Cuban jazz piano takes over Chicago

Roberto Fonseca, Omar Sosa, and Harold Lopéz-Nussa bring an abundance of tradition and innovation to Chicago in March & April

By Don Macica

It’s probably just a coincidence. Artists plan their tour schedules far in advance. If you are touring North America, Chicago can be counted on to host a performance. Somehow, though, Chicago gets to experience three of the current crop of fine Cuban jazz pianists in the space of a mere four weeks. Each is about a decade apart in age, leading to intriguing comparisons of influence and approach.

A high standard was set this past Sunday night when Roberto Fonseca, who sits in the middle of this age range, brought his trio to the Old Town School of Folk Music’s original location on Armitage Avenue. Fonseca’s career has run on parallel tracks for the past two decades. On the one hand, he’s a highly innovative composer/pianist who freely mixes in elements like classical music, hip hop, R&B, sampling, and jazz fusion into an Afro-Latin framework and is also known for his collaborations with artists like Malian singer/songwriter Fatoumata Diawara.

On the other, his deep reverence for Cuban tradition and the musicians who came before led to him becoming the pianist for Buena Vista Social Club and a producer/musical director for the late Ibrahim Ferrer and the evergreen Cuban diva Omara Portuondo. In fact, the last two times I saw Fonseca in Chicago he was leading Portuondo’s band and sensitively injecting modern touches into her classic repertoire.


His own trio hasn’t, to my knowledge, been here since a memorable 2014 performance at the now-shuttered Mayne Stage. It was with the highest expectations, then, that I anticipated the Old Town School show. You know those customer service surveys you are endlessly asked to take? If I had one for this show, it would easily rate “Exceeded Expectations.” As both a musician and arranger, Fonseca has done what many prodigies do when they get a bit older: pare back the virtuosic flights a bit and concentrate on the song.

Fonseca primarily drew from his most recent album Yesun (a contraction of two Yoruban orishas, Yemaya and Oshún, goddesses of the sea and rivers respectively). His piano playing was extraordinary, showing deep command yet never showing off. He gave plenty of room to his long-time bassist Yandy Martínez to shine as well, who alternated between electric bass guitar and acoustic double bass according to the song’s need. Fonseca mainly confined himself to expressive grand piano but mixed in electronic sounds from a sampler before finally busting loose with funky Stevie Wonder-style clavinet on “Cadenas.” “Kachuca” was (at least this was how I read it) a tribute to both Cachao and Chucho Valdes and included a jaw-dropping double bass solo by Martínez and finished with an audience sing-along of the coro “de Cuba yo soy”.

Cuban soul and ritmo lay at the foundation of every tune and was explicitly brought forward through interpretations of two classics, “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Besame Mucho.” While it can sometimes feel as though there is some unwritten law that states that if you are Cuban you must play a bolero, Fonseca’s arrangements and the band’s virtuosity found freshness in both tunes.

One Cuban pianist that generally does not follow this unwritten law is Omar Sosa. Born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

A hallmark of Sosa’a highly personal approach is collaboration. Each album and subsequent tour feature a new one, although if a project is particularly rewarding there might be a sequel somewhere down the line. Transparent Water, his album with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, brought him to the Old Town School for a transcendent show exactly a year ago. By then, though, he had already recorded a new duo project, Aguas, with Cuban singer and violinist Yilian Cañizares, a classically trained musician who completed her formal education at Switzerland’s Conservatoire de Fribourg. She was first drawn to jazz there, especially the French-Italian violinist Stéphane Grapelli. Like Sosa, she now makes her home in Europe.


Aguas is an album infused with Yoruban spirituality, indelible melodies, meditative interludes, passionate playing and Cañizares simply gorgeous voice. Both musicians are comfortable in the area of electronic sampling as well, lending subtle atmospheric and rhythmic touches. A certain longing inhabits every song, being as it is the reflections of two generations of Cubans living far from their island home. Like Fonseca’s Yesun, Aguas too is an offering to the orishas, specifically to Oshún, goddess of rivers and love.

Omar Sosa and Yilian Cañizares will bring their Aguas Trio tour to the Jazz Showcase March 13-15, preceded by a night of duets between Sosa and the wonderful Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles.

Unlike Sosa, Harold Lopéz-Nussa continues to make his home in Havana, although he maintains dual French-Cuban citizenship. It is not only his Cuban heritage that informs his music, but also the country’s present-day reality and his desire to share both with the world. His expansive 2016 album Un Viaje was released amidst the optimism that greeted President Obama’s visit to Cuba. The latest, Un Día Cualquiera, comes as the Trump administration’s tightening of restrictions and general xenophobia seek to isolate the island once again.


The Harold Lopéz-Nussa Trio comes to the Old Town School on Wednesday, April 8. Judging from the subtlety, swing, and power of Un Día Cualquiera, the performance could prove to be the equal of Fonseca’s show. Lopéz-Nussa is less inclined to stray far from the language of jazz to make his points, but it doesn’t make his music any less compelling. Whereas Un Viaje reached beyond Cuba in spirit, approach and guest artists, Un Día Cualquiera sticks to his working trio of Havana musicians as an almost defiant statement of Cubanismo, saying, in effect, this is us, this is how we live, this is who we are. There is a tribute to Bebo Valdés, two tunes written by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, another that incorporates Rafael Hernández’ Cumbanchero into its lightning-fast piano runs, and at least one tune inspired by Afro Cuban spiritual practice.

Witnessing the combined output of Roberto Fonseca, Omar Sosa, and Harold Lopéz-Nussa, it’s apparent that a Cuban piano tradition that stretches back over a century is in very good hands and continues to have a bright future. Chicago is lucky indeed to be able to experience all of them in such a compact time frame.

