Jazz pianist Hilton Ruiz was a musician of uncommon versatility, shuttling seamlessly between the complex improvisations of the avant-garde and the relentless rhythms of Afro-Cuban music.
Born in New York City on May 29, 1952, Ruiz was a child prodigy who performed at Carnegie Recital Hall at age eight. In addition to classical studies, he explored jazz under the tutelage of the legendary Mary Lou Williams, and at 14 made his recorded debut with the Latin soul outfit Ray Jay and the East Siders. His remarkable improvisational gifts nevertheless cemented Ruiz's decision to pursue a career in jazz, and while still in his teens he backed everyone from Freddie Hubbard to Joe Henderson. Ruiz vaulted to global renown in 1973 when he joined the famously eclectic saxophonist/flutist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, proving his mettle as a gifted interpreter of a repertoire spanning from the blues to the avant-garde via cult-classic LPs including The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color and The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man. After a four-year tenure with Kirk, Ruiz toured Egypt and India with Clark Terry; upon his return to New York, he was a first-call sideman for acts including Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Chico Freeman, and also founded his own group, continuing a headlining career that began with the 1975 Steeplechase effort Piano Man. Over the span of acclaimed LPs including 1977's Steppin' Into Beauty, 1988's El Camino (The Road) and 1991's A Moment's Notice, Ruiz honed a Latin jazz fusion approach that resulted in collaborations with Tito Puente and Paquito d'Rivera; he also moonlighted in film, contributing to the soundtracks of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning American Beauty, and with Richard Bradley authored 1987's three-volume Jazz and How to Play It. During a visit to New Orleans, where he was scheduled to work on a Hurricane Katrina benefit project, Ruiz suffered a fall in front of a French Quarter bar and slipped into a coma. He never regained consciousness, dying just a week after his 54th birthday on June 6, 2006. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi