Review: Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio

By Don Macica

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The landscape of Latin jazz is, of course, an ever evolving one. The current crop of jazz artists that are the acknowledged as among the best, such as Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez and Danilo Pérez, shy away from labeling their music, preferring instead to cite their Latin American heritage as a means of informing a highly individual approach to the art of jazz, capturing the soul of what it means to be Panamanian or Puerto Rican rather than building their compositions around standard, recognizable forms. Even in Chicago, the Dominican violinist James Sanders, who has led a very good Latin jazz ensemble for nearly 15 years, prefers these days to integrate Afro-Caribbean essence into a totally improvisational approach, forsaking charts for an open ended conversation.

It’s refreshing, therefore, that the San Francisco based trombonist Wayne Wallace so warmly embraces the term, putting it right there in the name of his ensemble. And maybe that’s because he’s African-American, not Latino, and thus free to explore a sound and style without the added significance of it being his heritage. However, saying that Wallace plays Latin jazz is not to say he is being conservative. Quite the contrary.

Wallace is no newcomer. He was a founding member and co-musical director of John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, and before that he worked with Conjunto Cespedes, a Bay Area folkloric ensemble, and before that he played with Pete Escovedo. In addition to being a player in the Bay Area Latin scene, he’s also a bit of a proponent and documentarian. His created the record label that he records for, and it recently released two terrific Salsa de la Bahia compilations featuring the cream of the local scene, with a companion film in the works.

For Wallace, Latin jazz is still a music of discovery, one in which he can be both a teacher and disciple. His approach is anchored in that jazz process in which one listens, learns and creates anew. His new recording, Intercambio (Patois Records), is founded on the idea of cultural exchange. In this context, jazz has as much to give to Caribbean folkloric music as the other way around. While firmly committed to the idea and forms of Latin jazz, Wallace still remains an explorer. There are several moments on the album that coax a smile out of the listener by doing the unexpected.

Four of Intercambio’s ten tracks are Wallace originals, and the balance is drawn from jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and fellow trombonist J.J. Johnson. By and large the album smolders, the Latin rhythms underpinning arrangements that feature Wallace’s beautiful and buttery tone. Three tracks are reminiscent of Kind of Blue-era Miles, with Wallace’s trombone gliding over the shifting rhythms.

Rhythmically, the albums ports of call go beyond San Juan and Havana to also include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Trinidad. There are a couple of burners, led off by the first track, the Wallace original Casa del Sol, which is dedicated to Eddie Palmieri. On this song, the quintet is expanded to 7 pieces to include violin and flute, referencing Palmieri’s legendary La Perfecta ensemble. Another Wallace original, Guarachando, kicks into high gear with a comparsa carnival rhythm, throws in steel drums for good measure, then brings back the flute and violin to trade fours in its mid-section before they all come together, only to be followed by a hot solo from Wallace himself.

 

The two remaining Wallace originals are quite nice as well. Como Vai alternates cha-cha-cha and samba rhythms in a way that brings to mind a pair of Stevie Wonder classics, You’ve Got It Bad Girl and Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing. Finally, Timbázo is built for grooving, funky trombones in conversation with the rhythm section, colored once again by Trinidadian steel drums, which return yet a third time on Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody n’ You along with a pronounced bomba feel.

John Coltrane’s Equinox is the standout among the covers, building off of Trane’s exploration of African roots with batá drums and güiro. The Hoagy Carmichael standard Heart and Soul is given a smooth salsa treatment that would satisfy any dancer while leaving room for some nice soloing and ensemble playing, especially when Wallace overdubs his trombone into a 4-piece section a la Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre.

Mile Davis provides the thematic centerpiece of the album with Solar, reimagined into En el Solar de Miles by Wallace, tying together Miles’ interest in African culture to the Cuban solares, Cuban fraternal organizations formed during slavery to maintain African cultural practices. Another Davis composition, Circle, closes the album, a moody number enhanced by a string quartet and featuring some of Wallace’s lovliest playing.

As noted earlier, Wayne Wallace is no conservative, despite working in a genre that’s been around for nearly 75 years. Intercambio gently but firmly moves Latin jazz forward. That’s no easy thing, but it is an essential one to a good jazz musician. In doing so, Wallace demonstrates that there is much still to be found inside of Latin jazz.

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio.
Patois Records, available July 7

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Meridian Brothers lead off Colombian musical invasion.

By Don Macica.

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This is turning out to be a remarkable summer for Colombian music in Chicago. Ondatrópica headlines Millennium Park, Systema Solar graces the Celebrate Clark Street Festival, Bomba Estéreo celebrates their brand new CD with a show at Concord Music Hall, and El Gran Festival Colombiano brings both traditionalists Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto and champeta group Tribu Baharú to town.

But before we knew all that, though, we knew this. The Meridian Brothers make their Chicago debut at Mayne Stage on June 21 during their first ever U.S. tour. And that, friends, is news.

To clear a couple of things up right off the bat, there are no brothers nor is there anyone named Meridian in the group. It more or less started as a home-made recording project when Colombian guitarist and composer Eblis Alvarez started layering his guitar over drums, percussion and other folkloric instruments that he taught himself to play. After years of this, he went to Denmark to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and at the Danish Institute of Electronic Music. Returning to Bogotá in 1998, he began releasing these recordings of distorted tropical sounds, and a group was needed in order to perform them live. The Meridian Brothers (band) was born, even as recordings continue to be entirely created by Alvarez. Over the years, the group has evolved into a five-piece band focused on re-interpreting all manners of Latin Tropical rhythms (cumbia, vallenato, salsa, merengue, guaguanco etc..) with a pronounced psychedelic and experimental sensibility. In 2014, Meridian Brothers released their third album, the engagingly loopy Salvadora Robot.

