It has been far too long since Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sánchez has released any new music under his own name.
It’s not that he hasn’t kept busy since Cultural Survival came out in 2008. He was one third of the Ninety Miles Cuban project along with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Christian Scott that toured heavily for a few years. He’s turned up as a guest on several excellent albums, and he tours regularly, swinging through Chicago at least once every year or two.
So when, after Sánchez announced that he and his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Obed Calvaire) were playing new material and heading into the studio next week, it was very good news. Some of the tunes were getting their first public performance. A key element of jazz improvisation is, essentially, composing on the spot, and that makes this weekend of shows something of an intense road test of the ideas that will make the final cut in the studio next week. Jazz fans could hardly ask for anything more.
The new songs are for an album to be titled Caribe, and they explore exactly that, folkloric traditions of the Caribbean, particularly from Puerto Rico and Haiti, where Miami-born drummer Calvaire has roots. Rodriguez, like Sánchez, hails from Puerto Rico and Perdomo is Venezuelan, but the thing that they share in addition to their Caribbean heritage is that they are all dedicated jazz musicians. The music they made together Thursday night demonstrated just how jazz absorbs and embraces diverse influences, and they did so with profound artistry and commitment.
This is a band certainly capable of fireworks, which they delivered handily on tunes like “A Thousand Yesterdays” and “Land of the Hills,” titled after what the French colonizers called Haiti. On these tunes and others, Sánchez temporarily set down his horn to take up a barril de bomba to underscore the folkloric foundations of the rhythm. It was the quieter moments, however, that impressed the most: “Canto” with Rodriguez’s bass intro and “Waves Under Silk,” that built on Perdomo’s repeated chords.
The David Sánchez Quartet has three more nights at the Jazz Showcase, two shows a night plus a Sunday afternoon kid-friendly matinee. If you want to explore creativity in action and gain an exclusive preview of an album to come, you’re advised not to miss it.
David Sánchez Quartet, December 14 – 17, Jazz Showcase, Chicago – jazzshowcase.com
Eddie Palmieri brought what was, for the celebrated salsa orchestra leader and NEA Jazz Master, a smallish ensemble with him to the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday night, but the joyful noise that they made together was a testament to the power of Eddie’s playing, composing and arranging skills. When you add in the charm and personality that El Maestro carries with him always, you have the recipe for a truly special night. Mixing references to both family and his beloved Puerto Rico into the between songs commentary, Eddie engaged the audience emotionally as well as musically.
The evening opened with a solo piano meditation on Palmieri’s late wife, weaving together two compositions, Mi Novia and Life, together in her honor. From there on, though, it was time for el ritmo.
As Eddie said in last week’s Agúzate interview, the man absolutely refuses to indulge in mediocrity. He reiterated this at the show, noting that the harmonic complexities of jazz wed to the African derived rhythms of Cuban drumming are pretty much everything that’s worth doing musically. And, of course, he had a band with him that was spectacular at both.
The all-Puerto Rico rhythm section of bassist Rubén Rodriguez, timbalero Camilo Molina, conguero Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero and El Rumbero del Piano himself absolutely killed it all night long. Meanwhile, Alex Norris’ trumpet and Louis Fouché’s alto sax burned with fire and grace.
In addition to selections from his latest album Sabiduria, the group went back to the 70s several times for recasts of classic Palmieri tunes like La Libertad Logico, Puerto Rico and Chocolate Ice Cream (written with the great Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros). Each was introduced with an anecdote from Palmieri’s life about the origins of the song. Some were humorous. Others addressed the tragic situation of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria but also the strength, resilience and pride of the Puerto Rican people, even suggesting that it was time for the island to resume its pre-conquest name of Borikén.
All in all, it was an extraordinary night. Today, as I go back and listen to classic records like Vamanos Pa’l Monte and Sentido, I’ll also have photographer Charlie Billups‘ images from the concert to remind me of just how extraordinary it was.
Chicago is a fortunate city in that The Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro Eddie Palmieri, has visited us with various bands in tow four times in as many years. Despite the enormous expense of taking a big band on the road, the good folks at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have dug deep into their pockets not once, but twice, to bring the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park. Interspersed with those huge events were a show at the deeply missed Mayne Stage with trumpeter and Simpático album collaborator Brian Lynch and a Latin Jazz Septet performance at Symphony Center.
Chicago’s hot streak continues this Friday when the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music presents the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band for two shows. The visit follows up the April release of Sabiduria, a richly textured and rhythmically exciting album featuring Eddie’s core band and a diverse cast of guest musicians ranging from Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fé to New Orleans saxophonist (and Mardi Gras Indian Chief) Donald Harrison and the king of funky drumming himself, Bernard Purdie, who first played with Eddie on the 1971 landmark album Harlem River Drive.
