everything was mixed up. I listened to WABC radio in my youth, which involved the Four Seasons, the Beatles, Little Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys. I’d go to the Cheetah and hear the R&B bands, and I listened to hard rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, and Traffic. I listened to Classical Music. I listened to everything.
“When I was about 14 I’d hear Ed Williams’ radio program, ‘Maiden Voyage,’ on WLIB, and later on I listened to Ed Beach on WRVR. I heard John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But when I heard the Bebop, I was captivated how it sounded and how it swung. I could really feel it. I’d go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan; I heard Elvin, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner and many other people live.
“I listened to a lot of great saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies, and through them — John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Rahsaan — I was introduced to the great pianists. Hearing Al Haig, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Rahn Burton, and Bill Evans, I could relate to how the piano works with the horns; they showed me conceptually what and what not to do. When I started working, I had some working knowledge of how to accompany, and for the last thirty years I’ve been an accompanist in addition to having my own gigs as a leader.”
Ruiz goes on to discuss his piano influences: “Oscar Peterson’s trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen had an impact on me like a horn — I could really focus on the piano. I heard Eddie Palmieri a lot at dances, but Herbie Hancock made the strongest impression for his beautiful harmonies and ideas. Then I heard McCoy on the record African Village, with that technique and soloing and fire. That told me there was someone else besides Herbie. I listened to Harold Mabern live, and studied a bit with him. Also Barry Harris, Chris Anderson and Roland Hanna. Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, was a good friend, and so was Hugh Lawson. I liked Bill Evans, especially for the way he comped behind bass players. He directed the music but at the same time left it wide-open, constantly setting up a carpet where you could blend, and that really impressed me.”
“I was around Mary Lou Williams from when I was 18 until she passed. She showed me a lot about what not to do. When I did something wrong, she’d say, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done.’ Then I’d watch her play, and saw the true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that came out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling.”
Keep these recollections in mind when listening to the four Ruiz solos that comprise the next section of Enchantment. The first pair are rare piano readings of “Gemini” and “Black Narcissus,” by saxophone giants Jimmy Heath and Joe Henderson, respectively.
“I’ve worked on and off with Jimmy Heath through the years, and I’ve always looked up to him,” Ruiz says. “He’s very knowledgeable; I could always go to him with questions and he’d straighten me out. I like the melody and the feeling of ‘Gemini.’ It also happens to be my sign. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way Jimmy wrote it.
“Though it’s in my resume that I worked with Joe Henderson, I only worked with him once, years and years ago, around 1970, as a sub. I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. This tune was part of his repertoire then, and he played it for me on the piano. I learned exactly how too play it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right.”
Ruiz shows how thoroughly he’s assimilated the language of Thelonious Monk on a quintet version of “Shades of Thelonious,” an ingenious reharmonization of “You’ve Changed” that he recorded in trio format in 1991 [Doin’ It Right (RCA-Novus)]. “The melody gives my interpretation of Monk’s flavor,” says Ruiz, who grew up a 15-minute walk from Monk’s San Juan Hill apartment. “The flatted fifths and other devices identify with Monk and Ellington. They could make sense out of those intervals, creating beauty from them.
The second pair of solos are an elegant, blues-drenched reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” (“it’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia”) and “Silhouette,” an impressionistic on-the-spot improvisation with a Gershwinesque flavor.
Bassist Lisle Atkinson plays the melody on the first part of “Goodbye” with a plush arco sound before Ruiz enters on the bridge.
Ruiz cites Frank Sinatra’s iconic reading of the Gordon Jenkins torch song on Only The Lonely as his inspiration. “Guys tend to play tunes in their own style, with embellishments,” Ruiz notes. “Whenever I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because of his great articulation. He did it right! Here I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation. In a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody; if the melody allows, even the drums can do it. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they get other sounds. I’ve always been conscious of leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality. That comes from my background in Latin music, and also from playing extensively with people like Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and other great drummers. When the drummer is conscious of the melody and chord changes, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, then you can elicit beautiful overtones, which enhances the whole performance.”
That’s what drummers Simon and Thoms do on “Home Cookin,” a funky boogaloo that Ruiz recorded in 1987 [Somethin’ Grand (Novus)] and played during a cameo in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors. And he ends with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” (from Kirk’s flute album I Talk With The Spirits), showcasing a Chico Freeman solo that drips with soulful Chicago feeling, embodying Ruiz’ assertion that “the idea of the blues is to play something that sounds good to take the blues away — a taste of real life.”
“All the music I enjoyed was part of the Rahsaan experience,” Ruiz says. “He played the music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. The great composers of Classical music. Music from all over the world — Africa, the Orient, the Middle East. We had to play all these musical flavors every night. I had to research. Rahsaan would come to my apartment, we’d go to the record store, and he’d buy 15-20 records; each time he’d give me one or two, pointing out songs to listen to. Then I’d play those songs on the gig. I learned boogie-woogie and stride piano in the manner required to get it to swing in its own style — do it for real, make it sound right. That comes from within. If you love something and have the talent, then you get to it.”
Ruiz concludes: “I didn’t want to make this album complicated. I wanted it to be straightforward and honest. The listener can make their own decision.”
This listener’s verdict is A-plus.
Hilton Ruiz (WKCR, 10-19-00):
TP: Was Dizzy Gillespie’s music very significant for you as a youngster in formulating your conception and sound?
RUIZ: Most definitely. I really heard Charlie Parker first, and Miles Davis. The tune I remember is “Back Home Blues.” I had a chance to be around Dizzy a little bit. He was a really funny, beautiful person. Magnanimous. He’s one of those certain artists who reaches the highest level of entertainment 24 hours a day. Make you laugh; taking care of business. I had the honor and opportunity to be on a video and CD called Rhythm Stick. We played together a couple of times, with Jon Faddis and Dizzy and me on the piano, just the three of us. For the few times I got a chance to be around him, I’m really happy to say that I knew the man, because people like this only come once in a lifetime. But thankfully, we have the music to listen to and to study.
TP: About how old were you, what year was it, when you started getting out there in the public world and playing? Mid-’60s, in your teens?
RUIZ: Yeah. I played with Ismael Rivera, a great Puerto Rican sonero, and I played with Ralph Robles for a while in a band called Ray Jay and the East Siders.
TP: What part of New York did you grow up in?