Something that becomes apparent on close listen to the Meridian Brothers is that, despite the weirdness, psychedelia and surrealist lyrics, the tunes themselves are pretty faithful to their sources. A cumbia is a cumbia, vallenato is vallenato. But what comes out is something like Frank Zappa playing doo-wop or Captain Beefheart playing blues. Just as you can hear those artists’ deep respect for their sources, you can likewise hear the same from Alvarez once you accustom yourself to the overall sound.

When asked about the name Meridian Brothers in an interview last year, Eblis Alvarez replied, “I love pseudonyms, people not knowing who is making things.” Reading this, I was prompted to reach out to a Colombian friend who maintains a series of online aliases. He has one identity on his Facebook page, another on his enigmatic website, and still a third when he sends e-mails. And those are the ones I know about. None of these, of course, are his real name.

When I asked him what he heard in the Meridian Brothers, he was similarly enigmatic, comparing them to, of all things, the Violent Femmes. “Meridian Brothers play music within the leisure sense, not in the cerebral sense, without falling into the pop formula” he wrote, continuing, “Their lyrics speak of local things in a very local language, so local that [it] doesn’t sound like Spanish, without falling into the ghetto language formula.” He also advised me that “I should know what Chucu-Chucu music means and have [an] appreciation for the analog psychedelic sounds.” Well, I got that last one down (shoot, I grew up on that stuff), but the rest required some work.

Chucu-Chucu is, as best as I can tell, a rough Colombian counterpart to salsa in New York City in the 60’s and 70’s, a musical style with roots in the Caribbean but urban in character, with just a touch of silliness, like something a wedding band might play in Bogotá. (I could be wrong about this, though… a YouTube search of Chucu-Chucu also turns up children’s songs and booty-shaking dembow.) And the Violent Femmes… well, you can take them simply as wacky guys playing punk rock on acoustic guitars, or you can appreciate them as artists with a very particular sensibility, creating totally honest and plain-spoken art.

As for the Meridian Brothers, you can take them either way, too. Live, you are quite likely to experience a serious desire to dance to the tropical rhythms even as you grin at the skewed sonics and visuals. There will, if you want, be plenty to think about, but who ever spent time thinking at a Violent Femmes show?

Better to simply surrender to the fun.


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Sound Culture presents the Meridian Brothers at Mayne Stage, Sunday June 21, 7:30pm (doors 6:30). DJs Agúzate and ((SONORAMA)) get the party started. Tickets and info at soundculturechicago.com.
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About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Victor Garcia’s World of Jazz

By Don Macica.

photo by Lauren Deutsch
photo by Lauren Deutsch

In any given year recently, it’s hard to be an active witness to Chicago’s music scene without running into trumpeter Victor Garcia. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen him in places I didn’t expect: on stage with Sones de México Ensemble, with Colombian folkloric group Grupo Rebolú, joining rumba-flamenco ensemble El Payo, accompanying percussionist Jean-Christophe Leroy in his Jazz con Amala project, with Latin ska band Los Vicios de Papá… Most of the time, he wasn’t even billed. He was just… there, elevating the music with his explosive playing.

In the midst of all this versatility, it’s worth remembering that Garcia is, at heart, a jazz musician. The group he co-leads with pianist Darwin Noguera is, after all, the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, and when he led a big band at Millennium Park’s Made in Chicago World Class Jazz series a couple of summers ago, he put an unmistakable jazz stamp on a series of traditional and popular Mexican songs.

In all this time, though, I’ve never heard Garcia on his own, so when I learned he’d be holding down a weekend at the Jazz Showcase beginning June 18, I reached out to him to find out what might be on tap. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

DM: One year I’m pretty sure I saw you in a dozen different bands and projects, not including CALJE. To what do you attribute this wide range?

VG: The versatility is due to extensive and intensive jazz studies. Although jazz is considered a genre, I consider it more of a process. Jazz training is all about listening, assimilating (stylistic nuance, harmony, rhythm, et al), and emulating. If done at a high level, one could literally play with anyone in the world! Definitely a goal of mine.  (Ed. note: He said with a wink).

DM: Is there anything you haven’t played?

VG: Because of the infinite combinations of musical genres that give birth to new ones, there will always be more music than I will ever be able to play. I have, however, been fortunate enough to play music with origins from all over the world. 

DM: So, what can we expect at the Jazz Showcase?

VG: We’ll be playing originals and arrangements of mine. Blues/church is the foundation of our sound, but I have a plethora of influences, which we will undoubtedly explore, such as bebop, modern jazz, Latin…

DM: Blues / church?

VG: One of the most expressive and dynamically diverse instruments, The Hammond B3 organ, was originally sold to churches to replace the infinitely more expensive pipe organ. Because it can embody the entire palate of human emotions, from the agony of the slave trade to the joy of salvation, it fared extremely well in the church. For those same reasons, jazz musicians of the day adopted the instrument as well. I, too, am a believer!

DM: You were born in Chicago and your parents are from Mexico, yes?

VG: My father was born in Mexico City and raised in a suburb called Chalco, then moved to Chicago after he graduated from UNAM. My mom was born in Arandas, Jalisco until the age of 15 and then moved to Chicago. They met in a church choir… meaning I didn’t have a choice regarding whether or not music was going to be in my blood! 

DM: Is your family musical?