Sabiduria expertly covers everything from Afro-Cuban roots music to New Orleans second line funk, all under the wide umbrella of Latin Jazz. When salsa took a turn into slick corporate vapidity in the early 90’s, Palmieri refused to go along for the ride, instead concentrating his formidable talents as a composer, arranger and pianist into jazz and producing the frankly amazing Palmas in 1994. La Perfecta II in 2002 was something of a return to classic salsa, charanga, and mambo in honor of the 4oth anniversary of his groundbreaking debut as a bandleader, but it, too, was graced with tremendous jazz improvisers given plenty of room to do their thing. Simpático won a much deserved Grammy for best Latin Jazz Album in 2007.
That was followed by a long period of studio silence until filmmaker Bobbito Garcia asked him to contribute music to Doin’ It In the Park, his documentary on New York street basketball, in 2012. Three tunes from those sessions made it to Sabiduria. We have the visionaries at Ropeadope Records to thank for adding nine more and making them all widely available.
Core musicians from these sessions (Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero congas, Camilo Molina timbales, Louis Fouche alto sax) will be joined by trumpeter Alex Norris and bassist Ruben Rodriguez at the Old Town School shows.
Eddie Palmieri was kind enough to answer a few of my questions when I reached out to him last week.
Don Macica (DM) – I’ve read that you turned to jazz because it’s hard to land salsa gigs, but I also know that you studied the jazz greats along with the Cuban greats when you were coming up in the 50s. Do you have a preference? What do you consider yourself as an artist?
Eddie Palmieri (EP) – I have always been a leader of Orchestra Dance Bands. The writing was on the wall in the early 90’s when the (salsa) genre changed regarding true dance music. The structures were changed to emphasize the vocalist and the tension and resistance needed in the arrangement were abolished. Salsa Romantica or Salsa Sensual became the popular sound and personally I will never succumb to musical mediocrity.
So, Latin Jazz was the mission. In 1994 I became a Governor in the New York Chapter of NARAS and I was able to become a driving force for the Academy to recognize and open up a category. I consider myself a sincere musical student. The playback of my discography does not lie.
DM – Sabiduria feels a little bit like a career summation, albeit a very adventurous one. There’s great jazz, but also some very pure Afro-Cuban stuff and the title track is a fat slice of jazz-funk that recalls Harlem River Drive. Is there any separation between these genres in your approach?
EP – Sabiduria, in my opinion, is the greatest “Latin Jazz” recording ever! The personnel that my son Eddie Palmieri II put together and produced was outstanding. Like I said earlier I have always loved musical extensions throughout my career.
DM – What was the inspiration that brought Donald Harrison to Sabiduria?
EP – Donald Harrison has always been a part of this family since Palmas in 1994. We love him dearly and not only is he a great musician but a great human being.
DM – At the age of 80, where do you get your energy and creativity? What does the future hold for Eddie Palmieri?
EP – Getting stronger every day! Chocolate Armenteros, the great Cuban trumpet player, said “When you get to the age of 50 you start counting by ones”, so I am only 30 years old with 60 years of musical and bandstand experience!
Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band: Eddie at 80 – Friday, October 27, 7:00 & 9:30pm. Old Town School of Folk Music. Tickets at oldtownschool.org
For the last couple of decades, musicians from Chicago have placed the city squarely on the national musical map with their community based, multi-discipline artistic approach. It is perhaps most evident in hip-hop, where Chance the Rapper and Jamila Woods continue a legacy established by Common, Rhymefest and Kanye West.
Meanwhile, a parallel Latin scene has slowly developed, and the fruits of many years efforts are starting to pay off. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta broke first in 2013 with their aggressive cumbia/chicha sound and thoughtful sociopolitical manifesto, making a strong case for the groove as an agent of social change. Their sound has since evolved to more of a pan-Latin rock reflective of its member’s Mexican, Panamanian, Puerto Rican and Texan backgrounds.
Now, ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat, who have been on the scene for almost as long, are making their move. They scored a SXSW gig earlier this year, then followed it up by opening for the legendary Café Tacvba at Taste of Chicago this summer. Now they have released their second album, Juntos, and are in the midst of an eighteen-date national tour.
ESSO might just be the band the country needs in these dark days of the Trump presidency. Like Dos Santos, the diversity of the band’s members contributes to its sound and message, with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian and African American backgrounds. The group also has two female members, adding another important perspective to the mix. A diverse cast of guest musicians, MCs and DJs further fills out the sound of Juntos.