RUIZ: I grew up on 50th Street and 8th Avenue, right by the old Madison Square Garden. But I spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side and a lot of time uptown in Harlem. All over the place. I’ve been all over the city. I know this city very well.
TP: What were your first music lessons? Was it a family thing? How did it begin for you?
RUIZ: It was a family thing. My family really loved music, and they listened to records. My uncle took me to Professor Santiago Mesorana, who was also from Puerto Rico when I was 5 years old. He started me off on the solfeo, which is also called solfeggio, a method of sight-singing. Then after a couple of months went by, he let me get to the keyboard, and I studied folkloric Puerto Rican music. That lasted maybe about two years. After that, I went to Carnegie Hall, and I studied with George Armstrong, a very great pianist. That’s where I played my first recital, at Little Carnegie.
TP: Was that dealing with Puerto Rican folkloric music or Western Classical?
RUIZ: No, that was Franz Liszt and Mozart.
TP: So you weren’t just playing Puerto Rican folkloric music as a kid.
RUIZ: Well, I started with that. Then we did the Bach Inventions and the Handel and the Czerny and the Bartok.
TP: So you had a facility, obviously.
RUIZ: Well, at that time I had a facility, but it hadn’t come out yet. Because I had to learn the setup of the instrument and how to get over the keys. That was tedious. It was a very tedious time in my growing-up, because it was very difficult. You had to have in this place, play this soft, play this long, play this short, put the pedal down here, and then if you didn’t do it right, start again. The next week you’d start again. So you had to trudge through it just to get the next level. So I didn’t know anything about harmony or anything like that. I was just like reading and interpreting the Classical music. I did that for about four or five years.
TP: How old were you when the notion of improvising, when jazz started entering your picture?
RUIZ: When I was about 13-14 years old, I used to listen to a radio program, Ed Williams, “Maiden Voyage” [WLIB], and later on I listened to Ed Beach. I heard John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk…
TP: Who you later played with.
RUIZ: Yeah. Almost five years with Rahsaan. It was super-beautiful. One thing led to another, and here I am.
TP: Who were the jazz pianists who attracted you and who you tried to emulate? Was it that sort of process for you?
RUIZ: Yeah, it was. The first, strongest impression was Herbie Hancock. Of course, I had been dancing and going to see Eddie Palmieri a lot. I had been going to see Lee Morgan live quite a bit, and Woody Shaw and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and of course, Rahsaan. So I got records like The Inflated Tear, and listened to Rahn Burton, who was an influence. But Herbie Hancock made a real deep impression on me because of the beauty of the ideas that were coming out. It seemed to be really just beautiful harmonies. Then I heard McCoy Tyner, and I said, “Wow!” I had never heard anything like that. I said, “there’s somebody else besides Herbie Hancock.” I heard McCoy Tyner on a record called African Village, and I heard that technique and that soloing and that fire. I was listening to Harold Mabern live, and I got a chance to study a little bit with Harold. Barry Harris. Chris Anderson. Roland Hanna. And my good friends were Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, and Hugh Lawson… I was with a lot of guys.
I heard Bill Evans and I liked that a lot, but the point where I heard Bill Evans was really with his trio. As I went back and started doing research, I heard some early things on Riverside with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers, and it was like Bill Evans, the bebop pianist. I met him at the Vanguard, and he was a very-very nice cat. But what I liked about Bill Evans was the way that he could comp behind bass players. He was very sensitive to the more fragile elements of the music. He would lay out a constant carpet where you could just blend and do your thing without really being directed in any way. He would be directing, but at the same time he would leave it wide-open, and that really impressed me.
I was around Mary Lou Williams for quite a number of years, from when I was 18 years old until she passed, and she showed me a lot of things about what not to do. When you were doing it wrong, she’d just say, “No, that’s not good, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done. Then I watched her play, and got a chance to see the real-real true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that were coming out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling. That was a great opportunity. I’ve had a lot of great people around me. The list goes on and on.
TP: I’d think for a curious, talented musician growing up in New York at that time, the opportunities for learning would have been endless.
RUIZ: Well, it wasn’t easy. I had a lot of fun while I was doing it, and I still do have a lot of fun — because I think that’s the whole idea, to have fun and let other people enjoy what you’re enjoying. But there were a lot of humbling moments, times when you had to get up there and didn’t know a song or maybe you weren’t ready to do a certain thing, and you were out there in front of everybody. I was lucky because I was given the encouragement to go out there and keep playing. If I was playing something that wasn’t cool, they would tell me to stroll, just cool out for a minute and listen, come in when it was appropriate. But it was always an atmosphere of encouragement. So I was very fortunate in that sense.
This band I have at Sweet Basil, we’re kickin’ it real hard in there. People are coming in, the place has been packed already a couple of nights. They’re dancing in the chairs and stuff and eating and drinking, and everybody’s smiling and having a good time.
[MUSIC: HR, “Shades of Thelonious,” “Round Midnight”]
TP: You mentioned a lot of pianists among your influence, but you didn’t mention Monk, who was close to Mary Lou Williams for many years.
RUIZ: Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting Thelonious Monk, but I did see him at a concert for one of George Wein’s festivals. He had been off for a little while, and he had come back on the scene, and I made I sure I got a chance to hear him — and it was fantastic. So the impression he made on me is in these songs, especially “Shades of Thelonious”… I tried to capture the feeling of how I feel about the flavors that Monk uses when he composes and when he plays. It’s a distinct flavor, and it doesn’t really make sense to try to analyze it too much, because it’s the sound that he produces… It’s so slick and yet it’s so correct at the same time. It’s a pleasure to play the compositions. That’s probably why I didn’t mention him. I can’t mention everybody at the same time, because there’s so many people. You have people like Carlos McKinney and Johnny O’Neal and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau. There are so many guys who have made an impression on me pianistically. Monty Alexander. Horace Parlan. But primarily it’s been Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri. Chick Corea, who is a genius. And anybody who can play. Anybody who can really play and make me want to go home and try it out. Because what I do is I hear something, and I go home and try it out and see if I can put it int my little tool chest, so when I go out to do my job, I can have more variations of different things I can do to try to get the job done..
TP: A contemporary of Monk’s was Tito Puente, who passed earlier this year and whom we heard playing mallets on “Round Midnight.” Hilton said at a certain point during his solo, “you’re never going to hear that again; not that way!