Omar Sosa – Gustavo Ovalles Duo
Jazz Showcase, Thursday, March 12. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

Omar Sosa Aguas Trio featuring Yilian Cañizares and Gustavo Ovalles
Jazz Showcase, Friday-Sunday March 13-15. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

Harold López-Nussa Trio
Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, April 8. Tickets at oldtownschool.org

Review: iLe opens her U.S. tour at Chicago’s Old Town School

By Omar Torres-Kortright, Photos by Charlie Billups

Last Saturday, February 8, iLe, the Latin Grammy-winning artistic persona of composer and singer Ileana Cabra, solidified her position as one of the most captivating and original music projects to come out of Puerto Rico in the last decade. Her Almadura Tour, which will visit 15 North American cities over the next month, had a dream start at Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mauer Hall in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

As always, the night offered an x-ray into the heart and soul of this highly committed artist. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, iLe invites the audience into a world inspired by the complex cultural and musical influences of her Caribbean identity. Every thought, every move, and every word had a purpose in this carefully-crafted, and highly personal artistic statement on the political and social struggles of her native Puerto Rico. Motivated and provoked by Hurricane María, her newest production provides context to the colonial status of Puerto Rico by delving deep into the island’s history with songs like Odio, inspired by the 1979 killings of two independentistas at Cerro Maravilla and Ñe, ñe, ñe; a clear dig at the island’s politicians using plena as its rhythmic driving force.

While many of iLe’s hits are made for the dancing public, I didn’t expect to see the audience standing from the first song to the last, creating a special bond with her Chicago fans that I had not witnessed in her previous visits. The intimate size and pristine acoustics of Mauer Hall allowed iLe to connect on a personal level with every one of the lucky 400+ music enthusiasts that filled the sold-out venue.

Ile’s performance included material from her Best New Artist Latin Grammy-winning Ilevitable (2016), as well as the multilayered and polyrhythmic 2020 Grammy Nominated Almadura (2019). Throughout the night she showcased the depth and range of her voice, capable of going from classic bolero in songs like Triángulo and Temes, to salsa (Te quiero con Bugalú and Déjame Decirte) and even Dominican palo in the closing song of the evening, the powerfully rhythmic La Curandera (The Healer). The healer, she explained before beginning the song, offers a deliberate pause to shake off bad energy and press the reset button… kind of like what many Puerto Ricans had to do after Hurricane María and, more recently, the January 2020 earthquakes.

ile’s performance showcased the talents of her swinging 9-piece band that combines an impressive mix of established and emerging talent from the Island of Enchantment, including musical director Ismael Cancel (drums and percussion), Bayoán Ríos (guitar), Adalberto Rosario (guitar), Jeren Guzmán (congas, percussion), Jonathan González (bass, percussion), Zacheaus Paul (keys, percussion), Jorge Echevarría (trombone), and Hommy Ramos (trombone). The impeccable sound was made possible thanks to the able hands and ears of Bobby Connelly-Nadal, who also came directly from Puerto Rico to nurture the distinctive sonic elements that make up iLe’s artistic DNA.

It has been truly amazing to watch Ileana Cabra’s growth as an artist over the course of just a few years and two albums. The timelessness of her sound disregards fashion in order to convey something deeper and more lasting. It’s easy to imagine a very long and rewarding artistic career to come.

Concert Review: ¡Súbelo! at World Music Festival Chicago

By Don Macica, photos by Charlie Billups

Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which helps present the city’s many free festivals along with other programming throughout the year, has increasingly recognized the growth and diversity of Chicago’s many Latino communities. It was not only appropriate, but savvy, that one of the first major shows of this year’s World Music Festival Chicago, falling on a weekend in which Central America nations and Mexico both celebrate their independence, would draw from Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico for its first ever all-Latin American show. Dubbed “¡Súbelo! – A Celebration of Pan Latin Music & Culture”, it took place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

Summer-like temperatures and abundant sunshine greeted Mexico City’s “Electrónica Regional Mexicana” band Centavrvs, cumbia amazónica pioneers Los Wemblers de Iquitos, and Puerto Rico’s Pirulo y la Tribu, whose 21st century salsa borrows elements from Cuban timba, hip-hop, bomba and R&B.

Centavrvs

Although a band like Centavrvs might seem to fall outside of Agúzate’s dedication to Afro-Latin music, their sound carries many tropical influences including cumbia, cha-cha-chá, danzón and even some vintage salsa, smoothly integrated into their widescreen corrido-like narratives. That’s not surprising, given the way that cumbia has migrated across Latin America and the Caribbean influences that enter Mexico through the port city of Veracruz.

This is, by my count, Centavrvs third visit to Chicago, the first one being at the much missed Celebrate Clark Street Festival in Rogers Park and the second paired with Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno at a 2017 Millennium Park Summer Music Series show. Each time the band comes their sound gets a little bigger and more compelling, and this time around they’ve added a Venezuelan percussionist to the mix to bring the tropical elements more to the foreground. Electronic effects and samples blended seamlessly with guitar, bass and drums to powerful effect.

Los Wemblers de Iquitos

When cumbia reached Peru from Colombia in the late 1960s, it found a receptive audience among the country’s marginalized, indigenous population, who blended it with local sounds and a big helping of rock guitar. This was certainly true in urban centers like Lima, but no less so in seemingly isolated towns deep in the Amazon. It was there that a genre variously known as chicha, psychedelic cumbia and cumbia amazónica was taken up in the town of Iquitos by Los Wemblers. The veteran ensemble made several classics in the 1970s, including one that served as yet another name for the genre: Sonido Amazonico. They were discovered by a wider audience earlier in this century after Barbès Records included some of their songs in their “Roots of Chicha” compilation. Collaborations with the Meridian Brothers and Dengue Dengue Dengue led to them recording the brand-new album “Vision del Ayahuasca” for Barbès and now a world tour.