Between them, they’ve been raised on everything: Afro-Caribbean folkloric music to be sure, but also R&B, house, funk, hip-hop, jazz and a healthy dose of DJ dance floor beats. All of this comes to bear in their music. Songs are supported by lively and intricate polyrhythmic percussion and there are flashes of electric guitar, but most tracks exude a gently insistent groove reminiscent of the down-tempo global excursions of groups like Thievery Corporation. The rhymes come out of the conscious rap movement of poetic persuasion, not nihilistic despair. The horn arrangements are jazzy.
That’s not to say that this is some kind of easy listening music. The music is built for the dance floor, not the VIP lounge. Electronic beats and squiggles help that along, but the overall sound is organic, and underneath the smooth exterior are real roots and genuine commitment. Lyrically, songs address the contradictions of urban life faced by immigrant communities, but also love and the virtues of coming together to face them. There’s real fire to this music, albeit with an incandescence that smolders rather than blazes. It pulls you to the dance floor, not pushes.
ESSO reaches back beyond the Caribbean to Africa and skillfully blends those motherland elements into its rhythmic sancocho. Fela’s Afrobeat can be felt in some songs, but so does the jùjú music of that other giant of Nigerian music, King Sunny Ade, as well as the loping guitars of Ghanaian highlife.
Playing spot the influence is a lot of fun with this album, but each of them are smoothly integrated into a band sound that is uniquely theirs. I have a few favorite tracks, and you’ll no doubt have yours, but this collection of 13 songs is best consumed whole from beginning to end, like a good meal among friends.
The second weekend of World Music Festival Chicago is upon us. We’ve already seen some great music downtown and around the city, but there is more to come. A fairly recent addition to the Fest, the Global Peace Picnic, takes place this Sunday afternoon, September 17, adjacent to the Humboldt Park Boathouse in the cultural heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Despite its prime location in the highly active park (on any given Sunday you can find softball games, traditional food trucks and lively family parties scattered throughout the park’s 219 acres), the Picnic, now in its third year, wanted to do more to attract locals. Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) staff members and Fest organizers David Chavez and Carlos Tortelero worked out a plan with this objective in mind.
One of the first decisions that they made was to program a headliner from Puerto Rico, and they have found a great one in La Tribu de Abrante. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a bit.
Unlike a lot of the “world music” acts that tour the U.S., Puerto Rican artists tend not to be represented by the handful of U.S. based booking agencies that specialize in music from beyond our borders. This could be because the island is not, technically, beyond here because of its colonial status. Secondly, there is a rich music scene on the island that enjoys immense popularity both there and among its Diaspora, but remains nearly invisible to the rest of the world. This, of course, is related to the first point made above in that there is little U.S. based infrastructure for marketing their music to radio and press tastemakers.
DCASE needed a direct pipeline to the island, and they found one in Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC), an organization that has been bringing the best of Puerto Rico to Chicago for several decades. With the help of a few foundations and sponsors, SRBCC has stepped up the pace in the past year or so, presenting artists like Leró Martinez, Orquesta el Macabeo, Pirulo y la Tribu, Chalí Hernández and acoustic “unplugged” shows with new global sensation ÌFÉ. They’ve done this while simultaneously showcasing the best of Chicago’s folkloric Afro-Caribbean scene and music from other sister countries, like the legendary Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro from Cuba.
SRBCC, in turn, has forged a partnership with the The 606, the pedestrian and bike trail that cuts through Logan Square, Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. Artists that perform or conduct workshops at SRBCC often can be found the same weekend along the several small parks adjacent to the trail.
All of this comes together for this year’s World Music Festival and Global Peace Picnic. First of all, there is headliner La Tribu de Abrante. We’ve been in love with them ever since we watched them stroll through the streets of Santurce in their first YouTube video for Dale pa’ la Calle a couple of years ago. The band is led by Hiram Abrante, a deeply rooted percussionist who has been playing since the age of 5. The Loiza (one of Puerto Rico’s most African-influenced towns) based group weds folkloric bomba rhythms (if you stripped away everything else, what’s left is pure bomba) to a reggaeton feel and hip-hop attitude. Unlike most reggaeton artists, though, Tribu keeps it primarily acoustic, only adding electric bass and a horn section. To these ears, it’s reminiscent of a New Orleans brass band: rhythm, horns, voice and, above all, energy.
Tribu will conduct a percussion workshop at 11AM on Saturday morning at SRBCC. On Sunday morning at 11AM, musicians and artists from AfriCaribe, Buya, Chicago Cuatro Orchestra, and Seneke will gather at the parks along the 606 for performances and family workshops before embarking on A Walk with Peace and Music toward each other on the trail. They’ll meet up at the Humboldt Boulevard overlook with Los Pleneros de Don Segundo and the entire group will head for the Boathouse around 1:30 pm, just in time for the beginning of the Global Peace Picnic at 2PM.
