For Otmaro Ruiz, there's nothing like a good challenge.
Like learning to play jazz. About 13 years ago, when the then pop-based keyboardist was living in his native Caracas, Venezuela, a friend brought him a tape of pianist Chick Corea. "He told me, 'This is jazz, man. Listen to it,' " recalls Ruiz, who has resided in Southern California since 1989. "I got hooked. The music was so spontaneous. It was fun to analyze what Chick was doing. I didn't have a clue, but the challenge was fun."
As time went on, Ruiz, who plays tonight and Saturday at the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, expanded his jazz horizons and became interested in the styles of such masters as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. He also found himself to be an increasingly big fish in the small musical pond of Caracas.
Conservatory-trained on guitar, Ruiz had started to focus on piano at age 15 because "I had so much more ability to be expressive, perhaps because I had no formal training." And he was a smash success, doing all kinds of studio work, touring with big-name Venezuelans like Solidad Bravo, and producing albums. But something was missing.
"There wasn't enough competition. I was getting lazy," Ruiz says from his home in Valencia. "I wanted to be in a challenging place, and I found it here. This is a place where everything is going on and the heavy competition keeps me on my toes. Also, I wanted to really focus on researching jazz, listening a lot and completing my degree." Ruiz received a master of fine arts degree from CalArts in 1993.
Ruiz has thrived in the Los Angeles musical arena. He's performed and recorded with Arturo Sandoval, the remarkable Cuban expatriate trumpeter; Jon Anderson, formerly with the rock group Yes, and Frank Gambale, the jazz-fusion guitar wizard who calls Ruiz "one of the finest keyboardists I've ever heard." And Ruiz just completed a U. S. tour with Robbie Robertson, one of the founders of The Band.
The Venezuelan sees no conflict in performing with a diverse range of artists. "To me, music is music, and that keeps me wanting more, no matter what the style," he says. "Doing a Cuban project like Arturo's soon-to-be-released 'Dream Come True' made me want to get into it, research that music," he says. "And I like the texture-oriented contemporary rock things that Robbie does, and Frank's right-in-your-face fusion thing. It's important to respect all sorts of music and to try to learn from them."
With many of these artists, Ruiz performs on synthesizers. While he has nothing against the electronic instruments, he says that, on his own gigs, he plays only acoustic piano. "I want to have one night of healing from all those cables and oscillators," he says, only half joking. "With synthesizers, you have to work twice as hard to make them expressive, to make them feel alive. With the piano, you feel that interaction with the instrument. It's like getting feedback from another person; it inspires you to do things that you didn't think you could."
Ruiz will appear at Le Cafe with his sextet: Dave Enos (bass), Aaron Serfaty (drums), Michael Shapiro (percussion), Pedro Eustache (flute, saxophone) and special guest Frank Gambale (nylon-stringed guitar). The distinctive sounds the group offers will be based around Ruiz's concept of blending music from Latin America, specifically Venezuela, with jazz. This isn't easy.
The leader says that Latin music is a much broader genre than many people realize. "The average person, even the average musician, puts Latin music into one bag," he says. "But each area of Latin America has its own culture, its own history and experience with music, besides the primal African influence. Brazil is a whole planet in itself. Venezuela and the Andean countries have different approaches. Latin music goes from Tijuana to Patagonia."
As much as Ruiz enjoys his life in Southern California, he, like many artists, finds the jazz scene here to be a "little underground." So over the seasonal holidays, he took a trip to New York City, which sparked him.
"My batteries got recharged by the way the musicians approach and play music there," he says. "Those of us working seriously need some of that New York intensity. It reminds me that all I want to do is make music. If you consider yourself an artist, you have to go for it, and the idea of making lots of money should come later. Fame is so relative. I don't know that I want to appear on a magazine cover, but I know I want people to appreciate what I do."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
WHERE AND WHEN:
Who: Otmaro Ruiz.
Location: The Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
Hours: 9 and 11 tonight and Saturday.
Price: $8 cover, two-drink minimum.
Call: (818) 986-2662.