RUIZ: Because that’s the real way to play the vibes. Tito was a vibist in the sense that he played the vibes and got the full sound out of the instrument, not the approach that I would approach the vibes as a piano player. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, with guys playing like the piano on the vibes. But to get your own sound, a recognizable, beautiful sound, and to make it sound like bubbles… That calls for percussion, people who have studied the instrument and know to move around and get that particular sound.
Tito was so great as a person, so great as a musician. One of the greatest things about Tito Puente was that with all the things he had done — he had been there with Monk, he had been there with Charlie Parker, he had been there with John Coltrane, he had seen all of that live playing, back-to-back sets, all the guys respected him — he always was trying to keep everything real and keep the real flavor of what we call jazz music, and without losing the roots of his native Puerto Rico, and from New York and Spanish Harlem. The volumes and volumes and volumes of tunes, great dancing tunes, great arrangements, great vocalists, and that he would come out and get a band like these guys here, the Tito Puente Latin Jazz All-Stars. James Moody was in there for a while, Paquito d’Rivera, Mario Rivera, Dave Valentin, Charlie Sepulveda, Giovanni Hidalgo. He surrounded himself with only the very best musicians, and he knew what he wanted to do at all times. He was always prepared. He always had a bag of music with him. He was ready for any situation. But he allowed us to grow and flourish in our own way. He made a way for all of us to carry on, because all he wanted was for us to respect the music and keep playing the music. Anybody who ever saw him, or you just put on one of those records, and you can feel the flavor of the thing. It’s kicking. It’s hard. It’s coming hard. It’s really great. It’s a magnificent thing he’s left us.
Tito Puente and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I must say, are the two individuals who really made me kind of look and say, “Entertainment, show business…”
TP: Is not incompatible with the art of music.
RUIZ: Right. Making people feel really good, and putting on a great show and still playing some valid, beautiful music — that’s what it’s all about.
TP: In the ’60s, you were playing with Ismail Rivera, in Latin Soul bands… There was a huge Latin movement in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, Latin bands playing all over. A lot of musicians paid their rent on gigs and dances with Latin bands.
RUIZ: Sure. It was great. I got a chance to see Barry Rogers and Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel would have 14 bands going all night.
TP: The one in Brooklyn? Just take the 2, go up in the hotel…
RUIZ: You got it. You go in there, you can buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got the TNT, you got the Lebron(?) Brothers, you got the Meditations, you got Eddie Palmieri, you got Pete Aconda, Johnny Pacheco, there’s like constant dancing and constant grooving, constant partying. We’d all get back on the subway early in the morning, and go to school or whatever.
TP: Or not.
RUIZ: Well, I did. I went to school. I didn’t want to get up a lot or mornings. But I made it there. I didn’t even want to be there a lot of times.
TP: Where did you go to high school?
RUIZ: I went to Power Memorial. [Kareem was a senior when he got there] It’s not there any more. That was a tough school.
TP: So you to go Power Memorial, and you’re playing music the whole time and keeping up an academic course-load. It sounds like you grew up pretty young.
RUIZ: Well, academically… I’ve been around the world ten times. I’ve been almost everywhere by now, traveling constantly. I can thank the Creator for that. So I’ve been able to see things that in my education I saw in books, and actually touch things and be standing in the places of true history of this planet. So that’s basically my education, because when I got out of high school…
TP: You went right to work, didn’t you.
RUIZ: Yeah, I just went right to work. I started working with Clark Terry. That’s the first time I went on the road, was with the Clark Terry Quartet, with Major Holley on bass… No, it was Louis Smith that first time on bass, then Major Holley came in, and then Victor Sproles. Then with the big band, the quartet, the quintet and everything. Then in ’72, Jackie McLean took me to France, to a festival at Chateau Vallon, and that was really out of sight. Then Rahsaan took me out for a few times. I went out with George Coleman and with Tito. It’s been a great thing. I recommend everybody to really travel at least a little bit. Take a cruise, take a plane somewhere. Really get the flavor of other… But for people who haven’t extensively traveled that much, it’s really worth it to get out. Because you hear the music, you taste the food, you meet the people, you smell the air, you see the cars and vehicles, you see the architecture. You never know what you might run upon.
TP: As a kid and through your life, did jazz and Latin music seem like part of a big continuum to you? How was it alike? How was it different?
RUIZ: It was all mixed up. Because I listened to WABC radio in my early youth. That involved Four Seasons and the Beatles and Little Stevie Wonder, Beach Boys, like everything. That was the music that I listened too. I would listen to things like “A Summer Place,” which I still think is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever been written. Then I used to go to the Cheetah and I used to listen to the bands there — the first Cheetah, which was basically Rhythm-and-Blues, Rock-and-Roll. I listened to some Hard Rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, Traffic — a lot of that music. Classical Music. I listened to everything.
But when I started listening to Bebop music, ,I was captivated by the sound of it, and the way it made me feel. Because I’m coming from a Latin-Puerto Rican-New York, all the way in there background. When I heard the Bebop, I said, “Wow, this stuff really is swinging.” I could really feel it. Like I said before, I used to go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan. I heard a lot of the guys live, and a lot of the ladies, too.
The most important thing you can do is to go out and listen to everything. Listen to everything! And especially for young children… I as a parent make sure that my daughter has listened to everything. She likes rap music, she likes all kinds of stuff. But she heard the music. I allowed her to make that choice, and I exposed her to that. I didn’t try to hold her back from anything like that. I think that a lot of kids would like Bebop music and they would like a lot of the things that we enjoy as adults. But because it’s not given to them in the volume of other music that’s out there, constantly being pumped out, pumped out, the peer pressure and everything like that… I’m not saying that the Rap is not happening, because those guys really know what they’re doing, and they are masters of that style. But there’s a whole lot of other things that can incorporated into that, and a lot of times kids don’t really get a chance to hear bebop music and the jazz music. But that’s so very important that this music be exposed to everyone, so that everyone can make their own choice and their own decisions, say “I like this and I don’t like that.” I like Flamenco or I like Opera, I like Bebop and I like creative music. But if it feels good, I can’t knock it.
[MUSIC: HR-G. Coleman, “Strange”; HR-David Sanchez, “Sonny’s Mood”]
TP: I’ll repeat your comment about George Coleman, “he spells all the big words,” referring to his ability to make art out of polysyllabic harmonic language.