In addition to Tribu, the Peace Picnic will also have performances by the powerful Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo and the wonderful West African Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar. Taken together, this could very well be the most powerful lineup of the entire Fest.
All events are free. Miss them at your own risk.
La Tribu de Abrante Bomba Workshop. Saturday, September 16 at 11AM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Facebook link.
A Walk With Peace and Music. September 17 at 11AM, The 606 at Park 567 & Walsh Park. Facebook link.
Global Peace Picnic featuring La Tribu de Abrante, Betsayda Machadoy y La Parranda El Clavo and Mdou Moctar. September 17 at 2PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse. Facebook link.
For salsa singer Enrique Calderón, when he finally felt it was time to write and record his first single, he kept his mind focused on one very important thing: For it to be a success, people needed to dance.
That’s how it started for Calderón, a young Mexican-American from the south suburbs who could play jazz and classical music on the trumpet, when he began hitting Chicago’s salsa nightclubs in the late 1990s.
Back then, there were actually a few full time salsa spots in the city, not just clubs that occasionally offered salsa nights. Calderón’s main haunt was Tropicana D’Cache, which occupied the space that is now Concord Music Hall. He admits that the scene was attractive: The dancing, the bands, the beautiful women. “I became a pretty good dancer, winning a couple of dance contests,” says Calderón.
I asked Calderón how, being of Mexican descent, he got into tropical music. “Both of my parents were from Mexico, my dad from Michoacán and my mom from Mexico City. Both her and my grandmother were big fans of tropical music, stuff like Perez Prado, Sonora Santanera, Sonora Mantancera. Groups like that would come to Mexico City all the time. So, when I was growing up here in the States, that sort of stuff would always get played around the house.”
Still, like most kids, he was not especially fond of his parent’s music. His tastes ran toward hip-hop, house and other urban music. At the same time, though, the jazz lessons that he’d been getting left an impression, and he even privately tried singing a bit, imitating Harry Connick, Jr.
Later, when he was immersed in the salsa scene and knowing that he had a decent singing voice, he began to pester bands into letting him sing back up, finally getting a big break when Jesus Enríquez, who was huge on the Chicago scene, invited him to sing with his group. Soon enough he was singing backup with lots of local orquestas as well as national artists whenever they came to town.
He eventually formed a group named La Unica with a couple of close friends while continuing to work with national artists. But in 2004, he decided to call it quits for a while. By 2011, though, he was ready to return. He got a few higher profile band gigs with Rica Obsesión, Nabori and the Humboldt Park Orchestra. He was also doing backup vocals with a new generation of salsa singers such as Willito Otero, Kayvan Vega, NG2, Carlos Mojica, Maelo Ruiz and Frankie Negron when they came to Chicago. Finally, in 2016, he formed his own group.
Now, most salsa bands survive on doing covers of popular songs, and Calderón’s certainly fills that bill. You don’t hear too many brand new songs on salsa night. But in 2017, Calderón decided to take the next step and began working with singer Ricky Luis and Afinca’o leader Joe Mende on producing new original music.
The result is a new single, Más Tiempo, debuting this Sunday night, September 3, at the Cubby Bear’s Salsa Sunday Labor Day show. Also on the bill is Ricky Luis, a Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles, and Afinca’o, who are also debuting a new single. So, it’s kind of all in the family, and a pretty big night for all three.
The sound of salsa has changed over the decades, and it is currently enjoying something of a back to basics moment. “That’s the sound I wanted to get on this first single,” says Calderon, “percussion and horns, kind of a classic approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore what gets the dance floor going, so there is a little bit of that romantic salsa feel, and the lyrics are about a relationship I was having at the time. People relate to it, they want to sing along, and they want to dance. Do you know how many people sing along to Yo No Sé Mañana?” Calderon asks, referring to the massive and often covered Luis Enrique song from 2009 that is a guaranteed dance floor filler.
Más Tiempo does a good job of navigating the gulf between salsa dura and salsa romántica. The arrangement is tight, with skillfully arranged horns and percolating percussion. Calderon’s voice is a little more rugged than the average crooner, and his sense of the rhythm is superb. At the same time, there is a hooky little chorus tailor-made for the audience sing along. A nice little touch comes near the end, when Calderón gives the shouted affirmation “México presente!”
Calderón is still a dancer at heart. “When I’m on stage with my band, and I notice that I’m not dancing, well, then I know it’s time for the band to bring the energy up.”
Look for a lot of energy this Sunday night at the Cubby Bear.