VG: My parents are amateur guitarists and singers. Our extended family gatherings wouldn’t be complete without singalong time after dinner. My brother is a professional bassist, my sister is an amateur clarinetist, and my younger brother played tuba through high school.

DM: What sort of music made an impression on you as a child?

VG: All of it! My father listened to a wide variety of artists, from Julio Jaramillo to the Beatles to Dave Brubeck to The Boston Pops. I remember sitting down in my father’s office while he was working and being hypnotized by Paul Desmond’s sound; I remember transcribing chords from an album by Los Tecolines on guitar; I can recall how impactful the sound of Gerard Schwarz’s trumpet was on a the Haydn concerto.

DM: Is it a big deal to headline a weekend at the Jazz Showcase?

VG: Heck yeah! The world’s finest have graced and continue to grace that stage, and with all the history that venue has, there is a creative spirit in that place that’s alive and well.
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The Victor Garcia Quintet (Victor Garcia, trumpet/vocals; Rocky Yera, tenor sax; Dan Trudell, organ; Scott Hesse, guitar; Charles Heath, drums) appears at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court, June 18-21. Two shows a night plus Sunday matinee. Info at jazzshowcase.com
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About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Summer Music Preview, con sabor.

by Don Macica.

Summer in Chicago always brings plenty of opportunity to enjoy live music outdoors. It’s as though, after months of hibernation, we just can’t stand the thought of being inside. But even by our high standards, this is shaping up to be an exceptional summer for Latin music under the skies.

Here then, is Agúzate’s selective guide to verano en la ciudad.

Mole de Mayo, May 23-24. We’re off to an early start with this modest little Pilsen festival devoted to that most magical of Mexican sauces. They have really stepped up their game on the music stages this year. Besides local faves Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra, ¡Esso! Afrojam Funkbeat and DJs Sound Culture, ((SONORAMA)) and Afroqbano, they are bringing in some out of town talent to help us dance off those calories, including the B-Side Players, Viento Callejero and Chicano Batman from California on Saturday and DJ Ali Guaguis from Mexico City on Sunday. Lots more, too.

Downtown Sound, June 1-July 23. This newly expanded series in Millennium Park has lots of worthy music (Antibalas, King Sunny Ade, Los Cojolites), but they are on this list primarily for one reason: The Chicago debut of the Colombian/British collective Ondatrópica on July 16. Led by British DJ/producer/crate digger Will Holland (AKA Quantic) and Frente Cumbiero leader Mario Galeano, we’ve been waiting for this one for three years. This could be your only chance to see them without moving to Colombia.

Ondatropica

Opening Day of the 606, June 6. The 606 is the name of the new urban trail park (formerly known as the Bloomingdale trail) that runs through four Chicago neighborhoods: Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park, so you know there’s got to be a Latino vibe. There’s a big party on Humboldt Boulevard between Wabansia and Cortland that has two music stages where you can catch, among other things, Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra and Angel Melendez. You can also join a comparsa de carnaval (parade procession) along the trail organized by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will feature bomba y plena and masks made under the guidance of Puerto Rican artisan Pedro Adorno Irizarry, bomba & plena Elder & Master Jorge Emmanuelli Náter, Buya, Africaribe and SRBCC instructors Charly Barbera and David Rivera.

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Taste of Randolph Street, June 19-21. The summer is always crammed with “Taste of” neighborhood festivals, but few of them have a better selection of outstanding restaurants (we hope Cemitas Puebla is there) than Randolph Street. “So?” you might ask. This one also has the incredible Afro-Peruvian global dance unit Novalima among its music offerings on Saturday June 20. Come for the music, stay for the food.

Novalima

Museum of Contemporary Art, June 23. The MCA’s free Tuesdays on the Terrace series has long featured some of Chicago’s finest jazz, but we are particularly excited to see Proyecto Libre, an Afro-Latin/free jazz collective that Agúzate presented for the very first time in 2013. Led by Dominican violinist James Sanders, their sound is like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

Square Roots Festival, July 10-12. Squeezing people into the street will never be quite the same as laying out that blanket in the park, but the Old Town School still brings an eclectic lineup to keep you dancing and thirsty. This year’s Latino offerings include Plena Libre, Tiempo Libre and (I’m cheating a little here) from New Orleans, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. It’s that Latin tinge, you know.

Ruido Fest, July 10-12. Where the hell did this come from? In one grand gesture, Chicago is suddenly playing host to the biggest Latin Alternative festival in the entire country, and they had the class to put it in Pilsen. Café Tacuba, Ozomotli, Nortec Collective, Kali Uchis, Cumbia Machin, Los Crema Paraiso, Los Rakas… I’ll run out of pixels before I complete this list, but pound for pound, this is the equal of Pitchfork in scope and ambition.

Chicago Latin Jazz Fest

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, July 17-18. If you need one more reason to spend a summer evening in Humboldt Park, this is it. No lineup has been announced yet, but Carlos Flores and the Jazz Institute of Chicago consistently spotlight the best in local and national Latin jazz at the beautiful Boat House. Write it down. (UPDATE: Lineup includes Victor Garcia’s Organ Septet with special guest Billy Branch, Papo Vázquez and Orquesta Charangueo.)

Celebrate Clark Street, July 18-19. A Rogers Park tradition, in recent years it has emerged as sort of a second, unofficial World Music Festival thanks to the efforts of Sound Culture’s David Chavez. The full line up hasn’t been announced, but we’ve learned that Colombia’s highly danceable electro-folklorico DJ outfit Systema Solar will be there, complete with live percussion. That plus the $4 Pacifico on tap should make for one perfect, if very sweaty, summer night. (UPDATE: Novalima has been added to the weekend as well.)