RUIZ: He cleaned that solo out. He got in all the corners of it. George Coleman, pound for pound… There are a lot of great saxophonists out there, but in terms of consistency, I don’t think I’ve ever played anyone who was more consistent than George Coleman. In that style. Because you have Jimmy Heath, who’s very consistent, James Moody, a lot of guys. But George has a certain polish, a certain flair that you can almost taste the music. I was listening to that solo, and I could almost see Amsterdam, the time we spent in Amsterdam, and in Paris and in London, and just the visual things of all our travels. We had so much fun. Billy Higgins was the drummer, and Herbie Lewis and Ray Drummond on two different tours. On one tour we did nine weeks in Europe, and we had fun all the way down the line. We never knew what we were going to play. Playing everything through all the keys, at different tempos. Billy Higgins is right there, knows just what to do and his volume was just perfect for a piano player, because he’s so intense but he keeps the dynamic level… I’m glad to see that George is doing good and he’s in good health. I’m looking in the future for people like that to get much more recognition for their artistic endeavors.
TP: Have you played much or at all with Craig Handy and Ryan Kisor before?
RUIZ: Well, I’ve never played with Ryan before. The first time was at rehearsal on opening night. But he came in and read the music and everything. He’s a very cool cat. We’re getting to know each other and he’s taking care of business. I’m very happy to have him there. I’ve never had the chance or enough work… I’ve been working almost constantly, thank God. I’ve been able to put my daughter through college and buy a home. But the bands are always different. I try to keep as many people together as I can. But since I can’t keep everybody on salary, it’s hard to maintain that one unit. The longest-lasting edition was probably the Andy Gonzalez-Steve Berrios-Giovanni Hidalgo rhythm section. We made a lot of records together. But these guys are great. Craig Handy is a great saxophonist, a great person. They come to play and they come to make the people feel good, and we don’t really have any attitude problems. Everyone gets a chance to write, everyone gets a chance to be featured. We’re out there making people feel good! That’s what we’re happy to do.
Renato is from Panama so he has that Latin flavor. He’s a very strong conguero. Then Marlon Simon. Every night I get up there, it’s good for me, because I’m used to playing at that level anyway. I’m used to pushing through the envelope into the next envelope, so to speak. I’ve never allowed anything to stop me — as long as, God willing, I can stay healthy — to just keep going for trying to make it better, and try to listen and be supportive, but just keep going for that music and try to make it better. It gets strenuous. At the level we play, it’s a very physical gig. We play ballads and we play a lot of pretty things. But I know people come out and they want to hear fire, and they want to hear something really to make them rock and feel really good. I have to look at the room, I have to see what kind of audience they are. If it seems like it’s a Count Basie type of audience, we have to play something for them. If you see an Ellingtonian… How can you tell if an audience is Ellingtonian or Basieites?
TP: You have an intuition after 35 years playing for people.
RUIZ: They’ve just got a look about them!
TP: What’s the difference between a Basieite audience and an Ellingtonian audience?
RUIZ: I would say that the Ellingtonian audience would be a sophisticated audience of people who really are digging the full classical picture, with the swing, with everything, with the spirituals… To me, that’s like the big picture. And then the Basie group of people are people who probably are into that and know about that, but it’s just straight swing, how hard can they swing you, how hard can they make you move, how good can you feel listening to an orchestra. I’ve heard the Basie band live. It’s just too much. Basie was more into constantly creating that swing for people to dance and to enjoy. Duke was doing that, but also recording different kinds… I haven’t heard as much music as you have. Probably very few people have heard as much music as you have. But we’re speaking hypothetical…
TP: Your sets are fluid from night to night. You might play anything on any given night, is what you’re saying.
RUIZ: Well, I have to look at the room. I have to see the age level. I might play the Flintstones.
TP: And you have to have a band that can handle that, and with these guys you do.
RUIZ: They have to handle all those kinds of things. Because the music that we call jazz is a whole lot of things. But basically, it’s to give somebody a good feeling that you know you’re contributing positive vibrations to your fellow neighbors. It’s an honest thing, where they really like it, or they may not like you, or maybe they’ll like you later… They don’t have to like you. But you’re making them feel good. So therefore, you’re accomplishing something, and you really can say that you’re doing something on this planet; you’re making people feel good.
TP: You were talking about your guiding imperative always being to push the envelope, push through into the next level, and that’s been a palpable part of what you do. You played in the ’70s and ’80s with Arthur Blythe, and Sam Rivers was part of your ensembles in the ’80s…
RUIZ: Marion Brown. I did a tour with Marion. Did a record in Paris called Back To Paris. Marion played “Body and Soul,” played all over “Body and Soul,” and he wrote some originals there. I made two albums with Marion Brown. I played a little bit with Archie Shepp. So many great musicians.
[HR-Sam, “Bluz”; HR (solo), “Soul Eyes”]
Hilton Ruiz for Enchantment (7-30-01):
TP: Talk about selecting the arc of the CD, selecting the repertoire.
RUIZ: I just want it to be record that people can enjoy, and I want it to be accessible to listeners from all different walks of life. Not necessarily a specialized group of jazz listeners… If people want to use the record for just fun listening, that’s what I’m going for. The selections all have very pretty melodies. All I’m trying to do is get to the listeners so they can feel good and have it be accessible to a full range of musicians, from classical on.
TP: That said, you deal with a lot of different styles and approaches. I don’t think it’s so easy to pare down and make material that is as involved as some of these pieces sound as simple as it does.
RUIZ: Well, I think it’s the compositions themselves. They lend themselves to the ear. They’re pretty compositions, even though some of them might be a little complex or angular. But basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record. I didn’t want to make it complicated. I wanted to make it straightforward and honest as to what it is. I guess as the person listens to it, then they make their own decision.
TP: “Seven Steps To Heaven” must go back to Miles Davis. Your association?
RUIZ: I heard it when I was a teenager. The melody just stuck in my mind immediately. It’s very catchy. I tried to make the improvisation concise. I didn’t want to play a whole lot of choruses. I played two choruses and they took it out. It’s kind of an introduction to the album that gets you going and gets the juices flowing.
TP: How much do you pre-plan the arc of the arrangements? Do you carefully work out the whole structure beforehand? Is it more extemporaneous once you get in the studio? Talk about doing a record vis-a-vis a live performance.