Salsa Sundays at Cubby Bear featuring Enrique Calderón, Afinca’o, and Ricky Luis | Sunday, September 3, 10PM (doors open 7PM) | Facebook
Ileana Cabra returned to Chicago for her second show in a little over a year, and although you might think that she had nothing new to say, you could not deny that she has found a more deeply expressive way of saying it.
Her last visit, a 2016 headlining appearance at Millennium Park, was remarkable in its ability to transform that vast space into an intimate place for whispered conversation. It came on the heels of her debut album, Ilevitable, and consisted almost exclusively of songs from it. Ilevitable went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Latin rock, urban or alternative album, an impressive achievement for a new artist.
A year later, those same songs were presented once again, but in the intervening year it feels that iLe and her excellent backing band, now expanded modestly to include a pair of richly burnished trombones, have lived in them and become familiar with the knotty emotions buried deep within.
Pilsen Fest, with its explicit mission of showcasing Latino music and art in the context of cultural resistance in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, couldn’t be more different than the pristine setting of Millennium Park. In this way, it was perhaps a more appropriate setting for iLe’s art. It certainly provided an audience more attuned of the complex emotional nuances of Latin music.
That may have been a contributing factor to the powerful nature of iLe’s Pilsen Fest performance. Up close, you can read the impassioned meaning of each song in her face, posture and gestures. Some of this, of course, is a seasoned stage performer at work, but the role of the artist is to use the skills at their command to convey deeper truths. Above all, iLe remains committed to her truth as a woman from a family of strong women, navigating the joy and heartbreak of life, love and sexuality.
Two songs in particular demonstrate how thin the line between them can be. In both Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú, iLe takes time to dance while the band propels a Latin groove behind her, but the interpretation is one of agony in the former and confident abandon in the latter.
It occurs to me as I write this that I have spent quite a few words on iLe’s visual presentation, but none on the equally powerful voice that accompanies it. There might be no better use of it than in Triángulo, a delicate yet moving ranchera that shifts from quiet hesitancy to heartbreak, drawing the audience in with every syllable. The weight of pain in Dolor, a song written in 1955 by her grandmother Flor Amelia de Gracia, is so great it drives her to the ground as she sings it. By contrast, she invests real power in the dramatic Canibal that you can feel all the way in the back.
The songs from Ilevitable are interrupted but once at mid-concert for a song about Puerto Rico. iLe introduces it by speaking of the island’s colonial status and the fear that many there have of being free of dependency. It occurs to me that the same condition applies to the women who populate her songs: Struggling to be free and happy, yet held back by fear and self-doubt. I also think of Pilsen itself, a community that feels under siege by commercial forces looking to colonize it with high priced apartments and expensive restaurants. “Yo soy boricua,” she sang, “Pero también soy un patriota.”
The show ends with the rousing Te quiero con Bugalú, conjuring New York City of the 1960s, and the encore is another song written by her grandmother, No te detengas, a simple, achingly beautiful showcase for guitar and voice.
The lack of new songs was a bit surprising, but Ilevitable was reportedly years in the making. Something tells me that Ileana Cabra has little interest in being a pop star, and thus no incentive to crank out a new song to satisfy the marketplace. Besides, there seems to be plenty of inspiration left to be mined from the ones she already has.
The 2016 Colombian Fest had some tremendous music, but its cramped location on the hot asphalt of the Copernicus Center parking lot made it pretty uncomfortable on a July weekend. In only its second year, the fest had already outgrown its space.
Fortunately, Colombian Fest founder Jorge Ortega saw this as well and immediately started looking for something roomier, which he found at Kelvyn Park in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. With the help of the Chicago Park District and the local alderman’s office, Colombian Festival transformed itself in 2017 into Chicago’s Colombian Festival al Parque.
What a difference a year makes! Blessed with moderate weather, the weekend was a smashing success. As before, Ortega carefully booked the music with an eye toward reflecting the breadth and depth of Colombian music as well as the tastes of a multi-generational audience. Living legends were there like Julio Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada who, as music director at the Discos Fuentes label and with his group Fruko y sus Tesos, practically invented Colombian style salsa in the 1970’s, and the sound he created then still carries tremendous power forty years later. Representing the youth movement were artists like the dynamic Explosión Negra, who infuse traditional Pacifico rhythms with other Afro-Caribbean sounds and hip-hop swagger. Bogota’s Los Rolling Raunas take the interior mountain sounds of the Colombian Andes and perform them with rock energy.
The real pleasures of the weekend were aimed at the old folks, though, which is not to say that younger attendees didn’t show them lots of love. Los Embajadores Vallenatos demonstrated why they were one of the top vallenato bands of the 80s & 90s, and cumbia singer Pastor López hasn’t lost a step in his three decade career. Salsa singer Jorge Maldanodo, though a Puerto Rican, has been beloved in Colombia ever since a 1978 visit as lead singer with the legendary Sonora Mantancera. Checo Acosta, though a bit younger, is extraordinarily popular around carnaval time in Barranquilla, and his show was accompanied by a multitude of musicians and dancers replicating the Congo Grande Comparsa.
