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Anthony Ortega

Robert Spencer By

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Here is a man who has played with Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Paul Bley, Quincy Jones, Don Ellis, Dinah Washington. Here is a man whose alto saxophone playing has been compared to Charlie Parker's and Ornette Coleman's—both with just cause. Here is a man whose Sixties sessions, long out of print for the most part, are revered by collectors, who hunt them down assiduously—because there have been a few people all these years who knew what Anthony Ortega was doing, and couldn't stand the idea of missing him as he did it.

He was born in 1928: before Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman (John Coltrane and Miles Davis were two). He joined Earle Spencer's Orchestra in 1947, and Hamp's in 1951. He led his own group. He went to Europe. He gigged in New York with some of the biggest names in the business. Recognition came to them, but not to him. Only they—Dizzy, Hamp, Maynard—knew he was in their league.

He kept working, along with his wife Mona Ørbeck Ortega: composing and interpreting standards as only he can: approaching them lovingly and caressing them with care, and occasionally adding the hotfoot to the mix that makes his playing so outstandingly original and unexpected. He has a beautiful tone that serves as the foundation for his outrageous versatility and ability to invest an improvisation with firepower far beyond the ordinary. He bridges the "avant-garde" and the "mainstream": he plays melodies, gorgeously, but he finds possibilities in them that lesser players overlook, or don't dare to explore.

In the Fifties and Sixties he recorded as a leader: a string of legendary and elusive discs. Best known is New Dance! (1966), which was re-released on CD in the Nineties on hat ART and will soon appear again, to hosannas from those who have waited this long, on hatOLOGY. But it remains to be seen whether these ever reappear: modest masterpieces like Anthony Ortega (1954), Jazz for Young Moderns (1958), Man and His Horn (1961), Permutations (1966), and the later Rain Dance (1978). On the French Evidence label there are a couple of Nineties-vintage easier-to-track-down discs: On Evidence and Neuf (see the "Unsung Recordings").

Through it all, the recognition that should have been his eluded him. Was it just? Try this: get hold of an Ortega disc and play it right after a recent recording by any contemporary alto saxophonist you care to name. That's right: any one. See who comes out with more to say with his horn. (My money's on Anthony!)

Now there is Anthony's new Hat: Scattered Clouds. It's a welcome return to the scene for a man who has in fact never been away. It's not too late to make the acquaintance of this supreme altoman.

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