RUIZ: It calls for more rehearsing and trying to put everything in a package that is concise and yet has the freedom to be expressive at the same time. Basically, when we get in the studio, I don’t have an idea of what kind of arrangement I want. But a lot of these songs, when they were written, were basically arranged at that time. So the only thing in terms of arranging would be the choice of instruments that you’re going to use in the performance, or to include an interlude here or a vamp there or a tag here. But going back to “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the arrangement is all laid out. It’s already there.
TP: There you play a Bud Powell, bebop style. You play in different styles in different tunes. Does that happen in the heat of the moment, or are you also thinking of your improvisational approach beforehand?
RUIZ: Not really. I practice every day and I try to work out different ways to enhance my improvisations. But it happens when it happens. That’s the nature of jazz. You really don’t know what’s going to happen in your solo. There are patterns and things that a lot of us use to the point across. But you really don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until you make that tape, then that’s what have to live with, or decide whether you want to try another one. But since it’s a group with quartet and a lot of percussion, it’s not overly arranged. I like to let the percussion be part of the harmonic structure because the drums have their own harmony, which adds overtones to the rest of the diatonic harmony that the keyboard and the regular 12-tone tuned instruments. So there’s a certain degree of space that has to be left there, so that the drums and conga and bongos will have an audible space in this particular quartet. Now, if I’m doing a big band arrangement, it’s a whole different story. That calls for putting the right horns in the right place and things like that. But basically we just have the one horn as a guest, who was Chico Freeman. I had the music written for him and he rehearsed it. Some of it he saw on the spot.
I like to leave a spontaneous element in recording. If you go in there and record something you’ve practiced a million times, and you know exactly how it’s going to go, that’s fine. But to me, that comes down under the heading of maybe… I wouldn’t put it in the category of being a jazz performance, because one of the main elements of jazz is the improvisation.
Basically, to break it all down, if you can play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can understand the melody and hear the song, then the improvisation is the other part of it. But the song is also very important that a person can recognize the melody of the song. And those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.
TP: Is “Enchantment” your composition?
RUIZ: It’s an original, about five years old. It was recorded on an album called Primitive Passions by Dave Valentin, and it was featured on that album. I’ve never recorded it on any of my albums. It’s a very pretty song. That’s why we chose it to be the title. It’s kind of a Latin-Bossa Nova type thing, a cross between Brazilian and Caribbean flavors. It has the flavor of East Coast Latin Jazz and it also… This one wasn’t necessarily like a Cha-Cha or a Mambo, which is pretty strictly Caribbean. It has no parameters. It has an element of Brazilian music, of South America and Caribbean music.
“I’ll Call You Later” is a straight-up blues. It’s pretty straightforward. We play the melody, which is a bebop-flavored melody. Chico takes a great solo. It’s one of those tracks you listen to for enjoyment, just bounce. Chico got a very good sound here.
TP: All the tunes were just right for him. You’re on records of his going back to the ’70s?
RUIZ: I was on one of his first albums, called Beyond the Rain. Chico used to come listen to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The last couple of years I was playing with Rahsaan, Chico got the gig with Elvin Jones, who had one of the groups I’d go listen to a lot since I was teenager. I always enjoyed listening to the Elvin Jones groups. Chico was in this particular group with Pat LaBarbera, and he had a certain spiritual quality about his playing that transcended the ordinary… As a listener, I was captivated, and he took me to a listening level that was spiritual. That’s how I felt. In a positive sense.
There was a band called the Leaders around ’84, in which I was the original pianist. Don Cherry was the original trumpeter on the first tour.
TP: You’ve played in so many situations. It’s hard to think of a musical environment you haven’t covered — from New York piano function things, which go from Latin Jazz, Boogaloo, Bebop, Blues, Avant-Garde. And you touch on everything in this record. It all seems very comfortable to you. Anything to say about the panorama of styles and approaches that you seem able to access very naturally.
RUIZ: I listened to a lot of records. I love the music very much, and the music was a really big part of my life in terms of enjoyment, and listening and buying records. I really got a good groove just putting on records and listening to different artists — Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins. They played so good that to me it was an enjoyable thing. It was like a daily thing. I’d get up in the morning and I’d want to go buy a new record or try something out, play the piano along with the records. Then I started getting gigs with great musicians; a lot of them were on the records I had at home. All of a sudden, I found myself in the bands of these people who I used to listen to on record. Since I had the love for it, and I did a lot of research, I learned how to play the right voicings and how to be an accompanist. I was so proud and so happy to be there… It wasn’t about money or anything like that. It was about just being able to be up there and play that music, and to get the recognition that I was at a level where I was able to play with these great musicians. So day by day, the days added up and months and years; thirty years later I look back, and I’m on over a hundred albums. [May 29, 1952]
TP: You started gigging in ’70 or so? Or before that, in high school?
RUIZ: I started gigging in the late ’60s. The first gigs were with Joe Newman from the Basie band, Frank Foster, Clark Terry. The first time I went on the road was with Clark Terry. I was 18 years old. Then Jackie McLean was my first European tour. I was 20 then. Then I went with Rahsaan Roland Kirk for almost five years.
TP: Rahsaan had a huge impact on the way you think about music.
RUIZ: Definitely. Because all the different things that I enjoyed were part of his program, part of the show, part of the experience. He played music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. He was into the Classical music. He was into the Great composers. Music from all over the world — from the Orient, from Africa, from the Middle East. Every night we had to play all these different types of musical flavors. So I had to do more research. I used to go to the record store. He used to come to my apartment in New York, and we would go to the record store, and he would buy 15-20 records, and he would buy me one or two records every time. He’d say, “Hey, you need this one, and take this one, and listen to this song and listen to this song.” Next thing you know, I would either be playing those songs on the gig or I was able to play in the style that was required to get it to swing in its own style. In other words I had to learn how to play some boogie-woogie and stride piano and things like that.
TP: And make it breathe. Be idiomatic..
RUIZ: Yeah, and do it for real. Make it sound right. But that comes from within. If you love something a lot and you have the talent, then you get to it.
TP: “Sweet Cherry Pie” is a beautiful groove tune.
RUIZ: I wrote it about seven years ago. It became a hit on an album by the trombonist J.P. Torres. That tune kind of speaks for itself. You can dance to it, you can listen to it, you can drive your car to it, ride a bicycle, jog, whatever. It’s steady motion; it keeps moving and grooving.
