Saxophonist Anthony Ortega is one of the most original, peripatetic postbop players to emerge from California; he's also one of the least known. His career spans more than 50 years; he played with a young Eric Dolphy during bop-era jam sessions on L.A.'s Central Avenue and he was a member of bands led by Lionel Hampton, Don Ellis and Gerald Wilson, but it's been his sporadic, hard-to-find recordings as a leader that his obscure legacy is built upon. He cut a remarkable album for Bethlehem in 1956 that split its two sides between cool jazz and chamber jazz that managed to reveal his love of Charlie Parker, and he made a 1961 recording where overdubbed intricate arrangements on flute, clarinet, bass, tenor and baritone saxophones, but it was his 1966/67 albums for the Revelation label, reissued in 1992 by Hat Art, that stand out the most. He paired the freedom of Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins with the lyrical beauty of cool players like Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz.
Ortega moved to San Diego in 1975, where he teaches, but Scattered Clouds is his first new recording in years and it doesn't disappoint. On a program dominated by standards, and joined by the hard-swinging duo of pianist Mike Wofford and drummer Joe LaBarbera, Ortega weaves inside and out of the music like a slalom skier negotiating a familiar but still stimulating mountainside. While the trio initially renders pieces like "Alone Together" and "What's New" instantly familiar, in most cases it doesn't take more than a few measures before Ortega leaves the chord changes behind, although the group never really abandons form, and the leader always returns home.
Let's hope we don't have to wait several decades for his next statement.