After a mid-tempo start, Los Wemblers quickly picked up the pace, mixing their 40-year-old classics with new tunes that matched their exuberant spirit and experimental tendencies, relishing the opportunity to play in front of an audience diverse in both age and national identity. The band would have had the crowd dancing in the aisles had the Millennium Park security let them. Instead, they danced in their seats, enthusiastically singing along.

The sun was beginning to set behind the Chicago skyline when one of Puerto Rico’s hottest groups took the stage. Pirulo y la Tribu are a salsa band, but one that generously welcomes other influences, including its Cuban cousin timba, boricua sources both traditional (bomba) and more recent (reggaeton), and American style R&B and hip-hop. They are a perfect example of how a music moves forward and thrives without abandoning its roots. After all, that’s what salsa was in its early days, a new way of absorbing and interpreting diverse Afro-Caribbean and American sources into something new and relevant to an urban audience. It’s not all that different than what Los Wembler’s did back then and Centavrvs do today.

Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado

Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado is a percussionist by training and a showman by nature. In La Tribu, he’s assembled a 10-person juggernaut that he leads from his custom-made timbales. Pirulo keeps the pace accelerated with a clave that manages to squeeze an extra beat into the 2/3 form somewhere between the 4 & 5. The band’s lineup doesn’t stray too far from the classic: three horns, three coro singers, a conguero, keyboardist and Pirulo’s timbales. The extra jolt comes from electric guitar, bass guitar and Pirulo himself, whose gruff vocals exhort both the band and the crowd higher and higher. Once again, the audience was up and dancing pretty much from the first note. A standout moment occurred when the band switched gears to do a straight up bomba number led by coro singer Chamir Bonano’s powerful voice. There was a little tinkering for modernization’s sake, but the spirit and authenticity were a clear signifier of Pirulo’s reverence for his roots.

Pirulo y la Tribu

Pirulo’s set had people dancing throughout the park, and eventually security relented enough to allow some aisle dancing down in front. Ever the master of ceremonies, he peppered the songs with audience chant-along interludes, gradually building each to a climax before turning the band loose to keep up with his hyper-drive clave. At the end, the crowd got their “otra” without excessive delay, and the whole day closed on a very high note.

Puerto Rico, unlike the countries represented by the other bands at Súbelo, is certainly not celebrating its independence this week. There is an anniversary on the horizon, though, marking 2 years since Hurricane María devastated the island. Pirulo’s set, though, was the opposite of somber. Instead, it celebrated resilience, pride, determination, spirit, and even gratitude, all of it expressed in his audience chant, “Gracias… Thank you!”

World Music Festival Chicago continues through September 29. For a complete schedule, visit worldmusicfestivalchicago.org

Miguel Zenón discusses “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera”

By Don Macica

“He’s a larger than life figure. I’ve been connected to him for as long as I can remember listening to music. When I was a child, his music was always present around the house. This was before I had any thought of becoming a musician. When he passed, it was like a president had died or something, a period of national mourning. That really affected me.”

I’m speaking by phone with Miguel Zenón about his new album with the Miguel Zenón Quartet, “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera,” the latest of several albums spanning almost 15 years in which the saxophonist and composer explores the emblematic subject of Puerto Rico, both musically and culturally.

“Later on, when I began to study music, I realized that Rivera was a genius,” Zenón continues. “Since then, he’s always been my guy. Over the years, I dabbled around the edges, arranging some of Rivera songs for David’s group (Zenón played alto sax for nearly 5 years in a group led by fellow Puerto Rican David Sánchez before forming his own quartet in 2005) and later on for my ‘Alma Adentro’ album. I finally felt it was time for a full investigation.”

The product of that investigation will make its Chicago debut September 19 at the Jazz Showcase when the Miguel Zenón Quartet (Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums) begin a four-night residency. Zenón has been coming to the historic Chicago jazz venue regularly for almost twenty years, first as a member of David Sánchez’ group, then as leader of his current quartet. In 2013, he brought his Rhythm Collective side project.

L to R: Hans Glawischnig, Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenón, Henry Cole – Photo by Noah Shaye

Although I’ve long known that Rivera was an important figure, I didn’t quite understand the depth of that reverence. I knew that Zenón was preparing this tribute from a conversation that I had with him last fall at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when he celebrated the release of his previous album, “Yo Soy la Tradición”, with a concert there. I immersed myself in the music and story of Ismael Rivera before calling Zenón. I believed it was necessary to understand more about Ismael Rivera before I could approach a tribute to him.

The story is considerably more complex than this brief outline, but Ismael Rivera’s career is roughly divided into two periods: His work as lead vocalist in the groundbreaking 1950s and early 60s pre-salsa output of Cortijo y Su Combo, led by his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo, and the 1970s, when he formed Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos after the ascendency of salsa in New York. In between those two periods are five years in prison due to a 1962 drug bust, which ended Cortijo’s combo.

Rivera, nicknamed Maelo, is a genius in the way that saxophonist Charlie Parker is a genius: employing an unprecedented and innovative approach to art and technique so that their field (in Parker’s case jazz, in Rivera’s Afro-Caribbean improvised sonero singing) is forever divided up into pre- and post-eras. No less than the great Cuban singer Benny Moré dubbed Rivera “El Sonero Mayor.” It was natural, then, that Zenón would study Rivera’s vocal improvisations the same way he would study Parker.