All of this would add up to a successful weekend, but it was the presence of the regal Totó la Momposina, Colombia’s undisputed queen of Afro-Latin folkloric music, that was truly historic. Her show nearly transcended music itself in its survey of all the sounds and colors that Colombian culture has given the world. Greeted by the ecstatic crowd, she and her expansive band rewarded them with over an hour of pure bliss. Her concert at Millennium Park a few nights earlier was both excellent and moving, but here, before something like a ‘hometown crowd’, it was on an entirely different level.
One wonders where the fest can go from here, but no doubt Jorge Ortega is already working on it.
The San Juan, Puerto Rico born saxophonist and bandleader Roy McGrath is a ubiquitous presence on Chicago’s jazz and salsa scenes. I first interviewed him for Agúzate over a year ago when he was preparing two new projects. The first was leading a tribute concert to John Coltrane’s classic Blue Train album for the Jazz Record Art Collective. The second, a month later, was an original Latin jazz project inspired by the poems and life of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos called Julia al Son de Jazz that included recitations of de Burgos’ verse over the band’s playing.
While the Blue Train show was something of a one-off, Julia al Son de Jazz was an ongoing project that started the previous fall and would continue into the summer. As it turns out, though, they are related in ways that weren’t obvious at the time. Now, with summer approaching, McGrath has no less than four projects in development, one of which, Cumbanchero II: The Music of Rafael Herńandez, will have multiple performances this weekend.
“When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, Rafael Hernández was a revered figure. His music was everywhere,” Roy McGrath tells me over coffee one afternoon. “In fact, I was singing his songs in a youth choir well before I ever thought of becoming a musician, before I ever even heard his name. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered who he was.”
McGrath continues, “Once I learned that those tunes I sung as a kid were written by him, I started checking out all of his songs. They’re great tunes with great harmonies, and as an aspiring jazz musician, I was eager to play them.”
Flashing forward to the spring of 2015, McGrath was living and working in Chicago after earning his jazz performance degree from Northwestern University. He learned that Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) was bringing the great composer’s son, Alejandro “Chalí” Hernández, to Chicago to sing a tribute to his father’s music with a 14 piece big band, and knew he had to be a part of it. He managed to snag a saxophone chair in the band when the first Cumbanchero tribute played a single concert in March of that year.
The concert was a huge success, and plans were made to bring Chalí Hernández back to Chicago. This time around, though, McGrath is Music Director for the project, leading concerts on three consecutive nights. The first of these is at Simons Park Friday evening in the Hermosa neighborhood. The second will be part of the huge 606 Block Party on Humboldt Boulevard, and the final performance is back at SRBCC on Sunday.
McGrath sees each show through a different prism. “I like that the first one is in a small neighborhood park. There’s not a lot of publicity, and I think we’ll mostly play for neighbors who happen to stumble across us. They’re probably going to be amazed to hear this amazing singer and son of a historic figure right in their midst. The 606 Block Party is a huge deal, a highly promoted event that will draw a multi-ethnic crowd from around the city. And, of course, SRBCC is for the community that has worked hard to nurture and promote music from Puerto Rico and other Afro-Caribbean countries.”
In addition to being a singer and musician, Chalí Hernández is also manages the archive of his father’s music at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. “It’s been great working with Chalí,” says McGrath. “I hung out with him after the last show and got to know him a bit. It turns out his wife and my mom know each other back in San Juan, so we became friends. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while, so when the call came to do this project, we reconnected and now we talk all the time.” McGrath adds, “But we only talk about the music some of the time… He’s a big Cubs fan and hopes to see a game while he’s here.”
Cumbanchero II is just the start of McGrath’s busy summer. This year’s edition of the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival is joining in the celebration of the 100th birthday of Dizzy Gillespie by taking a look at his crucial role as one of the first American jazz musicians to explore Afro-Cuban music, giving birth to what became known as Latin jazz. McGrath will lead a septet on Friday, July 14 that salutes the music of Dizzy’s United Nations Orchestra, a true all-star band that Gillespie put together in the late 1980’s that included at various times the likes of jazz stalwarts James Moody, Slide Hampton and Ed Cherry along with musicians with roots in Latin America: Danilo Pérez, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Diego Urcola, Giovanni Hidalgo, Flora Purim and more. Their 1992 album Live at Royal Festival Hall won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.