Systema Solar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 18-19. Make sure that Ventra card is fully loaded, because commuting is in order this weekend. In addition to the aforementioned Latin Jazz and Clark Street fests, the northwest side of Chicago plays host to this family friendly event that features legends Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto and the up and coming coastal by way of Bogotá champeta group Tribu Baharú plus salsa, cumbia, vallento and more from DJs all day long.

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Festival Cubano, August 14-16. It’ll be hard to top last year’s one-two punch of Miami’s Afro-Cuban funk band PALO! followed by the legendary El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, but this fest has steadily improved over the years. No lineup has been announced yet, but if I were you, I’d keep this weekend open. (UPDATE: This years lineup will include, for the first time ever, two artists direct from Cuba: Pedrito Calvo and Miguelito Cuni, Jr.)
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Postscript: You can’t stay outdoors all the time, and this summer also brings a handful of very good reasons to head inside and enjoy some air conditioning.

Los Amigos Invisibles, Portage Theater June 5. The Venezuelan combo brings their hedonistic Latin disco funk to Chicago for the first time since their recent Repeat After Me album. Always a good time, and you don’t have to think too much.

Meridian Brothers, Mayne Stage June 21. Space age science fiction cumbia, vallenato and salsa from Colombia in their Chicago debut, the very definition of future roots music. Bonus: DJs Agúzate and ((SONORAMA)) will get the party started with vintage vinyl grooves.

Miguel Zenón, Jazz Showcase June 25-28. The Puerto Rican saxophonist brings his quartet to Chicago’s best jazz club, showcasing music from Identities are Changeable, his album about the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S.

Bajofondo, Concord Music Hall July 16. The high energy tango-candombe-milonga band from the Rio de la Plata are always first rate, and if you conserve energy and stay hydrated at Ondatrópica, you should just be able to make the trek up Milwaukee Ave in time to catch them. (UPDATE: The Bajofondo show has been cancelled.)

Bomba Estéreo, Concord Music Hall July 26. With the release of their brand new Amanecer album, Li Saumet and Simón Mejía are poised to conquer the world with their Colombian brand of tropical electronica.

Omar Sosa: Cuban soul, world citizen

By Don Macica

Over the course of two dozen albums in a 20+ year career, Omar Sosa has carved out a unique place in the pantheon of Afro-Cuban music. He’s lived in the U.S. (with occasional stays in Europe) since 1995, but your immediate impression upon hearing his music or seeing him in concert is that of a deeply rooted Babalawo connected directly to the island and all the way back to Africa. At the same time, he fuses an array of jazz, world music, hip-hop, and electronic elements with his Afro-Cuban roots.

The range is immense. There are solo piano recordings, duet recordings with percussionists, a big band project, a symphonic commission, a tribute to the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue, spoken word, Yoruba chants and funk workouts. Folkloric is blended with contemporary until the distinctions between them melt away.

Omar Sosa
Omar Sosa

Sosa is currently touring the United States behind his recent release Ilé (meaning “homeland” in the Lucumí tradition of Cuba) which will bring him to Chicago and the Jazz Showcase beginning April 23. Though billed as a “homecoming” for the 7-time GRAMMY-nominated pianist, the album is anything but a mere recreation of the Cuban music that inspired Sosa in his youth on the island. Instead, it uses classic Cuban styles as a jumping off point for contemporary interpretation interspersed with meditative atmospherics and sampling of ambient sounds.

Joining him on the project (and at the Jazz Showcase) is his Quarteto Afrocubano, Cubans Ernesto Simpson on drums and Leandro Saint-Hill on sax & flute, plus Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas. They are long-time friends and collaborators (Simpson and Saint-Hill as well as Sosa all hail from the Cuban city of Camagüey) and their interplay feels instinctive throughout the recording, especially on more contemplative tracks. The remarkable percussionist Pedrito Martinez guests on several songs, as does Cuban chekere master Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry and saxophonist Ysvany Terry. More surprising (although, given Sosa’s diversity and eclecticism, not that surprising) is English spoken word poetry by Kokayi that, combined with the groove, reminds me of early Gil Scott-Heron. American guitarist Marvin Sewell (perhaps best known for his distinctive work with Cassandra Wilson), jazz vocalist ZogaroS and flamenco vocalist José “El Salao” Martín add flavor and connect the dots between three continents sharing a similar African root.

OMAR SOSA

I took the opportunity of his Chicago visit to ask Sosa a few questions, which he answered in Spanish. Fortunately, Agúzate founder Omar Torres-Kortright was able to provide me with spirited translations.

DM– I get the sense that you enter a space when performing live, almost as though participating in a sacred ritual. Is this the case? If so, can you tell me more about that?

OS– I try to always follow the energy that I feel at the moment of stepping into the stage. I’ve always felt that every concert is a ceremony where we translate voices to turn them into sounds, resulting in the music that we present to the public. It’s a mystical and sublime experience. It’s something unique that can never be repeated, something that can only happen once. This is why I always say that each concert is the first and the last!!!

DM– Your output over the past two decades, while rooted in Cuba, reflects both music that preceded it (African, Spanish, even classical) and modern sounds like funk, hip-hop and the use of electronics. Even your current album Ilé with Quarteto Afrocubano, billed as a “homecoming” and inspired by music from your younger days in Cuba, goes well beyond that with flamenco, spoken word poetry in English and lush atmospherics. What are you exploring here?

