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Anthony Ortega

Rex  Butters By

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Now at 80, saxophonist and composer Anthony Ortega still plays with the wit and dexterity of his bebop youth...
You know you're talking about a jazz musician when the artist in question has played and recorded with Elvis, Streisand, Sinatra, Lalo Schifrin, the Lighthouse All-Stars, Quincy Jones, Gerald Wilson, Clifford Brown, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Paul Bley, Dinah Washington and Frank Zappa, to name a few, while still finding time to record soundtracks, release highly regarded and collectible sessions as leader, experience a resurgent wave of acclaim in Europe and despite it all remain virtually unknown in the US.

Now at 80, saxophonist and composer Anthony Ortega still plays with the wit and dexterity of his bebop youth, as amply demonstrated on Afternoon In Paris, his latest release from hatHUT. Yet, his mastery includes so much more than a blinding technique serving a galloping imagination. Having grown up on swing, matured with bop and come of age with free, his palette is the history of jazz. With Ortega, shading and nuance become the language of the soul and, like all the greats, he shines brightest on a ballad.

Maybe because he hails from and mostly operated out of Los Angeles, he suffers the SoCal jazz curse where Hollywood culture is mistaken for LA culture. A child of Watts, he attended Jordan High, whose alumni include Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette and Don Cherry. "We had two swing bands, man," he recalled recently. "The thing is, Jordan High School was a Junior and Senior high. They had a Junior Hepcats and a Senior Hepcats. I was in both bands. We used to have these Count Basie arrangements; they called them stock arrangements. They used to cost 75 cents; 'One O'Clock Jump,' '9:20 Special,' it was really a good foundation. Plus, I was taking lessons from Lloyd Reese downtown. I used to get the streetcar, the Watts local and take it down to Maple Avenue and take an hour lesson with him for three bucks. I learned a lot from him, man. He was a heck of a teacher. He was strict, but wasn't mean. He'd watch what you were doing and if you didn't practice he could tell right away. I learned all my chords from him.

"Eric Dolphy used to mow his lawn. So, we used to go down to Central Avenue; we weren't old enough to get into the clubs. But, at that time they weren't really that strict. We used to go down there and just kind of lurk in the background. When Dexter Gordon or some other heavyweight like Wardell Gray, Sonny Criss or Hampton Hawes came and if there weren't that many people or if it was late we would get a chance to sit in with those guys. After hearing these guys playing, maybe a couple of them would want to go out and get high and we'd go up and play. So, I got to play a lot over there."

After debuting on Central Avenue at 16, Ortega soon found his way into Lionel Hampton's band. On a tour of Norway, Ortega met and married pianist and composer Mona Orbeck. During a late '50s-early '60s stay in New York he recorded My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, A Man and His Horn, Jazz For Young Moderns, Earth Dance and New Dance!, when not working with Maynard Ferguson. A move back to LA saw years of work in film and TV, as well as long stints with Gerald Wilson's orchestra and even an appearance on Zappa's The Grand Wazoo. A rediscovery in Europe resulted in a smattering of new recordings showcasing not only Ortega's gracefully maturing performance gifts, but also his impressive compositional talents. In the case of his French Evidence CDs, Ms. Orbeck Ortega's writing talents are represented as well.

Neuff, for instance, boasts the Ortegas' compelling compositions brilliantly arranged for nonet, including Anthony's "Toulousse," an affecting atmospheric track with a chart that melts in the ear. On "Plato," his too-big-to-be-an-alto musings channel Gato Barbieri's fiery passion suffused with humid romanticism. On Mona's "The Way I Feel," he draws on authentic stylistic roots to voice an elegant longing more closely associated with players two generations past. Then without betraying that ambiance, he casually strolls through modern harmony, even appearing unhurried while sprinting. Her "Gemini" challenges Ortega's soprano with a swinging cubist landscape of shifting times and modulations brightened by Didier Levallet's popcorn horns.

When Ortega is asked, with such an amazing track record and so much accomplished, what he wants to do in the future, he laughingly replies: "Get a gig! ...It ain't gonna happen, but I haven't been recognized in the US. I'll never get a tour of the states at this point; I doubt it very seriously. That was one of my goals, to tour, to go to clubs, but I don't think it's possible anymore. It's so different now. I'd like to be better known, but after awhile, what's the difference? Health is the main thing."

Recommended Listening:

Anthony Ortega, Earth Dance (Fresh Sound/Coral, 1956-57)

Anthony Ortega, A Man and His Horns (Herald, 1961)

Anthony Ortega, New Dance! (Revelation-hatOLOGY, 1966-67)

Anthony Ortega/Thierry Bruneau, Seven Standards and a Blues (Serene, 1992)


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