McGrath is no stranger to the Latin Jazz Fest, having played in and led bands in almost every fest since he graduated from Northwestern. When he got the call from festival director Carlos Flores to put together the Gillespie project, he jumped at it. “I’m really excited about this. I’ve hired some of the best jazz musicians in Chicago for this one. Heck, most of them are better than me! I’m interested in what this stellar group of musicians can do with this music.”
McGrath continues, “What’s cool and interesting about the United Nations band is that they didn’t just play Latin jazz. All the Latin guys swung hard when they played Coltrane’s Giant Steps, but they also played Afro-Latin tunes like Manteca and Perdido. And a lot of it was pretty funky. We’re going to try to capture all of that.”
In August, McGrath returns to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to lead a group of musicians in a tribute to another Puerto Rican legend, Antonio Cabán Vale, or “El Topo.” The nueva trova songwriter and singer is perhaps best known for his song Verde Luz, and he’s in Chicago for a 50th Anniversary concert at the Copernicus Center on August 6 celebrating that song, which has become something of a second national anthem on the island. SRBCC is hosting a meet and greet with El Topo the previous evening, August 5. McGrath and a select group of musicians will perform arrangements of Verde Luz and other El Topo songs.
The final item in Roy McGrath’s busy summer is the release of his second album, Remembranzas, but most of the hard work on that project is already behind him. It’s an album that grew out of both of the projects that open this article. McGrath kept developing the Julia al Son de Jazz project throughout the summer of 2016, but finally retired it because it didn’t work out to his expectations. “I kept trying to make it work, but at some point I realized that I couldn’t force it, so I scraped it. But the process of working on it taught me a lot. Jazz is serious, but so is poetry and spoken word. I needed to be faithful to all three, and I wasn’t quite getting there. So I went back to basics and the format of a jazz quartet. I kept four of the tunes I had written for Julia, stripped out the words, and wrote new arrangements for them.”
Part of Remembranzas grew out of the Julia de Burgos project, but McGrath also composed new, unrelated tunes as well. He put together a new quartet that included versatile bassist Kitt Lyles (a member of McGrath’s first post-Northwestern quartet) and two musicians who helped him execute the Coltrane project, pianist Bill Cessna and drummer Jonathan Wenzel.
The band rehearsed over the winter and then headed to Asia for month-long tour to work out playing live in front of audiences. Two Chicago performances followed in the spring before they headed into the studio to record the album. The finished tunes are reflective of McGrath’s Puerto Rican heritage in the way the folkloric rhythms of the island are woven into the arrangements without being at the forefront. The album feels unmistakably Latin, but it is not Latin jazz. McGrath made sure his band mates fully internalized the rhythmic rules that govern its folkloric sources before turning them loose as improvising jazz musicians. As McGrath put it, “You have to know where the lines are before you can color outside them.” Adding to the feel are guest appearances by percussionists Victor Junito on congas and Bomba con Buya member Ivelisse Díaz on traditional barril seguidor. Respected Puerto Rican MC Siete Nueve added a rap inspired by de Burgos as well.
“A remembranza is a reminiscence, evocation, or memory,” says McGrath in explaining the album’s title. “A deeply etched memory that forms part of one’s life and due to its emotional nature, whether positive or negative, is there to stay forever. I named the album Remembranzas because, despite the Julia de Burgos project not fully achieving what I wanted it to be, that process is ingrained in me as a lived experience. It wasn’t a failure, but something that passed organically into this new thing.” McGrath continues, “The other tunes are one with them in that they, too, come from a genuine life experience that I had.”
Remembranzas is scheduled for August release and plans are being made for an album release concert to follow. Through all of this, you can still find McGrath playing live somewhere several nights a week in one of the many bands he performs with.
But if you want to hear him express his own approach to music, your first opportunity is this weekend.
I have to start this out with a confession. Before it was announced that Celso Piña would headline a show at Thalia Hall on May 28, I knew very little about him. I figured he played Colombian music because I saw his name in an article a few months ago about a new album paying tribute to forgotten Colombian songwriter Magín Díaz. Piña is among an all-star cast of guest musicians that include Carlos Vives, Li Saumet of Bomba Estereo, Totó la Momposina and Monsieur Periné. That’s a pretty impressive list and it covers a lot of musical ground. I also knew that the group playing at Thalia was billed as “Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered Piña is from Monterrey, Mexico and, at the age of 64, something of a legend. A Google search seemed to indicate that while the singer, songwriter and accordion player (he’s sometimes called “El Rebelde del acordeón”) is held in high regard throughout Latin America, the reason for that admiration varies. Apparently, Celso Piña is many things to many people.
