Hilton Ruiz is usually billed as a "Latin-jazz pianist," but that description sells him a bit short. Sure, Ruiz has the skills of a first-rate Latin pianist, but his exceptional technique, mastery of harmony and affection for the hard-bop idiom also mark him as a leading member in the line of jazz modernists epitomized by McCoy Tyner.
A New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Ruiz was a classical child prodigy who performed at Carnegie Hall as an eight-year-old, apprenticed with Latin bands in his teens and early twenties and studied jazz with Mary Lou Williams. He landed his first high-profile jazz gig in the '70s with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and the multi-reedman's showmanship, high-energy performance style and eclecticism have had a lasting influence on him.
Besides Kirk, the 51-year-old pianist has performed or recorded with trumpeters Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard and St. Louis native Clark Terry; saxophonists Frank Foster, Chico Freeman, Marion Brown, Archie Shepp and George Coleman; percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente; vocalist Abbey Lincoln; and many others. He's recorded more than two dozen times as a leader, including a series of well-received major-label releases in the '80s on Novus, an RCA subsidiary. Since that imprint folded, Ruiz -- like so many midcareer jazzmen, too old to be a young lion but too young to be an old master -- has been relegated to recording for smaller independent labels at a time when he's at the height of his artistic powers.
Now touring with a quartet that includes a drummer, percussionist and bass player, Ruiz is a muscular, relentlessly inventive player in concert, alternating rocking the clavé, caressing a jazz ballad, conjuring a hurricane of notes like Cecil Taylor and displaying dizzying flurries of two-handed improvisation that invite comparisons to the legendary Art Tatum. He's worthy of attention in almost any context, but for fans of jazz piano, the chance to see Ruiz stretch out with a small group in an intimate setting is one that should not be missed.