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.
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.
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.”
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.