“Rivera and Cortijo were grounded in traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music,” says Zenón, “and they brought that to the stage and dance floor, putting a specifically Puerto Rican spin to a sonero tradition that comes out of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré. What Maelo built on top of that was unprecedented. Maelo’s melodic and rhythmic gifts of invention took sonero to another level.”

“Rivera is an important cultural figure,” continues Zenón. “Maelo and Cortijo were guys from the ‘hood.” Zenón is referring to Santurce, San Juan’s historic working-class neighborhood (where, many years later, Zenón was born as well) populated largely by Afro-Puerto Ricans. “They took street music like bomba and plena and built a modern, popular sound out of it that didn’t rely on Cuban son as its only reference. No one had done that before, and people loved it. The story goes that songwriter Bobby Capó, who was a big advocate, arranged for them to perform on a popular television show. When the band showed up, the producers saw they were these black guys from the streets and didn’t want to even let them in the hotel where the show was broadcast from, let alone put them on the air. Bobby argued that they’re here, what else are you gonna do? The producers relented, and Cortijo y su Combo became a huge sensation. People loved their attitude, their rhythms, their choreography, everything.”

“Later on, they became the backup band for Benny Moré, and that took them to big stages everywhere, not only in Puerto Rico, but all over Latin America and in New York.”

Many an academic study has been written examining Rivera and Cortijo’s significance to everyday Puerto Ricans, and I won’t quote them here, but suffice it to say it’s a big deal. It’s no surprise, then, that Zenón was drawn to Maelo for personal, socio-cultural and artistic reasons. To drive the point home, Zenón brought in one of those scholars, César Colón-Montijo, to write Sonero’s liner notes.

“I didn’t make the album to expose Rivera to a wider audience, especially among jazz fans,” says Zenón, “but if that happens it would be great. His music deserves it.”

Before listening closely to Zenón’s album, I researched and assembled the original versions of the source material in the same order as the tunes appear on “Sonero”, then committed them to memory as best I could. It’s worth noting that neither Rivera nor Cortijo were songwriters. Some of Puerto Rico’s best, including Capó and the great Tite Curet Alonso, took care of that, often writing tunes expressly for them. Rivera’s genius was in his improvised singing, essentially “composing” in real time much like a great jazz musician.

For “Sonero,” Zenón and his quartet take those written and improvised compositions, examine them, break them down, reassemble them and build new themes on top of them. The album’s 10 tracks are divided equally between the early Cortijo material and the later sides that he recorded for Fania.

Capó’s 1975 tune “Las Tumbas”, as an example, begins with Rivera’s verse (his “prison blues” according to Colón-Montijo) played gracefully by pianist Luis Perdomo and then gradually picked up by the rest of the quartet. The simple melody is lovingly spun out over the course of 3 minutes until, just as the coro is briefly hinted at, Zenón and company abruptly take on the original’s opening horn fanfare before exploring variations the coro for several minutes, returning to the fanfare at the end.

The 1958 Cortijo y su Combo classic “El Negro Bembón”, also penned by Capó, once again starts by taking Rivera’s vocal as Zenón’s initial theme, only this time it’s one of his exuberant improvisations, which is then played against the band’s ensemble work. A similar approach carries Curet Alonso’s 1978 “Las Caras Lindas”, Rivera’s ode to the varied and beautiful black faces of the Caribbean.

The rest of the album continues in this vein, with Colón-Montijo’s liner notes helpfully providing the social and personal context of each song. [Author’s note: Yes, I am suggesting that you buy the CD for its beautiful and informative packaging rather than simply streaming the audio. You won’t regret it.]

Zenón and the rest of his quartet, while all fans of salsa, resist the urge to “salsify” the tunes. “Although salsa and jazz both emerge out of popular traditions and the music of the people, they took different directions,” remarks Zenón. “But the source is the same.”

The Miguel Zenón Quartet may be masters of modern jazz, but the heart and soul of Puerto Rico embeds its spirit into every note of “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera.”

Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase, September 19-22, two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets and information at jazzshowcase.com

A Conversation with Melvis Santa

By Don Macica

If you go to the Facebook page of Ashedí, the group led by Melvis Santa that consists of her and three master Afro-Cuban percussionists, you’ll see it’s titled “Ashedí – Afro Cuban Jazz Meets Rumba”. But to hear the Cuban singer, pianist and composer explain it, they knew each other all along. If fact, they’re family.

“Afro-Cuban traditions are, for me, the spiritual cousins of blues and jazz,” Melvis tells me by way of explaining how Ashedí came together, first as an exploratory concept and later solidifying into the ensemble that will perform twice in Chicago this weekend, including their debut at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival and a return visit to a venue that has been something of her Chicago home, the restaurant and intimate music venue Sabor a Café.

It was at Sabor a Café that I first met Melvis Santa in 2016. She had a show there later that day that went under the name ‘Ashedí Project.’ I interviewed her after a rehearsal with the Chicago musicians who, for that day, were Ashedí. The four split the difference between jazz and Latin, with trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Brett Bentler and conguero Francisco Ocasio.

I ask Melvis how Ashedí transitioned from the rotation of accompanists to the set line up of herself and rumba masters Roman Diaz, Rafael Monteagudo and Anier Alonso.

“Having the opportunity to live in New York as an artist has been an ongoing source of inspiration and a challenge at the same time,” says Santa, who left a notably successful music career in Cuba when she moved to New York from Havana in 2014. “The level is very high and there is no limit when it comes to creativity since people from every corner of the world get together there. With Ashedí I was looking for something, so I tried different formats with different musicians and let the music absorb their influences and cultural backgrounds to see where that could lead me. At some point you clearly understand what is that you really want to do, and how you best can do it. Likewise, you learn to identify what, where, or who you don’t want to waste your time and creative energy with.”

As a young girl in Cuba, Santa was absorbing diverse musical sounds from an early age.

