Jazz interview with jazz trumpeter Bill Ortiz. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Bill Ortiz: – I was born in San Francisco, and grew up both there and just outside Portland, Oregon. My parents had an extensive record collection and I would listen to their stuff, including a lot records by Louis Armstrong and his Hot 5/Hot 7. I also was constantly glued to listening to radio. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, top 40 radio played everything such as Sly And The Family Stone, The Beatles, Motown, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder…. When I got to high school, my band teacher was a professional sax player and he exposed me to a lot of great jazz artists. Around this time I started playing gigs and learning about improvising while performing in bands playing R&B, jazz and latin music. By my senior year in high school I knew that music was my path.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
BO: – My sound is still constantly evolving. To be a true artist one must continue to grow and develop. As a trumpet player, I tend to be inspired by the phrasing of great singers. I also am always searching for some new music to light the creative fire and to inspire me to stay fresh and remain moving forward.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
BO: – With trumpet, part of what you practice is for maintaining and improving one’s facility of the instrument itself. As Dizzy Gillespie once said, “practicing the trumpet is like trying to fill a leaky bucket.” It’s an endless endeavor. I’ll use lyrical etudes for core strength, good air support and fluid phrasing. I’ll use such books and The Arban’s Method and Clarke Technical Studies for basic technique, maintaining a light quick response and general facility. I like using the Charles Colin Flexibility Studies for range and endurance. On the musical/artistic side, practicing transcriptions, patterns, playing standards every day all help with vocabulary and concept. Above all, listening to and learning from foundational players is paramount.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
BO: – I think I have certainly evolved over the years. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve strived to be better and more concise with making my musical statements during solos. I value getting to the point and eliminating unnecessary notes. When we’re younger we have a tendency to overthink things and attempt to show everything we know in every solo. Each solo to me is just one story. Wayne Shorter said once that “musicians often get in their own way.” Once when I was touring with Santana, we had the great Hugh Masekela playing on the same bill. During one of his solos, my friend leaned over and said, “man, he’s playing to express, not to impress.” He was spot on.
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
BO: – That’s kind of related to the last question. It’s all about one’s intent. In regards to spiritual stamina, some of my favorite musicians have or had a very strong sense of spiritual overtones in their work. Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, Bob Marley, Abbey Lincoln; all these artists have a very strong sense of spiritual purpose in their music. I have a friend who is a practitioner of Sufism, and he feels that the simple act of playing a long tone can be as spiritual as any prayer or meditation. As an artist, I think of every performance as an offering or contribution to the larger creative experience, the legacy of those before, and to those who are listening. In regards to musical stamina, that relates to staying up on your instrument and being healthy and relatively good condition.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Points Of View, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
BO: – I’m proud of how this album turned out, especially with the challenges of getting this done during the pandemic. It was an honor to have all the great artists I had on it. In particular it was a special thrill having my fellow Santana alum Dennis Chambers playing drums, as well as saxophonist Azar Lawrence and pianist Brian Jackson, both musical heroes of mine. As for what I’m working on now, I am having a lot of fun writing new material and selecting some songs for a next project. I can’t wait to get to it.
JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
BO: – I always look for the musicians who have the ability and desire to reach within themselves and try to play something new each time. I strive for my band to be very organic, and to take the music and audience somewhere different with every performance. All the players on my album are strong individuals with their own voice, and don’t rely on the same bag of tricks and stock licks. I like what Miles Davis said about wanting his musicians to play above what they know, to play what they don’t know.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
BO: – That balance may vary from artist to artist, and from song to song. A composition about social justice and a love song will have a different balance. Beethoven is credited with saying ‘to play a wrong note is insignificant: to play without passion is inexcusable.” I don’t know that a wrong note is insignificant, but I agree with the second part for sure.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
BO: – To me it’s all about that two-way relationship. Carlos Santana would play those long sustained notes in his solos and his audiences would be transfixed in the moment. He talked about that note vibrating through his body, his guitar and the audience at the same time, and it was true. He would define that moment as “time stopping for the listener, and people being in a moment of connection.” My favorite artists have that ability. To me it’s the best thing about playing music.
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
BO: – It was always a blast playing at The Montreux Jazz Festival with Santana. We’d often have great guest artists joining our performances, such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Taj Mahal and a lot of other great musicians. Playing in Morocco was also a wonderful experience. There’s so much great music there, some really magnificent sites and beautiful culture. I also have wonderful memories of recording with Tito Puente-on one album he had Phil Woods as a featured soloist and played his ass off of course! Lots of memories over the decades, too many to list here…
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
BO: – It’s important to preserve the history of jazz, but it’s also valid to stay current with today’s culture and music. I believe both are important, not just to keep people connected but for creative reasons as well. Some artists are going to make their focus about preserving the past, while others are driven to explore new music by incorporating new elements and genres. All that said, all the creative and innovative jazz artists in the past played music that was current to their times. If you want people to relate to your music, it has to resonate with them, whatever you play.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
BO: – When I play it’s all about the spirit and the connection with others. In a larger sense, my version of the meaning of life is to be of service of others and to try to make the world and the life of others a bit better even if it’s in our own small way.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
BO: – It would be to make the music business less corporate in its view, and to encourage music fans to purchase music instead of just streaming it. Without artists getting paid for their recordings it’s much more difficult to have a viable career in music.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
BO: – My listening tastes are all over the map. In addition to listening to my favorite jazz artists, I listen to a lot of R&B, Hip Hop, latin, African music, gospel, classical… Lately I’ve been on an Art Farmer kick. I’ve also been listening to Fela Kuti, Robert Glasper, Joe Henderson, Gene Ammons, Pharaoh, Gary Bartz, Neil Young, Daryl Coley, Youssou N’Dour… I like all twelve notes.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
BO: – I’m good with whatever people take away from listening to my recordings or my playing. That’s theirs.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
BO: – I remember my first time listening to the studio recording of Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things. My initial impression was being in awe of the exquisite feeling in the air, what a magical moment it was and thinking about what it must have felt like being in that room during that session. Listening to music like that is indeed a time machine, a snap shot into a memorable moment that sounds as fresh and new as when it was recorded. You’re transported back to that feeling that was created then, and can’t be recreated or duplicated.
JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
BO: – You’ve asked some great questions! Let me think…. Ok Simon I have one for you…how did you get into jazz and the business of supporting the arts? What was that journey like?
JBN: – I’m sorry, but I do not consider jazz a business. In 2007-2018, I did everything for free for all musicians, but people or humano-like musicians hurt me when I published an interview, published an album review, but they did not write the most common word thank you. Now I show everyone their place, with a very rough egg and very positive, I distinguish garbage from quality. That’s enough, the garbage has increased in jazz. I have been in the jazz field since 2001. Now I organize jazz festivals in several Eastern European countries.
JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
BO: – It would be simply to let people know about my album, that they hopefully enjoy the music on it, and for more people know about who I am as an artist and about my career. I would like to thank you Simon for your support and interest in my new record! Your site is excellent as well… keep on keepin’ on….
Interview by Simon Sargsyan