TP: It seems like it would be hard for someone under 35 to write that. You don’t hear a lot of younger people dancing to it any more…
RUIZ: You should go to the Salsa clubs. You’ll find that beat danced to all the time. It’s basically a Cha-Cha.
TP: Are you still playing those clubs?
RUIZ: Yes, occasionally. I do a special here, a special there. I’m guest soloist with a band or a singer. Actually at this point, I’m getting much more to my own research again. I’m going back to sheet music and repertoire, and looking at music I’ve seen before for a second time to see if I’ve missed anything, just to take another reevaluation of what music is after playing it for thirty years. Now that I’ve gotten all this experience, reevaluating from how I looked at it when I didn’t know what a chord was, when I didn’t know what improvisation was, didn’t know what a vamp was, didn’t know what changes were. Music is so vast and so great that you need to always keep going forward but always research the past, too. You can find things that are very useful and devices that maybe aren’t used any more that are really hip! That’s the way I progress, by going back to the…
TP: How long have you been going back to it?
RUIZ: Well, I’ve studied the Schillinger System, I studied the George Russell system, and I’m classically trained. So I’ve always had that thing in terms of musical theory. But being trained as a classical pianist, I was basically taking pieces that took me three or four months to learn, and I learned them bar-by-bar, note-by-note, hands separated and put the hands together on the keyboard. That’s how I learned. But now that I’ve been into advanced harmony… I’ve always been doing it, but now I do it differently, because I have more vocabulary. I want to go back and take a look at things again, knowing… As an example: Given a piece of sheet music thirty years ago, I’d have looked at it and played it by the notes. But I wouldn’t necessarily know that there was a set of chord changes under it that could be used for improvisation. I didn’t know the possibilities that much. I would play the song and that was it. If I had an arrangement I had to play with a band, I would play what was called for on the arrangement, and that was it. Now I go back and take that same piece of music, and I can say, “Oh, look what he used here; he used a G7-flat IX, and look at this, and, oh, this is something we used…” So I can recognize things better now because of the experience and because of everything… You learn more about the terminology and the theoretical part. I’m involved in teaching. So when I do a clinic or a seminar or something like that, you have to find different ways to reach the student. The more you research things and the more you learn different ways to communicate, the better off you are.
“Gemini” is by Jimmy Heath. I played with him a couple of times. I went on a nice European tour with a band called New York All-Stars that Jimmy led, with Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jimmy Owens, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Cobb. We played at Nice, the Hague and Northsea Jazz Festival. And on and off throughout the years, I’ve played different gigs — club dates and things like that. I never was part of the Heath Brothers Band, because Stanley Cowell is the resident pianist there. Jimmy Heath is one of the guys I looked up to and who I could go to with questions and would straighten me out. Jimmy Heath is very knowledgeable, in addition to being a great player. I like the melody and the feeling. It also happens to be my sign. I guess if something appeals to me, I might play it differently. When you’re improvising and thinking about different things, that’s where the story comes out — how you’re feeling. He did the tune with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet and done big band arrangements of it. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way that he wrote it.
TP: “Black Narcissus” solo is an interesting choice.
RUIZ: Years and years ago, around 1970, I had a big with Joe Henderson. I only worked with Joe once, but it’s in a lot of places as part of my resume that I worked with him. Which I did, but it was just one gig. There was a period where I was a substitute pianist for a lot of great piano players like Stanley Cowell and Harold Mabern, so many great pianists who sometimes had two or three gigs at the same time and needed somebody to come in there. I was recommended to Joe Henderson, and I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. We sat at the piano, and he played this tune for me and was showing me exactly how it goes and how it should be played. This was one of the tunes he was going to play on the gig; it was part of his repertoire at that time. He was playing it a lot at the time. I learned it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right. There are certain little parts that have to be played as he wrote them in order for it to be, if you will, authentic.
TP: You recorded “Shades of Thelonious” a few years ago on one of your RCA records.
RUIZ: Doin’ it Right, I think. I did a trio version. I just added the horn and basically played it straight up just like it was. That’s another one of those tunes that just goes straight down. But the melody itself gives my interpretation of a part of the Thelonious Monk flavor, using those flatted fifths and devices like that, that kind of identify with Monk and Ellington, guys who could use those intervals and yet make sense, make something very pretty out of it.
I heard Monk once at Avery Fisher Hall during the festival, when he played a piano solo. Hearing people like him or Miles Davis just once is like watching a great World Series game. If you were THERE, it’s something you can say to your kids!
TP: Growing up in New York, and particularly growing up where you did in Manhattan, put you in a position that not too many young musicians would have in being able to directly experience the music played by the greatest masters of the music. Or that music being in the air. Even Jazzmobile and things like that. You would have soaked up this sensibility. I don’t know too many people who project more of a New York attitude than you.
RUIZ: I grew up in Midtown Manhattan, right by the old Madison Square Garden. I was one block from Broadway, and the Musicians Union was two blocks down the street. I saw the guys going back and forth to the union, all the entertainers, and the vibe and the people and all this stuff that in general was going on right outside, looking out the window. There was always something going on.
I was lucky, because we grew up in the age of television. People say that television isn’t good for people, but it’s only the way you use it. For me, television was a great thing, because I got to see Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and people like this on TV. That was part of what influenced me, too. I was 7-8-9-10 years old, and I would see these great performers through the medium of television. Now that we have the Internet, it’s showing its value again; that cathode ray tube monitor is one of the greatest communication devices that can be used. If it’s used correctly, it’s marvelous, because you can see and hear.
TP: On the radio you asked me if I could guess the changes of “Shades of Thelonious,” and I couldn’t get it.
RUIZ: “Shades of Thelonious” is basically “You’ve Changed.” Not exactly, but you can play “You’ve Changed” to it, because the bridge goes to the same place that “You’ve Changed” goes to — to the fourth of the chord.
TP: I can say it references “You’ve Changed.”
RUIZ: It’s close enough that it won’t be arguable. Anybody who knows anything about “You’ve Changed” knows that if you play the melody of “You’ve Changed” on top of the chords as that tune is going by, you’ll pretty much have the melody. Although there are places where I use some alternate chords that might clash with the melody. But that happens all the time. That’s the nature of improvisation. You might put a slick chord in there, and it might not be directly associated with the melody note, but as you pass into the next chord it moves into the original tonality, so it’s okay.