“I learned to sing before properly speaking, and to dance before I could properly walk. By the time I first came to a music school at 8 years old I had already years of performing in community events, attending arts workshops with my mom, attending children’s theater plays with my dad, opera concerts with my aunts, religious ceremonies with my grandma, and so on… I first “discovered” R&B and Jazz through my mom. She worked as an English translator, so she brought home a lot of music in English to practice her accent. She especially loved Anita Baker, Minnie Ripperton, and Steve Wonder.

“I remember while in high school during a listening session with friends someone played Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins. I never forgot that sound. One day my mom brought home the album Unforgettable, in which Natalie Cole sings 22 jazz standards honoring the legacy of her father, Nat King Cole. My favorite tune was Lush Life, but still I didn’t know what jazz meant, I just loved the quality of sounds and how it made me feel.”

At the same time, Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition is deeply embedded in Melvis’ music. “I grew up into a small but very diverse family who holds dear various traditions from Havana and Matanzas: Yoruba, Congo, Arara, Abakua, Catholicism and even Atheism… In the social context and time where I grew up you didn’t learn any folkloric material attending a music school because the educational system is built on western music. You have to be born into a family that practices Popular and/or folkloric traditions, or just be part of the scene of certain neighborhoods to learn the codes. So you graduate as a classical musician, but it doesn’t necessarily means that you don’t have a folk background.”

She goes on, “In Cuba everything happens at the same time, especially in the culture. You are born into a wide range of contexts and you—unconsciously at first­—learn to navigate each one on the go. Just absorbing everything like breathing.”

I return to the subject of New York City and the beginnings of Ashedí.

“I think the concept of Ashedí could have only be born in the U.S., specifically in New York, and that is mainly because it came as a result of my encounter with a Cuba I didn’t get to know,” she says, referring in part to meeting and working with Cuban master musician (and now Ashedí member) Roman Diaz, who left Cuba for New York himself in 1999. “The musical melting pot that is New York, Chicago, New Orleans and many other big cities with their culturally diverse communities and history have definitely contributed to shape my own concept, as well. Although, now that it is ‘born’, I’m positive it could coexist in modern Cuba or anywhere in the world.”

Melvis Santa views her art as it develops in the U.S. part of a continuum. “From the early twentieth century, Mario Bauza and Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker and Machito, Graciela and Dinah Washington, to Dizzy and Chano, and so on… Afro-Cuban jazz stood on his own in New York, and those were some special combinations!” She considers percussionists Diaz and Monteagudo as “the continuation of pioneers like Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, Chano Pozo, and many other Afro-Cuban master percussionists who had the opportunity to assimilate and incorporate jazz as a second language, without losing their roots.”

Santa is totally committed to her art. “There is nothing separate in anything that I do. It all comes from my personal and professional experience,” she says. “Everything is completely intertwined, and I understood that concept since my early childhood. As a professional artist, my mission is to express myself through the arts. And if what I do can help others find their own way of expression, I’m genuinely happy to share my experience with them. I’m not only relying on my natural gifts or talents, I have consciously studied and developed different ways of expression, which involves my cultural background plus diverse art forms such as theater, dance, film, writing, singing, music… I’m still exploring and learning.”

Melvis Santa and Ashedí

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Humboldt Park Boathouse, Friday July 12 at 7 PM. jazzinchicago.org

Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago, Saturday July 13 at 9 PM (two sets). saboracaferestaurant.com or call (773) 878-6327 for reservations.

The Return of the Chicago Latin Jazz Jam Session

By Don Macica –

Nathan Rodriguez is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician and dedicated salsero who was virtually raised on the music, being mentored and given opportunities to perform by veteran salsa musicians at the Latin jam sessions that dotted the city, often sneaking into clubs while underage for the chance to play. Now 36 years old, Rodriguez is a bandleader in his own right with both Conjunto Borikén and Azucar, a Celia Cruz tribute project.

Unfortunately, the last weekly Latin jazz jam session to flourish in the city ended in 2012 when its founder, bassist Richie Pillot, passed away and Café Bolero, the club where it was held, closed its doors.

That was a year before Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico-born jazz saxophonist, moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. McGrath is first and foremost a jazz musician, but his Caribbean heritage is an indelible part of him and his music. Like Rodriguez, McGrath is a bandleader, composer and arranger, and his understanding of both the salsa and jazz idioms has made him an in-demand player in both camps.

A shopping mall in suburban Chicago is quite possibly the last place you might expect to find the heir to Café Bolero and the Latin jazz jam, but that is precisely where Nathan and Roy have teamed up to bring back what they both consider a vital resource and platform for Chicago’s jazz and Latin musicians. Of course, it helps that Lincolnwood Town Center houses an outpost of one of Chicago’s finer Cuban restaurants, 90 Miles Cuban Café.

“90 Miles’ owner Alberto Gonzales, who sees his restaurant as a means of celebrating and promoting Cuban food and culture, wanted to expand programming, and I was looking for a way to build more connection between Chicago’s salsa and Latin jazz musicians,” says Rodriguez, who was, at the time, booking and promoting the restaurant’s Friday and Saturday night live music. “Musicians don’t get that many opportunities to hang out together and play because most weekends we are all busy in other people’s bands,” Rodriguez continues. “I convinced him that a jam session would draw musicians from all over Chicago and that the music could be a draw with the general public as well.”

Judging by the sizable crowd that was there when I visited on a recent Tuesday, that prediction was proving accurate. But before he could get to that point, though, Rodriguez had to put together a core band that was good enough to attract others to join the action. For that, he called Roy McGrath for help. His connections in both the jazz and salsa communities blended perfectly with the solid reputation that Rodriguez had built in the last 20 years.