OS– Ilé is a re-exploration of our Cuban traditions, a trip back to the rhythms and music styles that were always present in our childhood days. I say “our childhood days” because three of the members of the Quarteto Afrocubano are Camagüeyanos (from Camagüey)… I used to get together with them every Sunday for several years just to listen and analyze this music. These gatherings established a clear “before and after” in our appreciation and respect for this music and its creators.

Ilé is a trip back home, home to our Caribbean flavors, our traditions, but this time incorporating contemporary elements and sounds from other cultures that we have absorbed throughout the years in our musical travels. These sounds are now a natural part of our everyday musical experience. The intention of this project is to give thanks to the spirits of light, our musical universe, and especially to our traditions and influences: Cuba, North Africa, West Africa, North America, Spain, South America, etc.

This album is an invitation to taste the many cultures that I have lived and experienced until this day; the cultures that have enriched me and push me in my incessant journey to discover new cultures and sounds that exist in other regions of our planet.

DM– The last time I saw you in Chicago (Mayne Stage, May 2011), you brought an array of keyboards from which you sampled ambient sounds as well as processed some of the live sounds, and there’s a good deal of that on Ilé as well. Will some of the guests on Ilé be making a virtual sampled appearance at the Jazz Showcase?

OS– Yes, Kokayi, “El Salao”, and ZogaroS are sampled and set-up to appear in Chicago!

Omar Sosa & Quarteto Afrocubano, April 23-26, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court, Chicago. Two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com.

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Album & Concert Review, Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta

By Don Macica

I first heard Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta almost by accident. I was at a street festival in my neighborhood to check out a few other bands, but managed to get there earlier in the day. I saw that a band playing “psychedelic cumbia” was on at 2pm. It’s hard not to be curious with a description like that, so I was sipping a cold beer on a July afternoon when a stripped down quintet hit the stage and poured through an energetic 45 minute set of mostly instrumentals. Its vintage Latin groove was irresistible as it rocked and snaked through a set list of covers and a few originals. I had never before heard anything quite like it.

In a kind of ‘neighborhood pride’ post on my Border Radio blog about the festival, I wrote the following about them: “I’m told that the band has only been together a couple of months, but they were remarkably tight, and I’m very eager to hear what they do as they write more songs.” I made it a point to keep track of them. They’ve written more songs. It’s a good day for Chicago.

Flash forward less than two years and the band has just released a full length self-titled CD along with a vinyl only 7” single through Sonorama Discos , a brand new label created by the crate-digging DJ crew of the same name. Their vinyl-only vintage Latin aesthetic was a great match for Dos Santos’ sound, prompting them to work together to put out their first ever record.

On March 20, Dos Santos and Sonorama unleashed the new record with a live concert celebration at Martyrs’. I saw Dos Santos at Martyrs’ once before, when they opened for the Brooklyn hipsters Chicha Libre. As is typical for an opening act, they turned in a solid set, determined to add a few more souls to their fan base. And although that appearance was less than a year ago, the band that took the stage last Friday night seemed miles beyond what I had previously heard from them.

Sonorama, Dos Santos and friends at the Punch House Private Listening Party.
Sonorama, Dos Santos and friends at the Punch House Private Listening Party.

Simply put, Dos Santos owned the stage, pouring out everything they had in a tightly scripted hour and a half set. Everything was on the line, and the band met the challenge head on. What was different? Well, for starters, they have fully integrated Puerto Rican conga player Peter “Maestro” Vale into their sound. A salsa and Latin jazz veteran, Vale’s effortless swing fully tropicalizes the band’s sound. A bit of history – Dos Santos’ original inspiration was not Colombian cumbia, but its variants as it migrated across Latin America (including, but not limited to, Peru) and encountered other influences, including a 70s electric rock sound. Make no mistake, Dos Santos is still a rock band. The twin guitar attack of Alex Chavez and Irekani Ferreyra soars, hums and slashes (Chavez also doubles on vintage 96 Tears-style Tex-Mex organ runs) while the fluid rhythmic foundation of drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo and bassist Jaime Garza moves everything forward. But now there is also a pronounced feel of Afro-Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba in the mix.

PERCUSSIONIST PETE "MAESTRO" VALE
PERCUSSIONIST PETE “MAESTRO” VALE

The new CD features two guest artists, and Dos Santos wisely invited them on stage as well. The sonic and visual touches that they brought were unmistakable. Accordion player Mercedes Inez Martinez approaches her instrument something like a harmonium, providing a floating, echo-laden drone that to these ears brings to mind the Pakistani devotional music of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan. Meanwhile, vocalist Ana Santos harmonizes with lead vocalist Chavez, rounding off his dry sound for a different feel and texture. She also, on the more tropical numbers, provides smooth salsa dancing moves like a one woman front line from an old school mambo orchestra.

The new songs that they’ve written benefit greatly from these new elements as well as the band’s increased confidence. Corre Caballo does indeed gallop along briskly. Los Discipulos and Guerra Fria benefit greatly from Carlos Santana like intensity on Ferreyra’s solos. El Sabotaje starts out with a funky groove before abruptly switching gears into a classic cumbia rhythm. Roberto’s Lament and La Cumbre del Apogeo slow things down a bit but keeps the insistent pulse of a heartbeat. (todos somos), listed on the CD as track number 43, is evidently the band’s meditation on Ayotzinapa, and it carries a feel not unlike that of Cuban ritual chants to the saints. Martinez’ ghostly accordion textures are especially well deployed here. Finally, Division 66 comes on like heavy metal funk before it dissolves happily into a cha-cha.