TP: Then you do “My Little Brown Book” by Billy Strayhorn. Did you listen to a lot of Ellington when you were younger?
RUIZ: Yes. That’s one of the first things I heard. I heard “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” with that long solo by Paul Gonsalves, then I heard Charlie, Parker, and that was it for saxophones. I said, “Wow, I really like that.”
TP: Did saxophones influence the way you think as a pianist?
RUIZ: Yes. Because I was listening to saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies. I was into saxophone players. I have a collection of great saxophone players, and through those saxophone players I was introduced to the great pianists. One of the first records I had that was just piano, that really had the impact on me like a horn was those Oscar Peterson Trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Then I could really focus on the piano. But through listening to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, I got to hear Al Haig and Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Bill Evans. These great pianists all appeared on these albums. That’s how I had a chance to relate to how the piano works with the horns. So when I started working, I had somewhat of a working knowledge of how to be an accompanist. I’ve always been able to be an accompanist for the last thirty years, in addition to having my own gigs as a leader. Because I’ve led bands for that long, too. but listening to these piano players really showed me conceptually what to do and what not to do. What not to do is just as important as what you do.
TP: That being said, you take “My Little Brown Book” as a solo.
RUIZ: In the sequencing we tried different combinations. We put all the tunes in different order and listened to it, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed it again and listened again. The way I put it together is tonally logical. In other words, I put the two solo pieces together that kind of blended harmonically one into the other, so as you listen to the end of a track, you’re left with a certain feeling, then what comes next to it has to do with what you heard before.
TP: Each tune goes into the other goes into the other. It’s a smooth experience.
RUIZ: Exactly. So by putting two solo pieces together, and then another two… I didn’t want to put three or four together. Because there’s people who like the solos, but now they’re ready to hear some drums! I wanted everything to be just long enough that it would be satisfying, and then give you a little bit more satisfaction, and then go to the next take.
TP: Is “My Little Brown Book” a song that’s been part of your repertoire for a while?
RUIZ: Yes, I’ve played it for a while. I’ve played it with different bands. It’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia. But it’s such a beautiful melody… I play tunes because I like them. I also play them because I’m required to on certain projects. Sometimes I’m exposed to tunes that I like more than others. So I tend to play the things that I enjoy the most, because that enjoyment comes out and is reflected into the audience. People can notice I’m enjoying it, and it seems to make them enjoy it more. I’ve always loved those beautiful melodies. I’ve listened to all kinds of advanced music and I’ve listened to today’s music. I watch the latest things that are coming out, and I watch what’s happening on the music channels. I keep abreast of everything. But a beautiful melody is everlasting.
TP: How about “Silhouette”?
RUIZ: “Silhouette” was done on the spot. That’s totally improvised. That’s something that came in my head and I composed it right there, on the spot, that take and that was it. It’s imagining a silhouette. You see children playing on a hill, jumping rope or whatever, and you see the sun behind it, and you get the beautiful silhouette of what’s going on against that orange sky.
TP: It’s an impressionistic improvisation. “Goodbye” you made a feature for Lisle Atkinson’s arco work.
RUIZ: Lisle is such a great virtuoso, I wanted to have a tune that would feature his artistry. So I listened to the tune and thought about letting the bass play the melody in the first part, and then I’d come in on the bridge. I listened to a version by Frank Sinatra on an album called Only The Lonely. I don’t remember the first time I heard the tune, but one of the times I was playing at a place called Defemio’s, and my friend Hugh Lawson came. It was after the gig, and the musicians were just hanging out, sitting up in the club, and Hugh went up to the piano and started playing the song. I fell in love with it right away. Then I heard it done by other artists. But the Frank Sinatra version was important because I was able to listen to the lyric. Guys tend to play tunes in their own style that they embellish and so on. Whenever I do something where I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because he had a great articulation with lyrics. He did it right! He’s so enjoyable to listen to, plus I love Frank Sinatra’s voice. Then I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation.
A lot of times when you hear the trio, you’re hearing the piano primarily, but in a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody sometimes, and even the drums can play the melodies if they lend themselves to the drums. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they can get other kinds of. sounds. I’ve always been conscious of the drums and leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality.
TP: Does that come from your background in Latin music?
RUIZ: Well, yeah. But also by playing a lot with people like Billy Higgins, and also Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and all these great drummers. When they’re conscious of the tonalities, it can make it sound that much better. When you have a drummer who is conscious of the melody and conscious of chord changes, and plays accordingly, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, as well as percussion, just like I use the piano as a melodic instrument with percussion, then you can get these beautiful overtones to happen. It can really enhance the whole performance with the right drummer who’s playing the right stuff.
TP: On this date with Marlon Simon on traps, how much leeway did you give him? Did you sketch out the tempos and beats you wanted him to play?
RUIZ: Yes. Any hits that had to be made or any figures that had to be played by everybody together, breaks and so on, I would write out for him. Otherwise, play time. Play your stuff. Play what you play. If we all have to come in somewhere, then I would write it out and make it easier for him. Because you can do them by ear, too. Simple arrangements, basically if the guy is on top of his game, he can pick it up right away.
TP: Have you been playing with Marlon for a while?
RUIZ: Four or five years now. Marlon has a couple of CDs out under his own name. He’s very knowledgeable about Latin rhythms, but he’s been around people like Mickey Roker, and he’s done the research. He has a natural swing. Of course, he’s not going to sound the same as a person who has grown up in the United States, because that has something to do with the way you play. But since I am basically dealing with the two idioms, the African and Latin American rhythms, they all come from the same place anyway; they’re all African rhythms to begin with, but went in different directions. He takes care of the business and he’s reliable. He’s growing. The more he plays, the better he gets. I think it’s important, in a sense, to try to have the same personnel — if it’s working — for as long as you can, because that’s where things really start grooving, when people get to know each other musically, and what we can do and things like that. It’s hard when you’ve got to change the drummer or bass player every six months or so. If you get somebody who’s really good it’s going to be okay, but that collaboration of the same people working together on the same thing for a while I think really is what catapults the music forward. If you can have a working band, the same people for a while… When you get to work, you know the repertoire, you know the repertoire, you know what you’re going to play, you know how everybody else plays basically, and you know the breaks and everything else, so now you can focus on creating something and trying to come up with something fresh.
TP: Is that the case with this group?
