Bill Ortiz: The Santana Trumpeter Steps Out


Bill Ortiz’s diverse new album Points Of View is a blend of fusion, Latin bravado and straight-up crazy jazz chops.

(Photo: Courtesy of Bill Ortiz)

Bill Ortiz’s diverse new album Points Of View is a blend of fusion, Latin bravado and straight-up crazy jazz chops. The master trumpeter’s third solo release, and his first since deciding to end his 16-year run as one of the featured soloists in Santana, it heralds the trajectory of his latest musical sojourn with the clarion call of Eddie Harris’ “Sunbursts.”

“I heard it that way, too,” Ortiz agreed, speaking via Zoom from his Potrero Hill home high above San Francisco, with a bird’s-eye view of the Pacific and the entire Bay Area. “I thought it’d be a good way to start off the record, which isn’t just a collection of songs. It’s an arc that follows a kind of journey or story.”

Ortiz’s own journey began right here in his birthplace of San Francisco. He grew up in a musical household listening to Louis Armstrong records, became first trumpet in the San Francisco All-City Band as a high schooler and spread his wings playing local clubs with R&B and jazz bands. After studying electronics and Latin music in college, he blew his way into the sizzling Afro Cuban Orchestra Batachanga, directed by percussionist John Santos, beginning a lifelong musical bond that comes full circle on Points Of View. Drawing deep from the creative well of the vibrant San Francisco scene, Ortiz also cast a wider net for personal musical heroes like Portland-based pianist Brian Jackson.

“It was a tremendous honor to have Brian Jackson on this record, because when I was forming my identity as a musician and as a person, the music of Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson was very important to me,” said Ortiz, who assembled 14 players to help him manifest his vision: reimagining important and sometimes forgotten pieces instrumental in shaping his personal voice. And while his previous two solo albums mined Ortiz’s experience touring with popular soul and R&B groups like Tony Toni Toné, TLC and En Vogue, Points Of View circles back to his roots playing improvisational jazz with legends of jazz like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, or his Latin heroes like Tito Puente and Pete Escovedo.

“As an artist I consider myself a jazz musician first and foremost, but I always take a broader view,” Ortiz explained. “It’s a tree with these different branches from African to Afro Cuban to Latin to African American jazz, blues and soul music, with a common thread that ties it all together.”

During a lively conversation, Ortiz discussed the threads woven together to create Points Of View, a work recorded during the pandemic and released on his own label, Left Angle Records. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Points Of View is the perfect name for an album with so many different rhythms and voices. But even though it’s played by a large ensemble, your trumpet is the calling card. There’s no question that this is your record.

Thank you. The base of this group is a sextet with vocals, with additional vocals and percussionists on some songs.

I like players who make people listen and react, so that every time they play a song, it tells a different story.

One story that really spoke to me was “In Search Of Truth.”

That [Lonnie Liston Smith] song was originally recorded with Pharoah Sanders, whose inner soul and spirituality comes out through every note, and had Indian string instruments. [Keyboardist] Matt Clark was trying to simulate that feel and was really great on this whole album. When I’m going in and out harmonically, he’s following me, filling in the blanks. [Drummer] Dennis Chambers and other people in the group also did that.

As a Jaco Pastorius fan, “Okonkole y Trompa” also jumped out at me.

I always loved Jaco and that song is iconic, but I wanted to take it somewhere different. It comes out of West African and Cuban music, which has a choir of batá drums that move and sway like trees in the wind. John Santos plays percussion on that song and he used that concept, but with different rhythms that go in and out of sync, kind of like the composer Steve Reich. It ends with a Foli song sung by John Santos, which begins a centerpiece of three songs with vocals. I didn’t initially plan it that way, but it seemed like a natural choice.

Social activism has always been a central part of your career, and the Gil Scott Heron piece “A Toast To The People” is a very rousing call to action. Brian Jackson co-wrote that, right?

Not only did he co-write that, but when I talked to him about doing the song, he told me that was the very first song that he and Gil ever wrote together. So he was touched we were doing the song.

It’s so important to keep what they were saying [about social justice] out there, because it’s still true today, unfortunately.

How did the pandemic factor into recording the album?

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we would have all been in one room. So, as the producer, I had to figure out how to record it and have the most amount of organic interplay. I did the scratch tracks of my solos, and then I recorded the basic piano, drums and percussion.

Everybody’s reacting to what we played and also reacting to each other, so there were actual conversations going on.

I’ve interviewed several musicians with their own labels, but they had relatively small combos and you had this vast ensemble. How do you finance a project like this with so many moving parts?

A lot of people raise money with GoFundMe, but I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Fortunately, I had the resources to do it myself, and it’s not just hiring musicians. If you want to make it more than just an ego project, you have to hire a publicist and a radio promoter and engage a quality distributor, and I built a good team.

It’s tough putting out a record these days with everybody streaming, but I felt it was important to document my evolution as an artist, and whatever happens beyond that is gravy.

You also have a lovely home with a spectacular view, and you’ve earned it. You’ve been working hard all these years and your list of credits is endless and so varied.

Well, thank you. You honor me. DB

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