The CD ends with two songs that the band recorded well over a year ago, and while they are very good (this is, after all, the sound that captured my attention at that street fair), they also point to how much the band has grown in the meantime. There’s no telling what the future holds, but if the saints have anything to do about it, Dos Santos will have a bright one.

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Cumbanchero! A Big Band Tribute to Rafael Hernández

by Don Macica

Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is presenting Cumbanchero! A Big Band Tribute to Rafael Hernández this Saturday, March 21st at 7pm. It will feature his son, Alejandro ‘Chalí’ Hernández, on vocals and is led by one of Chicago’s most respected bandleaders, Edwin Sánchez.

To a non-Puerto Rican, or perhaps even to a mainland born Puerto Rican under a certain age, it might be hard to comprehend how major a musical figure Rafael Hernández was. Even if you are familiar with the rise of mambo, salsa and everything that came after, you might not know Hernández’s music, as the bulk of it pre-dates that era, consisting of mambo, guaracha, danzon, boleros and other classic forms.

That was the case with me. While I was familiar with the Cuban masters of that age like Ernesto Lecuona and Perez Prado, Hernandez had escaped my notice until saxophonist Miguel Zenón released his Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook album in 2011, which focused exclusively on this golden age of Puerto Rican composers. That’s where I first heard Silencio. Even with the jazz liberties taken by Zenón’s modernist arrangement, it pulsed with the heart of one of the most exquisite boleros I had ever heard.

That was all I needed to start a little research into Rafael Hernández, who wrote that gorgeous song. He is perhaps the towering figure of Puerto Rican popular music. Dozens of his songs, including Silencio, Preciosa, Perfume de Gardenias, Lamento Borincano and, of course, Cumbanchero, are considered classics, but they are just a few of the over 3,000 that he wrote. Hernández was born at the end of the 19th century in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (the airport there is now named after him) and, as it turns out, was not only part of Puerto Rican music history, but also present at the birth of jazz as a member of James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Military Band.

Rafael Hernández
Rafael Hernández

When I contacted Miguel Zenón to get his assessment of Hernández, he had this to say:

“Rafael Hernández is perhaps the most internationally relevant Puerto Rican in history. His accomplishments are almost too many to mention: he was part of James Reese Europe’s ‘Hell Fighters’, lived in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba, where he’s considered a national treasure. He was an incredibly prolific and versatile composer, who wrote some of the most legendary songs in the history of Latin American music. A musical giant, in every sense of the word.” 

Alejandro ‘Chalí’ Hernandez, of course, has a more personal take. Now 67 years old, he remembers his father, who passed away when Alejandro was 17, as a gentleman who treated his mother with great respect. “He was a beautiful personality,” he remembers. “He showed me that whenever I heard a bird sing, I could see the presence of God and the beauty of creation.” This is not to say that he isn’t appreciative of his father’s musical and cultural accomplishments. Quite the contrary, Alejandro tours the Americas performing tributes and still enjoys a career on the Island singing this classic music with Trio Bohemia Caribe. He is also the director of the repository of Rafael Hernández’s archives and museum at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico at its Metropolitan Campus in San Juan.

Alejandro "Chalí" Hernández
Alejandro “Chalí” Hernández

Pianist, composer and arranger Edwin Sánchez, on the other hand, was born in Chicago. He received his early musical education in the 1970s through the programs of the Puerto Rican Congress, a social and cultural organization in Humboldt Park that trained dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of “at risk” Puerto Rican youth how to play music via a program led by Carlos ‘Caribe’ Ruiz. Groups that emerged from the program like La Juventud Tipica, La Solucion and La Justicia received some measure of local fame and even got to record with the likes of Mongo Santamaria and Machito. A very young Edwin Sánchez was among them. A collection of 15 tracks from this era exists on the terrific and lavishly packaged CD Salsa Boricua en Chicago from the Numero Group. Seek it out, it’s worth it.

Edwin Sánchez
Edwin Sánchez

Sánchez has since gone on to an extensive musical career, leading several ensembles and salsa orchestras in Chicago and as a pianist and arranger on many others, including international artists like Jimmy Bosch, Ralphy Irizarry, Ray Colon, Oscar Hernandez and many more. He’s comfortable in many genres, including jazz and funky R&B in addition to salsa, and has been the bandleader for Agúzate’s Tribute to the Improvisational Singer for the last several years. This versatility can be traced to his Humboldt Park youth. “Musically you got a certain ‘street’ edge in your playing living in the city at that time,” he said when I asked him about it. “There was some amazing music back then being played all over the radio stations and clubs! So, what was being played on the radio influenced me at that time and it came out of my heart and fingers when I played. Those were awesome times for music lovers!”

Edwin Sánchez’s appraisal of Rafael Hernández is similar to Miguel Zenón’s, but perhaps carries even more emotional weight for the Chicago-born Puerto Rican. “Rafael Hernández compositions, to me, exemplify the spirit of a pure Puerto Rican culture and people proud of their heritage and roots—not only with Puerto Ricans on the island, but Puerto Ricans all over the world as well.” he says. “It helps us share our common love and nostalgia for our families, the Island and our culture.”

Sánchez concludes, “It’s so important for our young PR community to know where their passion and pride comes from.  It is the true pioneers such as Rafael Hernández that culminated an art form like no other.”  This statement strikes me as something born out of Sánchez’s own youth and the values and history he was exposed to through the efforts of the Puerto Rican Congress, much like SRBCC does for the youth of today.

Finally, I asked Sánchez how he could begin to select a program for the tribute concert from Rafael Hernández’s vast catalog of songs. “Well, you choose a few key and prominent compositions that were some of the peoples’ most favorite and popular songs,” to which he quickly added, “Lucky thing is that all of his compositions were so good that whatever you play will be pleasing to the ear.”