RUIZ: Yes. Well, Chico is always like that. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking. He’s a leader. Lisle Atkinson is one of those really swinging bass players. He’s played with just about everybody, with all the great singers and saxophone players, and he’s also played with symphonies, and he has a bass choir. He’s a virtuoso. What it is that you want, he can go after it.
TP: How about Renato Thoms? He’s from Panama.
RUIZ: He’s from Panama, and he has played with Eddie Palmieri. He’s on a few records now with notable artists. He came up one night to play as a replacement for Richie Flores, who got busy. He gave me his card and said, “I’ve got your records and I know some of your music.” He sounded real good when he sat in with us. So opportunity arose, and I gave him a call and he came in and he’s been there ever since. I don’t change anything, as long as everything is happening and it’s okay. If a guy doesn’t give me exactly what I want right away, I won’t make a change that fast, because I’ll see if an adjustment can be made. I went through the same thing. I went into places where everybody was more advanced than I was or had more experience, so I’m tolerant of those things. But if a guy really comes to play and it sounds good and the people enjoy it, that’s mainly what I’m concerned with. Little idiosyncracies and things like that will happen. But it all works out if we have time to play together long enough.
“Home Cooking” is one of my hits, if you want to call it that. It was on my first RCA-Novus record, Something Grand. That tune wound up in a movie when I did a cameo with the band in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanor. It’s a popular tune. Every time I play it, the audience really digs it. So it became a mainstay in the program.
“The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” is by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, from his flute album, I Talk With The Spirits. I wanted to end it with a blues. But it’s a happy blues. The idea of the blues is to play something happy that sounds good to take the blues away. Chico got some nice Chicago blues in there. So we just close out with the blues, but a happy blues, a taste of real life.
TP: Let’s talk about the here-and-now. Talk about your last six month and how you project the next six months.
RUIZ: The highlights of the last six months: I was a judge for the All-American Jazz Piano competition. I got to hear a lot of young players. that was very nice, very exciting. I went to Miami and the JVC Festival in Miami, out there on the beach in South Beach, Miami. Then I went to Brazil, and played a concert at the Festival Internationale in Londrina. I spent about five days there, and played two concerts. After I came back I played Saratoga, JVC, and I’m going to be up at Newport in August and at the Detroit Jazz Festival.
TP: At this stage of your career… You’ve been visible and well-known on the jazz landscape for 25 years. Are you equally well-received around the world? Do Latin audiences like you for certain things and other audiences for other things? Do you separate the two components of your personality or are they always converging and coming together?
RUIZ: They’re always converging and coming together. I’ve been blessed that the sound that comes out when I play the piano is really what people like. They like to watch me play, they like to listen to what I’m playing. I get the same response anywhere I go. I can be truthful about this. The audiences really enjoy it. They ask for encores…
TP: You communicate.
RUIZ: It doesn’t make any difference in the age group or the ethnic group.
TP: Well, you were growing up in two cultures, in Puerto Rican culture and the intense mixture of New York. How did growing up in New York affect your approach to music?
RUIZ: The beginning was in Carnegie Hall, studying with George Armstrong. But before that I had studied Puerto Rican folkloric piano music with Santiago Messorana. Then when I studied with Mr. Armstrong, that was Bartok and Bach and Haydn and Mozart. So my background, I’m playing in church for different ceremonies and I’m playing in the assembly room for the school. they did Oklahoma when I was 9 years old, and I played the piano for that. Then there singers who somehow heard that I could play piano, and I wound up making a couple of doowop records. Very simple but they wanted me to do it. I guess it was about the sound. It sounded good. People basically said, “this guy sounds good; I want this guy.” Some people who do certain things musically may not have the expertise in certain instrumental areas, so they rely only on the sound of the instrumentalist. “Oh, that guy is playing what I need. I don’t know what it is, but that’s what I want.” So I was always lucky that people liked what I play and they would call me up and give me work. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that I’ve been able to work constantly. I’ve had two or three months off, but it never more than that. I was always right back to work again.
TP: You seem to have figured out how to be pragmatic and inspired at the same time.
RUIZ: I try to be realistic about it. The more things that I have to do, the more I realize that I have to do more work at home to be prepared, even now with the new technology. I’ve got my computer and my keyboard and my music-writing software, and reading manuals and things like that. It’s not affecting my performance, because I play the piano every day. I’ll take a tune every day and play it through all the keys. So I make sure that I’m prepared. I may know a song, but the singer might sing it in a different key. I don’t want to be on the spot and be scuffling. Playing it through all the keys might take half-an-hour or so to do it, but it’s a goal that I’ve set for myself. I used to practice tunes just in one key, but it’s been a while now that if I play a tune, I want to play it in all the keys. I’m doing my writing now on the computer. I just changed over from pencil and paper to now I can put my scores in the computer, and I can change things and print them out.
So technologically, I’ve moved up into the 21st century. But I still have feeling and flavor. I’ve just gotten into this in the last ten years, where musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Joe Sample and George Duke and Joe Zawinul were doing these things very long ago. But for at least twenty years I didn’t play anything but acoustic piano. If I played an electric keyboard, it’s because there was no piano in the club. But now, I’m keeping myself up with the new technology in case I have to do something, like a movie score or if I have to do something on Broadway or have to do something that requires me to use this equipment. But I think it’s good that I spent all those years on the acoustic piano. And I won’t make the mistake of going to keyboards and leaving the acoustic piano, because then when you go back to play a gig on the acoustic piano, you find that you might not have the same edge you had when you were playing it every day. I’ve seen that happen to musicians. They were really burning, then they went to the electric keyboards, and when they went back it wasn’t quite as fiery . I think that has to do with just playing on wood without a speaker, when you have to produce the note. That physical thing, that energy is coming from the human body, and that’s all you’ve got. There’s no electricity and no nothing. But I’ve got my keyboard setup and I’m computer-literate now, so I’ve moved up into the 21st century.
Tito Puente was one of the greatest experiences I had musically. I played on about five albums, and I was able to arrange. He showed me a lot of stuff, how to open up my scope as far as arranging is concerned, and he also brought me back to my roots in playing the Latin music. We were very close and became very good friends . He really liked what I was doing and gave me the opportunity to expand. I owe him a lot, and I’m happy that I had a chance to be around such a great person. Hopefully, I’m going to keep growing and playing better and doing my thing.