From Cumbanchero to Remembranzas: Catching up with Roy McGrath


By Don Macica –

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.”

The first Cumbanchero, March 2015

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 Remembranzas Quartet with special guest Victor Junito, March 2017

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.

Roy McGrath and the Remembranzas team in the studio

Interview: John Santos, My Music is Who I Am

John-Santos
By Don Macica –

“My experience totally comes from the folkloric tradition. My grandparents on both sides were musicians. My dad’s family is from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal while my mom is Puerto Rican. I grew up in that environment so I was listening to and playing traditional Cuban, Puerto Rican and African music at an early age.”

I’m speaking with San Francisco Bay area percussionist, band leader and educator John Santos via phone from Washington, DC, where he is making several appearances in connection with the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival. From there he’ll travel to Chicago for two Latin Jazz Festival appearances this week: A lecture and demonstration entitled My Music is Who I Am at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and leading the John Santos Sextet at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. Both events are presented by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Santos had led several bands over the course of his four-decade career. The best known of them was the Machete Ensemble, which lasted for 21 years but dissolved in 2006. That’s the group I caught at HotHouse, the South Loop venue that closed its physical doors several years ago but continues as a still vital organization with programming in various locations around the city. As it turns out, that’s the last time Santos played in Chicago until now.

“The economics of that group were really difficult,” says Santos. “It varied from 12-14 members, and a group of that size is very hard to take on the road. It was hard to get decent paying work for that many musicians. I downsized to 9 members, but even that was hard to support.”

After Machete Ensemble broke up, Santos started a quartet, which has gradually built up to the sextet that will visit Chicago this week. Besides being a top-shelf performing Latin jazz ensemble, they specialize in educational presentations from lecture/demonstrations to detailed clinics focusing on any number of relevant subjects such as composition, arrangement, rhythmic development, stylistic interpretation, studio performance, etc. Their repertoire consists of arrangements from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the US, as well as original compositions.

The conversation turns back to the importance of tradition in Santos’ music. “After my experiences playing with my family and during my development as a professional musician, I studied all sorts of African influenced music. As a percussionist, I was drawn to the conga and batá drums, and from there to Congolese and Nigerian music. I started collecting instruments and vintage recordings. That folk tradition became a driving force in my career.”

Santos continues, “Those folkloric traditions form the basis of what I do, but then we apply that to original music using contemporary jazz harmonies and themes that talk about experiences that are relevant to what we’re living through.”

With that, our conversation moves to Santos’ educational efforts and programs, one of which he is presenting this week in Chicago. “Workshops, lectures and classes are nearly half of what I do, with performing and composing being the other half,” he notes.  “I took the title My Music is Who I Am from a dissertation by the great Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzáles.  That title really resonated with me, so I created this presentation that talks about Afro-Latinos like myself and the way music is intertwined with our identity, history and culture. The music is an almost sacred document that tells our story in our own voices and the voices of our ancestors.” He continues, “I’ll be using a lot of historical recordings from my collection to illustrate certain themes of who we are, in our own words, and I’ll show how those same themes are relevant to our lives today. It will show how connected we are to these older traditions, but at the same time have contemporary examples that play the same role.”

It is mid-afternoon, and Santos still has one more Smithsonian Folklife panel to attend. As we are saying our goodbyes, Santos remarks, “I’m really looking forward to coming back to Chicago. I’ve done events before with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the old location. I’m honored to be presenting there again and of course I’m excited to be performing at the Latin Jazz Festival. It will be great to see old friends and make some new ones.”

My Music is Who I Am, Thursday, July 14, 7:00pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage, Chicago. Free admission, but registration is requested. srbcc.org

10th Annual Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Friday-Saturday July 15-16 at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. 1301 N. Sacramento, Chicago. John Santos headlines Friday at 9:00pm. Free admission. jazzinchicago.org

Con ritmo: Agúzate’s Guide to Summer in Chicago

La banda cubana "Orishas" se reencuentra con apuesta de "revolución musical"
Orishas

By Don Macica –

Chicagoans are a hardy bunch. We suffer through what seems like endless winters because we know one thing: Summer music in Chicago is awesome! Nearly every weekend has one neighborhood festival or another.  There’s the city-owned world class concert venue Pritzker Pavilion downtown, but in recent years the neighborhood parks have stepped up big time too. Besides all the free stuff, there are also a few privately run festivals where the music to dollar ratio is especially high.

There’s something for everyone, but we have a mission here at Agúzate that keeps us focused on places where the Afro-Latin quotient is high. Here then, is our guide to where we want to be this summer.

Of course, you’re invited too!

The 606 Block Party, June 4: We start in the ‘hood, or more accurately, the four neighborhoods that Chicago’s urban trail park runs through: Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. They are celebrating their first anniversary by throwing a huge party, and the Latino flavor of the trail’s western half leads to some pretty good music. Humboldt Boulevard between Cortland and Wabansia is where you’ll find salsa orchestra Luis Palermo and the Brasa All-Stars, the Latin ska of Los Vicios de Papá, and Bomba con Buya with special guest bomba maestro Leró Martinez.  More action can be found in the smaller parks along the trail, including rumba Cubana from Iré Elese Abure, booming Brazilian samba from Bloco Maximo, Tango & folkloric music by bandoneón player Richard Scofano and even more bomba and plena with Leró Martinez, Jerry Ferrao, Arawak’Opia and saxophonist Roy McGrath.