“As a Puerto Rican jazz musician, I’ve always straddled two worlds,” says McGrath. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that much crossover between the salsa and jazz communities. Salseros might have heard of Charlie Parker, and jazz musicians might know something about Chano Pozo playing with Dizzy Gillespie, but there are these two parallel worlds comprised of terrific musicians who often don’t know each other.”

When McGrath first arrived in Chicago, he knew he found the place he wanted to live and work and create art. “I immersed myself in the jazz scene and loved that there were regular jam sessions where I could learn a lot from working musicians and become a better player,” McGrath says. “Those places are so important for sharing knowledge and developing community, which in turn leads to more opportunities to play. But the salsa player in me didn’t have those same opportunities.”

Rodriguez agrees. “When I was a young player, getting the chance to hang with professionals was incredibly valuable. Some of them became mentors and inspired me to really take music seriously and work at becoming better.”

The band that Rodriguez and McGrath assembled is a virtual all-star ensemble. Besides Rodriguez and McGrath, you’ll usually find Brian Rivera and Tito Sierra on percussion, bassist Freddy Quintero, and veteran keyboardist Edwin Sanchez, who brings a decades-long career as a bandleader and arranger to the proceedings. “Edwin is so amazing,” says McGrath. “He knows every song on the planet, his montunos are crazy good and he can really solo.”

For the sessions, Rodriguez and McGrath divide up responsibilities along the lines of their own instruments, Nathan cuing the percussionists and Roy calling the tunes and working with the horn players.

On the Tuesday I was there, plenty of musicians, both professional and amateur, came to join in. Some of the pros included conguero Pete Vale, a salsero who also plays with Dos Santos, drummer Jonathan Wenzel, who is a member of, among others, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and McGrath’s Remembranzas Quartet, jazz trumpeters Thomas Madeja and Leon Q. Allen, bassist Chris Nolte and timbalero Eddie Dones. The joyful noise that they created fairly levitated the room.

“I want the music to be at a high level, but not elitist,” says McGrath. “It’s not always easy to mesh the jazz and salsa cats because the two styles speak different languages that are second nature to one but unknown by the other. So, I want the atmosphere to be inviting and fun, not intimidating to either side. That way everybody benefits, even when mistakes are made. We’re even drawing a lot of jazz vocalists who are willing to take a standard like ‘Misty’ and sing it as a bolero. It’s pretty cool. The learning curve can be steep for both sides, but when folks relax and have fun good things happen and they come back another week.”

Rodriguez voices a similar sentiment. “There are a lot of salsa players, but not a lot of venues that book salsa bands, so this gives them an opportunity to play more often, especially the young guys that are just breaking in but not yet getting called for gigs. At the same time, everyone gets to hang together, have some fun, and learn from each other.”

McGrath sees an additional benefit to the sessions, something that says a lot about how he views music as a means of social engagement.

“I’m excited about this as a musician, of course, but my reasons for bringing these two worlds together run deeper. There’s a big racial divide in Chicago, and encountering it surprised and bothered me after coming from Puerto Rico and also spending a few years studying music in New Orleans. I want this to be a safe place where musicians of all types can come together to share and learn about each other and maybe overcome some of those barriers that segregate people. People can get past their fears and prejudices when the conditions are right, so that’s what I’m hoping will happen here.”

The Latin Jazz Jam is every Tuesday from 7:30 – 9:30 PM at 90 Miles Cuban Café, 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood, IL (Lincolnwood Town Center)

Chef Xavier Pacheco on Puerto Rico’s Cuisine and Farm-to-Table Movement

By Don Macica

In the long catalog of devastation that Hurricane María wrought on Puerto Rico was its agricultural sector. In truth, though, there wasn’t that much agriculture there to start with. Beginning in the 1950s, the island began a move toward importing much of its food. This was driven by a mixture of industrialization, big business, and government policy as a colony of the United States. By the 1990s, it had almost collapsed altogether, replaced by canned products in the supermarkets and American fast food outlets like McDonalds proliferating everywhere. What produce there was came from the Dominican Republic and beyond.

According to Chef Xavier Pacheco, who will be in Chicago this weekend for a pair of events at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and Latinicity, those were the decades that Puerto Ricans largely forgot about their food traditions. Local markets disappeared in favor of large supermarkets, and with them, knowledge of native foods. Trained in the U.S. and equipped with an important internship in Barcelona, Pacheco was aware of local, culturally driven food movements in Spain, Mexico, Peru, and of course the United States. When he considered the condition of his place of birth, he was inspired to return there and improve things by highlighting Puerto Rico’s gastronomic history with a new restaurant devoted to it and supporting the few local farmers that were left to once again grow those native foods.

“I had to go back and look at what we were eating, why we were eating it, and how that could be improved,” said Pacheco when I spoke to him by phone from San Juan. “Not only for the present and my restaurant, but also for a future in which Puerto Ricans can have better product and stronger local economies.”

The restaurant was La Jaquita Baya, a globally acclaimed farm-to-table concept that prepared its menu with 80% locally grown ingredients. At the same time, Pacheco and other like-minded chefs were actively supporting local farmers and food traditions through the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña, a movement focused on linking up and strengthening the different divisions of the local food production (chefs, farmers, local cheese makers, bakers, butchers, fishermen, etc.). 

“We were kind of pioneers together,” says Pacheco. “We traveled the island looking for farmers and asking them to grow the things that we needed instead of importing them. Little by little it grew. More importantly, though, we wanted to inspire pride in who we were and highlight the uniqueness of the food grown here.”