For tickets and information, visit: http://www.srbcc.org/events.html

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

 

Jazz Showcase: Where (Latin) Jazz Lives in Chicago

by Don Macica

If you take it at face value, Jelly Roll Morton’s statement about the “Spanish tinge” (by which he meant Caribbean rhythms, specifically the Cuban habanera) being essential to the way jazz swings could serve as a convincing argument that all jazz is “Latin jazz”. As an art form, jazz is barely 100 years old, and when pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie met the Cuban rhythms of Machito, Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo three decades later, they were in a sense bringing something to the fore that was there all along.

Chicago’s Jazz Showcase is easily the city’s longest running and most established jazz presenter. Club owner Joe Segal started booking jazz in 1947, and he was recently honored with a Jazz Master designation by the National Endowment for the Arts for his efforts. Now joined by his son Wayne, the Showcase remains one of the best jazz clubs in the country. Joe Segal came of age during the height of Be-bop, and of course Gillespie was a pioneer there too. Segal’s heart remains there, but the club has never confined itself only to players in the bop tradition.

Panamanian pianist and composer Danilo Pérez, for example, is an artist who at this point plays as many concert halls as he does clubs, but he makes a point to return to the Jazz Showcase every few years. “It is important to me to keep experimenting, mentoring and reworking my craft.” Pérez said when I interviewed him last fall during a Showcase engagement, “The Jazz Showcase is an institution of jazz music that provides me with all these opportunities to keep developing.”

Latin jazz (and that very designation is not exactly embraced by some of today’s practitioners) makes a frequent appearance on the Showcase stage, and the next few months will see five distinctly different Latin American artists come to the legendary room.

David_Sjjnchez
Photo by Elías Carmona

First up is the Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, who began a weekend engagement last night. Sánchez’s work is imbued with his Puerto Rican heritage, but he plays thoroughly modern mainstream jazz with incredible range and technique. He hasn’t released an album under his own name in a few years, but he has toured and recorded with the Ninety Miles collective that includes vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Christian Scott. He is also featured prominently on the terrific El país de las Maravillas by pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa, who was part of the Cuban half of the Ninety Miles equation.

Opening night was a near quintessential example of why the Jazz Showcase is special.

Sánchez faced a challenge yesterday. Arriving in Chicago yesterday afternoon, he quickly learned that his band would not be following because of airport conditions back in New York. Fortunately, Chicago has a deep bench of talent, so a pianist, drummer and bassist were quickly rounded up, recruited from the thick Rolodex of contacts the Showcase has acquired over the decades and demonstrating the eagerness with which musicians will drop everything to get on that historic stage.

It would be understandable if the musical result was less than spectacular, but quite the opposite happened. Sánchez brought plenty of sheet music with him, and the quartet boldly opened up with three original compositions. It was almost as if he were laying down a challenge: Can you play this stuff? Things were a little tentative at first, but the cylinders started to fall into place, and by the end of the first set Sánchez was making jokes about firing his regular band. For the second set, the band was ready and came out smoking. Sánchez kept throwing curveballs at them, including a radical reworking of Eddie Palmieri’s Adoracion, and they kept knocking them out of the park. At some point I realized that I was witnessing a true one-time-only event: These four musicians would never play together like this again.

Assuming the airport reopened, Sánchez’s band will arrive today. I know I’m going back to hear them, as I can’t wait to find out how the same material is approached by different hands.

I’m heading back in two weeks as well, when a more easily recognizable form of Latin jazz returns in the person of Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdés, (son of Chucho, grandson of the legendary Bebo) brings his trio beginning March 19. Chuchito has never been an especially innovative presence, but he plays the hell out of the piano and his debts to Duke Ellington are as strong as those to the Cuban masters that preceded him. Chuchito swings hard, but his playing can also embody the delicacy of a Chopin nocturne.

b938f7_3ebb89a4e3284218af0bbf39a2fa9a17.jpg_srz_p_710_477_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srz

April 23 sees the Jazz Showcase debut of another Cuban pianist, Omar Sosa. In contrast to Chuchito, Sosa is a restless innovator whose many inspirations draw from African roots, Lucumí rituals, electronic experimentation, flamenco, neo-classical chamber music and even hip-hop. A mark of this restlessness can be found in the sheer number of records he has released. By my count, he has put out 26 albums in the last decade and a half. His most recent, Ilé, is from May 2014 and features his Quarteto AfroCubano, which he will bring to the Showcase.

Chilean-born tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana brings her Crash Trio to the Showcase beginning May 14, which includes bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela. Aldana possesses a voluptuously round tone reminiscent of Joe Lovano. The trio is fairly straight ahead, but Mela propels things along with Afro-Cuban flourishes.

Last but certainly not least, Puerto Rican alto saxophonist / composer / conceptualist Miguel Zenón, another artist that could bypass clubs for concert halls, returns to the Showcase beginning June 25. “I feel honored about the fact that we have become part of the musical family at The Jazz Showcase for so many years now,” says Zenón. “Joe and Wayne have a long history of supporting younger bandleaders, especially Latin American musicians such as Danilo Pérez and David Sánchez, both of whom have already become such an integral part of the history of the club. I look forward to performing at this great venue for many years to come.”