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Bomba con Buya

Night Out in the Parks, various dates: Speaking of Roy McGrath, we’ve been following his Julia al Son de Jazz project ever since he premiered it at The 606 last year. McGrath reports that it is still growing and refining, and the public will get three more chances to check in on its progress in three spots around the city: June 24 at Fred Anderson Park in the South Loop, July 29 at Riis Park and August 26 at Gage Park. More 606 celebrants return as well, including Bomba con Buya July 25 in Blackhawk Park and Iré Elese Abure August 27 at Julia de Burgos Park. Miramar, whose new album is a tribute to Puerto Rican songwriter Sylvia Rexach, performs June 24 in Hermosa Park. Finally, AfriCaribe brings the bomba y plena to three spots as well, June 23 in Churchill Park, July 11 in Wicker Park and August 10 in Foster Park.

Millennium Park Summer Music Series, various dates: There are many reasons to spend a summer evening here, but for us, none are more essential than the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra on June 27. Opening for El Maestro is Afro-Colombian folkloric ensemble Ecos del Pacifico. Other promising shows include Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante (you might recognize him from his haunting theme to Netflix’s Narcos) on June 13, Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti and Positive Force on July 11, Congolese band Mbongwana Star with local favorites Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta on August 11 and, making up for last year’s State Department visa meltdown, highlife legend King Sunny Ade on July 18. UPDATE: Puerto Rican singer Ileana Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, has been added on July 14.

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Eddie Palmieri

Square Roots Festival, July 8-10: The street fest version of its predecessor, the glorious Folk & Roots Festival, may never quite hit those heights of communal bliss, but the venerable Old Town School continues to bring in excellent music, and this year is no exception.  We’ll be checking out roots reggae from Taj Weekes, the Ethiopian pop of Debo Band and the classic New York Latin sound of Los Hacheros.

Chicago SummerDance, various dates: A tradition going on 20 years, this globally generous three month dance party on Chicago’s front lawn will present several local and international artists, including Angel Melendez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, Los Hacheros, Ola Fresca and Carpacho y Su Super Combo.

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, July 15-16: Make sure your Uber account is in good standing, ‘cause you’re going to need it this weekend! We’ll start off Friday night with a festival that, without fail, presents the absolute best in Latin Jazz. And though we don’t yet know what they are planning for this year, it’s a sure bet that you’ll want to see some of it. UPDATE: Legendary San Francisco percussionist and bandleader John Santos has been announced as the Friday night headliner. Juan Pastor’s Chinchano opens.

El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17: Back for its second year, they are working hard to build on last summer’s great lineup with 79 year old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez, champeta master Charles King, salsa dura from Pibo Márquez’ Salsa Caribbean All Stars, Lucho Morales y Su Fiesta Vallenato, Afro-Colombian rising stars Explosión Negra and the old school salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles. On the DJ side you’ll find Geko Jones from the Que Bajo?! collective and festival organizer Jorge Ortega himself spinning classic vinyl.

Anibal Velasquez

Celebrate Clark Street, July 16-17: Back for its eleventh year, the music at this humble and slightly gritty festival (I can say that ‘cause it’s in my neighborhood) always turns it into something of a mini-World Music Fest. This year is no exception. We’re especially excited about Palenke SoulTribe, Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars and the El Freaky collective.

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Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars

Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival, July 16-17: Uber goes to the suburbs, right? It is, as they say, cooler by the lake, and you can’t get any closer than at this summertime favorite. This year, check out the Cuban-Arabic-Flamenco-Gypsy Swing of Sultans of String, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and the hard hitting Johnny Blas Afro Libre Orchestra.

Festival Cubano, August 12-14: No lineup has yet been made public, but in the past they have showcased such giants as Willy Chirino, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and Alfredo de la Fe. Last year brought the first visits of Cubans directly from the island, and there’s no reason to think that will stop now. UPDATE: Reunited hip-hop trio Orishas plus Albita and La India have been announced as headliners.

Chicago Jazz Festival, September 1-4: There are few better ways to end your summer than by immersing yourself in jazz at this 38 year old tradition. The Big Papi of jazz fests promises something for everyone, but we are especially excited about two performances: The experimental Afro-Latin collective James Sanders’ Proyecto Libre on Friday and the closing night concert, a Latin Jazz All Stars 95th birthday tribute to legendary Cuban conguero Candido Camero with Candido himself.

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Candido Camero

You have to come indoors sometime, and the early part of the summer provides a few excellent opportunities to do just that, including:

  • Venezuela by way of New York hedonists Los Amigos Invisibles hit Bottom Lounge June 9.
  • Darwin Noguera & Victor Garcia’s CALJE (June 10) and Colombian/New York band leader Gregorio Uribe (June 12), both at Sabor a Café Steakhouse.
  • Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Trio at the Jazz Showcase June 16-19.
  • Triple Threat! Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta with funk/soul/reggae band Fatbook and global jazz beatmaster Makaya McCraven at Martyrs June 17.
  • São Paulo songstress CéU at City Winery June 24.
  • CD release party for Orbert Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s Havana Blue, June 26 at Jazz Showcase.

Of course, we haven’t even touched on World Music Festival Chicago, but that’s after Labor Day so we’re counting that in a different season.

Trust us, we will count it.