Pacheco holds an expansive view of Puerto Rican gastronomy. “In Puerto Rico, we are not simply Tainos, Africans and Spaniards. Lots of people migrated here in the early 20th century—Armenians, Chinese, Polish and more. Like the U.S. is a big melting pot, Puerto Rico is a small one. Those people stayed and now are Puerto Ricans too. My belief as a chef is that everything that we grow here is Puerto Rican, too, regardless of where it came from.”

La Jaquita Baya, along with all the farms that Pacheco worked with, was seriously damaged by María. Agriculture when done right can be quite resilient, however, and within a matter of months farmers were again able to supply some product. Since María, agriculture has bounced back strongly.

“A lot of young people are now farming, perhaps more than before,” says Pacheco. “Importantly, there is also a growing consciousness among chefs and restaurants that if you want respect you have to support local farming. The reality is that we are not ready to feed the whole island. Imports are still needed. But giving priority to local farmers helps everybody a lot.”

At least partially because of the work done over the last several years by Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña, new farm-to-tables are flourishing as well, including Vianda in Santurce, which has attracted huge press in the U.S., including being profiled in GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America. “Francis is a friend of mine and his food is awesome,” says Pacheco, referring to Vianda Chef Francis Guzmán. “But there are several great new restaurants in the city.”

La Jaquita Baya, sadly, did not bounce back. In the immediate aftermath of María, Pacheco used it to distribute water and supplies. When it reopened in December, being any kind of farm-to-table was impossible, so Pacheco changed the name (and menu) to reflect that. Unfortunately, when agriculture came back strongly later, he had lost Jaquita Baya’s name recognition. Pacheco has sold the business and has moved on to new ventures.

Perhaps the most exciting of them is Bacoa… Finca & Fogón. If Jaquita Baya was farm-to-table, Bacoa will bring the table to the farm. Pacheco has partnered with two other chefs, including Raul Correa, to open a restaurant on a farm in Juncos, about 25 minutes outside of San Juan. They’ll grow their own produce, of course, but the hope is to eventually buy the whole farm and raise beef and goats there as well. Pacheco is also opening a taquería, inspired in part by a month-long research visit to Chicago in 2018.

Local farming still has a long way to go. A system that is designed to sell cheap imports still has the advantage. Take the yautía, a root vegetable that is a staple of the Puerto Rican diet. It can be imported from the Dominican Republic and sold more cheaply than one grown by a local farmer, who is paying his staff a decent wage and has all the additional expenses of running a business. Still, Pacheco says, there is progress. “Even some supermarkets are now carrying up to 20% locally grown produce.”

“It will take more education and understanding of the necessity of self-sufficiency to get there, but I think that’s very possible,” says Pacheco. “I wasn’t the first to promote farm-to-table practices, but our work has already inspired the next generation.”

Farm to Table in Puerto Rico: A Conversation with Xavier Pacheco
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center
Friday, May 17, 7:00PM
Free admission – RSVP at Eventbrite

Gourmet Puerto Rico, A Gastronomy Extravaganza and Fundraiser
Featuring Chefs Xavier Pacheco, Maria Mercedes Grubb, Raul Correa & Carlos Portela
Latinicity
Saturday, May 18, 5:30 PM
Tickets $100 – Available at Eventbrite

Omara Portuondo, El Último Beso at the Old Town School of Folk Music

By Don Macica

It’s been four years since the Buena Vista Social Club concluded their “Adiós” tour and almost three since we last saw Omara Portuondo in Chicago. So it was with a measure of both excitement and trepidation that I greeted the news that the legendary Cuban diva was returning to Chicago on May 1. Excitement, because unlike her 2016 concert at Symphony Center, she would be performing this time at the intimate and acoustically perfect Old Town School of Folk Music. Trepidation because the concert’s title was “El Último Beso (The Last Kiss)”. Could she, at the age of 88, finally be retiring? In an interview that I did with her for Agúzate in October 2016, she stated flatly “Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Whether or not we ever get to see Omara Portuondo again in Chicago is unknown, so this might be our last kiss. But as she makes clear in this new interview, it is certainly not hers. One thing is for sure. You will want to be at the Old Town School on May 1 when they present “Omara es Cuba – El Último Beso”.

photos by Johann Sauty

DM – Last night I heard someone refer to the Chicago concert as being part of your farewell tour, and, of course, “El Último Beso” is in the title. Say it isn’t so!

OP – Well, I’m not retiring, the Last Kiss is my last worldwide tour, which will take a couple of years and will visit a lot of countries. But I will keep performing, probably not on long worldwide tours, but music is my life!

DM – I understand that this tour will run until 2020 and truly be global, with stops in Asia, Europe and South America as well as North America, and then ends up back home in Cuba. Does the worldwide popularity of Cuban music surprise you?

OP – That’s correct; I’m really looking forward this tour. It’s going to be really special for me. I’m not surprised by the connection Cuban music has. This is because our music has so many influences, tradition and connects very well with the audience. 

DM – I feel that we are incredibly lucky that you are mostly playing smaller, intimate theaters and clubs on this tour, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing you in larger concert halls. Was this a deliberate choice?

OP – I’m happy performing, true though that on clubs the connection is very close and intimate. It’s priceless to see the audience reaction, their smiles and dance with them. My heart is full of joy to meet again with my American fans. 

DM – You are once again being supported by Roberto Fonseca and his band. Fonseca is that rare musician who completely understands the core qualities of classic Cuban music yet is also strikingly adventurous and globally attuned in some of his own work. What has it been like working with him for the past several years?

OP – He is a unique human being. So gifted and talented. That’s our musical heritage and education, young musicians have a profound respect for our musical tradition but at the same time they are open to new sounds and influences. My connection with Robertico is simply beautiful. His personal way to perform is so unique, I feel dancing when singing with him. 

