Anthony Ortega Quartet
At The Roadhouse
Encinitas, California (August 25,
Review by Jim Merod
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Few jazz musicians aspire to the designation of Legendary
Obscurity; or Obscure Legend. Either way, there is little benefit in being a truly great musician who is lauded only by ones peers and those few hipsters zeroed in on special talent.
Saxophonist Anthony Ortega is just such a greatly-lionized jazz hero -- sought after in France, where he is recognized for his genuine iconoclastic worth -- overlooked for the most in his native country. That his recordings may be hard to find, frequently out of print, is an indictment of forces beyond his control. Anthony Ortega has recorded with Johnny Hartman, Gigi
Gryce, Quincy Jones, and Gerald Wilson among others. He played in Lionel Hampton's early-'50s band that toured Europe and appeared on albums alongside jazz heavyweights like Clifford Brown, Wynton Kelly, Lucky Thompson, Charlie Shavers, Max Roach, Clark Terry, Cecil Payne, Jimmy Cobb... the list goes on. Everyone should know Dinah Washinton's
Blue Gardenia and The Swingin' Miss D sessions for EmArcy [Mercury Record] in the late-'50s. You will find Anthony Ortega there.
Such warm reception elsewhere, strung against degrees of unknowing or indifference at home, is riddled with poignancy and journalistic cliché. But there it is. Tony Ortega, in a way, is the real Chet Baker...
Chet without the drug habit that dogged his adult life; Chet with a saxophone -- a man who can (and does) sit in with anyone at any time and play anything on nearly any instrument in his considerable arsenal of musical gear.
Ortega, of course, can take solace in knowing how many extremely gifted musicians recognize his talent. He is appropriately proud and confident: not a man with an attitude, but an artist searching for the right notes and musical phrases.
In truth, Tony Ortega is a sweet, self-effacing, gracious man whose warmth and friendliness barely mask the unappeasable joy that surges within him. When you hear this uniquely self-defined musician play, you are likely to have one of several reactions (or
all of them at once): what in the hell is this guy playing? how can anyone get around on his horn with such rule-breaking simplicity and perplexity of purpose? What a remarkable set of nonlinear swoops and maneuvers!
The list of potential reactions to Ortega's playing is nearly endless since his approach to melody and chord structure is often simultaneously inside and outside conventional musical expectations. He seems to revel, like a naughty boy, in the sheer delight and perversity of the rule-breaking norm-defying daring of his approach. And yet, boom! Suddenly Ortega is as apt to enter the personal twilight of a deeply reflective search for romance -- a lulling, soothing, urgent, altogether relaxed caressing of lyric beauty that leaves a listener breathless with admiration and gathered bliss.
One wishes sincerely that Tony Ortega would indulge that urge for unashamed lyric beauty more often. His alto sax playing can quite literally remind a seasoned hearer of the late (unrivaled) Paul Desmond... a fact made clear to me one night in 1990 or so.
I was recording former Count Basie/Billie Holiday trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison in the cave-like basement get-away of the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. The room had been the first venue in which jazz was performed (circa 1918 or so) in San Diego. On a break, I went upstairs to the Grant Grill, where Tony Ortega was performing in a trio setting: piano, bass, and alto sax.
I sat with a beer and was dazzled by the unworldy romance of Ortega's Desmond-like tone, mood, and thinking on his horn. He was not "being Desmond." There was nothing derivative or contrived about his playing. Ortega was merely in his most lush romantic mood of lyrical celebration. I sat transfixed, stunned, almost unable to get up and return to my duties down below.
Since anyone hip enough to know how great a musician, and entertainer, Sweets Edison was will recognize that I was not forced to awaiting salt mines, that person sees that something quite extraordinary was unfolding in the Grant Grill that long ago night in San Diego. It was Anthony Ortega calling up the divine furies of dreaming forgetfulness...
sweeping anyone with good ears into his own deep spiritual heaven. I am sure that Tony Ortega's outside playing in lieu of the utter beauty and beguiling seduction he, among few others, is capable of creating has everything to do with a sense of aesthetic correctness -- a belief (misplaced I believe) that jazz "modernism" or cutting-edge avant-gardism must be upheld against a (genuinely)
philistine culture at all costs.
I have not talked with Ortega about this issue, but I suspect he, like others who recognize the wan attention of most consumers of music (jazz, no exception) decided at some moment in the past to give listeners a ride that snags their focus. It could be, of course, that a man with such unearthly talent may feel a need to defend himself from the sheer bliss that such beauty brings on those open enough to feel its heavenly strength. Surely Ortega is one of those smitten by beauty at its lyric extreme.
Whatever haunts the vast reserve of romance held like brilliant mercury within his horn, Anthony Ortega, on this lovely late summer night in
Encinitas only three blocks from the Pacific. It is a softball lob from well used train tracks, mostly swooped and darted with arch glee... leaving, by and large, the spirit of romance aside.
Exceptions, of course, are sometimes memorable and Ortega's version of "Stella By Starlight" proved to be so... as did his winsome back-and-forth exchanges with his wife's vibraphone forays.
Mona Ortega, a local legend in her own right, had recently reemerged from a spell of self-imposed musical quietness. Her return to the stage, to her vibes, to the give and take of first rate
comping, jamming, and probing on her instrument is more than welcome. It is an occasion to celebrate.
Pianist Bob Hamilton, himself recently reinstalled in his old San Diego haunts, added savvy energy at every point in a too brief evening of fun and musical merriment. One wonders how often in America, in modest neighborhood hang outs and upscale roadside pubs, the magic of great jazz appears. More than one knows, for sure. More than one can ever calculate... as if, despite ungroovy drunks, unwoken minds, ears aloof, elbows dug in at the bar, the ghost of Lucky Thompson -- patron saint of musicians who protest miscomprehension -- strode coast to coast with Walt Whitman's gait.