Rather than cobble together a bunch of stuff and call it my own, I decided to call on a few friends who I was quite sure knew more than me. The first person I spoke to was Jorge Ortega, a native of Barranquilla, Colombia and the driving force behind Chicago’s ever-expanding Colombian Festival / El Grand Festival Colombiano.
“I’ve tried to book Celso Piña into the Colombian Festival, but his travel schedule and our dates never lined up,” says Ortega. “The guy is devoted to Colombian cumbia and I respect that a lot. His accordion is tuned in the Colombian way. He’s open about his dedication to getting the Colombian sound right, having been inspired by Anibal Velázquez. He brings his own thing to it, of course, and he took cumbia to another level in Mexico, that whole urban Monterrey scene. He turned young people on to cumbia and was an inspiration to the whole cumbia sonidero movement. At the same time, he can play a festival in Colombia and people love it.”
Aqui Presente Compa is Piña’s latest album, and it’s a raucous gem of a party record. The cumbia beats and Piña’s accordion are front and center. But there is toughness to it as well: Electric guitar and a forcefully played drum set easily put it in a more rocking space, at times sounding like the sort of norteña rock that bands like the Texas Tornados do so well. But if you go back to 2001 and an album called Barrio Bravo, you’ll hear the sound that inspired a generation.
“Cumbia Sobre el Río is a masterpiece,” says Mexico City born musician Zacbé Pichardo, referring to Barrio Bravo’s lead track and mega-hit that features guest appearances by Pato Machete and Blanquito Man, both of whom were at the forefront of the rock en español scene. A 2002 profile of Piña in the Austin Chronicle article said of the song, “… there wasn’t a car or living room from Chicago to Chiapas that didn’t have the bass booming and the sonic onslaught layered with accordion rattling their windows.”
Pichardo, who leads the Chicago based cumbia sonidero outfit Guapachosos and is also a member of the highly respected Sones de México Ensemble, continues, “Celso has created a unique blend of traditional Colombian cumbia with the modern unique touch of urban chaos. Many cumbia groups have found a style and stuck to it, but Celso has always progressed alongside the current new trends and made something unique through his Ronda Bogotá filter. It has significantly influenced what I produce nowadays.”
Barrio Bravo featured guest appearances by several rock en español and Latin Alternative artists, some of whom joined Piña in a 2003 appearance at Mexico City’s Vive Latino Festival. YouTube videos of that performance show the rapturous reception that the crowd of several thousand gave to the performance, and the energy being thrown off by Piña and Ronda Bogotá is phenomenal.
I was beginning to get a clearer picture of exactly who Celso Piña is, but I wanted to check with one more person. Alex Chávez leads Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta, a band that initially made an impression by playing chicha, the Peruvian variant of cumbia, but quickly progressed to more of a pan-Latin sound. I knew from previous conversations that there was a philosophical foundation to the band’s embrace of cumbia as its starting point.
“Colombian cumbia bears witness to significant stylistic transformations in the 20th century, becoming a robust transnational musical phenomenon along the way,” says Chávez. “Commercial radio and recordings also emerge as a powerful force of dissemination at this time, taking cumbia to nearby and far off places like the industrial center of Monterrey, Mexico. So, when Cumbia Sobre el Río drops in 2001, it’s spread throughout Latin America is preceded by half a century of cumbia’s circulation along those same routes. While Piña had enjoyed success in Monterrey since the 1980s, his 2001 hit exhibits a unique blending of the accordion-based vallenato style he popularized with the slowed-down rebajada style pioneered by sonidero DJs in the working-class colonias of that city.”
Did I mention that Chávez, in addition to leading Dos Santos, is an anthropology professor and Latino Studies Fellow at Notre Dame University?
“Celso and the whole Monterrey scene have reconstructed a grassroots Colombian sound in their own image where we find the story of how cultural capital participates in assigning meaning to place, to migration, and all of the experiences in between. Monterrey is a center of Latin American music-making, but is also deeply connected to the United States economically. And so, Celso Piña’s sound tells the story of a cosmopolitan sensibility coated with working-class flare; it is “people’s music”—something which can be said about cumbia more broadly. Still, his story and his sound speak to how contemporary experiences of marginality provide the backdrop for powerful cultural constructions of place, of belonging, and of travel beyond nations and across borders.”
This is where it all connects and points to how a musician working in what seems to be a fixed style is in reality tapping into something that is all about migration, change and adaptation, one sensibility assuming the form of another to create something personally authentic, yet having a wide appeal to traditionalists as well as progressives. The Austin Chronicle may have referenced “Chicago to Chiapas”, but Celso Piña’s impact reaches much farther than that, all the way back to where cumbia was born.
Sharing the bill with Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá at Thalia Hall are Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta and ÌFÉ from Puerto Rico, who I have written about here, here and here.