DM – As I understand it, the repertoire on this tour will focus on classics, including songs from the Buena Vista era. Can we expect any surprises?

OP – Oh, definitely yes. I’m listening to all my albums, talking with the musicians that will be with me in this tour and I’m putting my heart to get a unique set list that will be unforgettable! But it’s a surprise, so you will have to come and see it!

Omara Portuondo, Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, May 1, 8 PM – oldtownschool.org

A Historic Night at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center with Miguel Zenón

By Don Macica
Photos by Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups

At 47 years and counting, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) is the longest-standing Latino cultural center in Chicago. Its rich history of service to the Puerto Rican community and tireless promotion of the island’s music and culture runs deep and long. The centro has brought countless important Puerto Rican artists and musicians to Chicago over the decades.

Still, after Friday, September 21, I have a suspicion that SRBCC’s story will always be told in terms of “before” and “after”. That’s the day that multiple Grammy Nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet presented their brand new album Yo Soy la Tradición to the world for the very first time with a benefit concert for the Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. The fund was established by SRBCC to help struggling artists whose lives were severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.

I interviewed Miguel Zenón for Agúzate about the history of his new work and why he and Spektral chose to debut the album as a benefit for Puerto Rico. You can read that here. Still, nothing, including having had the privilege of hearing the album prior to its release and experiencing its only other public performance two years ago at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, quite prepared me for the moving performance at SRBCC. The depth and richness of feeling and extraordinary musicianship conveyed the very soul of Puerto Rico, whose cultural and musical traditions provided the source material for Zenón’s compositions. The saxophonist kept his between movement commentary brief, but heartfelt. From where I was sitting, it appeared that Zenón and the members of Spektral were moved and inspired by their surroundings.

Two wonderful Puerto Rican photographers who live in Chicago, Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups, were there to capture the scene. They are much more intimate with Puerto Rico than I, who only know of the island through my visits and interactions with the friends I’ve made with Puerto Ricans both there and here in Chicago. I thought it was only right to give them the last word along with their images, so I’ll leave the rest of this article to them.

Elías Carmona

“Miguel Zenón’s music is full of images and brings me reminiscences of my life in the place I was born and grew up. In my opinion, he truly represents the essence of the Puerto Rican music and I love the way he fuses it with other musical influences. What great performance! It was one of the best shows I ever attended and photographed at SRBCC.”






Charlie Billups

“Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet, two GRAMMY-nominated performers together with a worthwhile cause in a performance venue like no other: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa.  I was touched by Zenón’s decision to release his latest project at SRBCC to raise money for Art projects affected by Hurricane Maria. The performance was flawless, crisp, rich and a cross of classic with the rich vibe of Puerto Rico in Zenón’s sax. It raised the bar for Segundo Ruiz Belvis into a new dimension as a world-class music venue.”






Finally, I’m including a video courtesy of SRBCC that includes part of the final movement of Yo Soy La Tradicion, “Villabeño”.

Delgres: French Caribbean Creole Blues

By Don Macica –

For some artists, it can take a very long time to find your voice. For the Paris-born guitarist and singer Pascal Danaë, that voice came in the history and language of his ancestors on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and, going even further back, his African heritage. His new group, Delgres, who just released their debut album Mo Jodi and will appear twice this weekend at World Music Festival Chicago, is inspired by his family and, more broadly, the struggle for human dignity. Its lyrics are primarily sung in Creole with some English.

Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, Danaë was exposed to all sorts of music: Haitian konpa, Cuban son, and African soukous among them, but also English rock like the Kinks and Rolling Stones.  He developed an interest in jazz as well, especially guitarists like Wes Montgomery and George Benson.

It was a trip back to his parent’s home in Guadeloupe (a place that his parents never returned to after emigrating to France) when a seed was planted that, almost two decades later, would become his vision for Delgres. It was in there that Danaë encountered the letter of freedom given to his great-great-grandmother in 1841 when she was 27 years old, and it had a profound emotional impact.


Danaë already had a successful career as a jazz guitarist and session musician for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and Gilberto Gil before attempting to do something more personal. He released a solo album in 2004 and then formed the Afro-Brazilian tinged group Rivière Noire before finally feeling ready to follow through on his Guadeloupe-inspired vision.

The group is named after Louis Delgrès, a Creole officer in the French army who died fighting against slavery on the island in 1802. Informed as it is by Danaë’s personal history, the album also serves as a call to fight against modern-day oppression and slavery.

A bit of history: Guadeloupe is part of the same archipelago as Cuba, the island of Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Like nearby Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, the island was a French colony. After a successful slave revolt, Saint-Domingue became the nation of Haiti in 1804. There were similar stirrings for freedom happening on Guadeloupe, but they were successfully put down. Slavery was not abolished until 1848.

While the Creole language of Danaë’s ancestors figures prominently in the conceptual intent of the songs, the band’s muscular sonic foundation owes much to other traditions drawn from the experience of Africans in the Americas. The raw and rollicking sound of Mississippi hill country blues informs Danaë’s vocals and guitar and the powerful drumming. The final layer in this stripped-down trio is that of the sousaphone, a key element of New Orleans brass band music, supplying earthy and growling bass lines.

The guitar-drums-sousaphone combo packs quite a wallop when playing full-tilt, but the trio is also capable of pulling back a bit to leave some room for delicate introspection. As much as Danaë has infused the songs with meaning and purpose, he has also made sure that the band that plays them and the music they create together remain upbeat and approachable. “It’s not a history book,” says Danaë of the band in concert. “We have a good time.”
_______

Delgres at World Music Festival Chicago
Saturday, September 22 at Concord Music Hall
Sunday, September 23 at Navy Pier
worldmusicfestivalchicago.org