Photo by Scott Pollard
Photo by Scott Pollard

Like Pérez, Zenón returns to the Showcase every couple of years, and he even brought his Rhythm Collective here in a rare U.S. appearance. This time around it will be his outstanding quartet and likely feature music from his ambitious Identities are Changeable project. I can’t be sure of that, though. When I saw him at the Showcase in May 2011, he almost exclusively focused on his not-yet-released Alma Adentro album instead of the (at the time) current Esta Plena. The only exception was a work in progress peek at Identities, which was a full three-plus years from being released.

This brings us back to Danilo Pérez’s comments and why musicians love the Jazz Showcase. It is a place that they can experiment, take chances and develop their craft in front of an audience, confident that something valuable will emerge. Likewise, for the audience, it’s an intimate view of an artist at work, the opportunity to be present at the creation of something new.

Now, how can you pass up something like that?

All weekend engagements at the Jazz Showcase run Thursday – Sunday, two shows a night plus a Sunday matinee. Advance tickets are available at jazzshowcase.com.

About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

 

An Afro-Mexican Blues Encounter

When you think about the African element in Latin music, you’re mind usually goes straight to familiar places: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic. The folkloric traditions of all of these places were formed out of some combination of European, African and indigenous music. Why is it, then, that we don’t generally think of Mexico in these terms?

The conditions are roughly the same: Spanish conquest, indigenous populations, African slaves. The short answer lies in Mexican identity, one that favors the mestizo blend of Spanish and indigenous while downplaying and obscuring the African contribution. Yet Spain imported upwards of 200,000 slaves to Mexico, and just like in the Caribbean and South America, there was considerable blending between the three peoples.

This African root was largely unacknowledged up until a few decades ago. Meanwhile, of course, the English and French were also busy bringing slaves to North America. Culturally, African music here took a similar path, evolving into the blues and everything that came after. Thus, if you compare salsa to rock and roll, you can easily trace each back several centuries to their common African roots. Why not, then, Mexico?

Sones de México is a Chicago based organization made up of talented musician who are also musical anthropologists. They have studied and mastered the roots of Mexican popular music, and it is no surprise that Africa is present there. Mexico is a huge country, of course, so that presence is more diffuse. It’s more dominant, though, in areas like the semi-isolated Costa Chica region in the state of Guerrero or the Caribbean facing state of Veracruz.

Sones de México has been researching, preserving and performing Mexican roots music for over 20 years, and they have always been very upfront about Africa’s role in its development. Last year, they performed a huge concert in Chicago’s Millennium Park that included guest musicians drawn from the city’s diverse musical culture.

sones_de_mexico-train_station
Sones de México Ensemble

One of these was bluesman Billy Branch, who had his own Mexican-African epiphany while visiting Veracruz several years ago. Billy, a master of the blues harmonica, has led his band the Sons of Blues for over 30 years, and when he stepped onstage to join Sones de México to perform a traditional son jarocho from Veracruz, “La Bruja”, the crowd went nuts.

Sones and Branch then forged ahead with a full collaboration to explore the thematic and musical commonalities between Mexican son and American blues. The fruits of that exploration will take place Saturday, February 21 at the Old Town School of Folk Music with a concert that features all six members of Sones de México and the entire five piece Sons of the Blues. Dancers are likely to take part as well.

While the last few decades have seen an acknowledgement of the African presence in Mexico and its effect on music, to my knowledge this is the first time the music will be presented in this particular fashion. And, of course, there will be a considerable helping of Chicago-style electric blues.

Sons of Blues
Sons of Blues

Not that the blues are at all unfamiliar to Latinos. After all, before they made global hits of Tito Puente’sOye Como Va” and Willie Bobo’s “Evil Ways”, the band led by Carlos Santana, himself the son of a mariachi, called themselves the Santana Blues Band.

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Sones de México and Billy Branch: Son Jarocho Meets the Blues. Saturday, February 21 at Szold Hall of the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. Tickets at oldtownschool.org or call (773) 728-6000

Eddie Palmieri Concert Preview – Symphony Center Jan. 16

By Don Macica

Eddie Palmieri is certainly no stranger to Chicago. Fortunately, El Maestro has lately brought a different game on every visit. He opened 2013’s World Music Festival at Millennium Park with his salsa orchestra and brought the house down with driving dance grooves wedded to sophisticated big band arrangements, giving both the jazz heads and salseros a night to remember (Read Agúzate’s review and view photos here). The year before that, he presented a pair of sold out Sound Culture Chicago shows at Mayne Stage that emphasized open ended jazz improvisation over tight charts and featured trumpeter Brian Lynch in a scaled down version of their multiple Grammy-winning Simpático album.

Eddie Palmieri_2009

His Symphony Center appearance is his first in Chicago since being named a NEA Jazz Master and will feature the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band, a tight septet consisting of congas, bongos, timbales and bass plus alto sax and trumpet. From the beginning, Palmieri’s playing has fused the rhythm of his Puerto Rican heritage and Cuban piano masters with the harmonic complexity of jazz influences like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. If recent shows (including this one from NPR’s JazzSet) are any indication, it will be a real treat to hear this focus on the maestro, even as we are equally likely to hear virtuosic playing from the rest of the band.

Opening the show is a quintet led by bassist Carlos Henriquez. Although only in his mid-30s, Henriquez has been a member of Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for over a decade. He has played with artists as diverse as George Benson, Celia Cruz, Danilo Pérez, Carlos Santana, Steve Turre and Palmieri himself. Though he is yet to release a recording under his own name, he’s appeared on over 60 straight ahead, Latin jazz and salsa albums over the last 20 years, so it will be interesting to hear this diverse background channeled into his approach as a leader.

If I were you, I would not arrive late to this one!

Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Septet, Friday January 16, 8pm at Symphony Center. Tickets at cso.org.

About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.