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.
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.
I’ll start by getting out of the way something that every article written about Ileana Cabra mentions: that she is the sister of Puerto Rican duo René Pérez & Eduardo Cabra, better known to the world as Calle 13, and that she has been singing under the name PG 13 with the massively popular group since the very beginning. Her music as a solo artist couldn’t be more different, though. Up until seeing her Chicago debut at the Millennium Park Summer Music Series last Thursday evening, I figured that the main relevance of that family connection was that when she launched her solo career, she instantly had the backing of music industry giant Sony, for whom Calle 13 has made a lot of money over the last decade.
I now see that all those years sharing a stage before thousands with Residente, one of the most charismatic performers in music, has rubbed off on her, because from the moment iLe strolled on stage, all eyes were on her and few strayed away for even a moment. She did it not through a manufactured sense of excitement, but rather by drawing the audience in with every gesture and with the power of her voice. This was a performer that clearly knows what to do in front of an audience.
She is also very sure of what she wants to express through her art. Her sense of the history of tropical music, especially from the 6os and 70s, is profound, but she doesn’t dabble in imitation. Rather, she locates the emotional core of longing that has embodied such forms as bolero, salsa, ranchera, tango and even American sources like girl-group pop a la Phil Spector or the ballads of Linda Ronstadt, who drew from her own Mexican heritage to inject sincerity and meaning into her string of her hits.
Her debut album, Ilevitable, is a survey of all of these influences, but this isn’t a historical retrospective. The sound may embody earlier eras, but with production that seems to simultaneously honor and mock its excesses; swelling strings, echo-laden percussion, overly punchy mambo-style horns. These dramatic flourishes lend a dark undercurrent, not unlike the way filmmaker David Lynch scores his hallucinogenic films, or, to use another cinematic example, the sometimes silly but always broodingly compelling James Bond themes, from Shirley Bassey through Adele. This is especially true on Caníbal, a song that describes how self-doubt can consume you.
On stage, the drama lies elsewhere. It’s just her and a quintet of backing musicians. All excess is removed to better focus on the artist and her songs.
And those songs! The family connections run much deeper than her famous brothers. Her sister Milena Pérez is the co-writer of three. Her grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, wrote two (three, if you count the encore). Even her father, José Cabra, co-wrote one, the English language Out of Place. Ilevitable is very much a family affair, and Ileana Cabra made sure that everyone in the audience understood that as she introduced each song.
In concert, iLe replaces the maximalism of the album with the intimacy of subtle gesture infused with drama. She sits on the stage for her grandmother’s Dolor, a classic bolero. She dances with abandon, but not exaggeration, to uptempo rave-ups like Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú. Extraña de Querer, were it not in Spanish, would be at home in a 60s era French café. The tango-infused Maldita sea al amor is belted out, aimed at the very last row of the cheap seats, yet she is nearly stock-still, head slightly bowed, for the ranchera and flamenco inspired Triángulo.
The evening ends with a simple and achingly beautiful duet for guitar and voice, the only song of the night not on Ilevitable. It’s another of her grandmother’s songs, No te detengas. Millennium Park is a huge place in the midst of a bustling city, but for a few precious minutes it’s as hushed as a midnight bedroom conversation.
The return of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park Monday night was a triumph by any conceivable measure. An audience of close to 10,000 people filled the Pritzker Pavilion seats and lawn on a hot summer night. The band rewarded the overflow crowd with a performance of epic proportions. Including Palmieri’s piano, there are 12 members of this orchestra, but if you closed your eyes while dancing with abandon (and trust me, there were many, many people dancing with abandon) you’d swear there were 50. The power emanating off the stage was the result of the very best Latin musicians playing at the top of their game for an adoring crowd and loving every minute of it.
Palmieri has been known by many nicknames over the last six decades or so since he formed La Perfecta, his first groundbreaking band: the Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro, El Rumbero del Piano. Or, a bit more obscurely, the Schoenberg of Salsa, a nod to the complex music of the contemporary classical composer. Over that time he has employed lo mejor de lo mejor of Latin musicians, and the current lineup stands with the best of them.
There were several standout moments from each and every person on stage. Hermán Olivera captures the spirit of original La Perfecta vocalist Ismael Quintana without resorting to imitation. Trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch are band leaders and innovators in their own right. The congas/bongos/timbales Holy Trinity of Pequeño Johnny, Nicky Marrero and Camilo Molina-Gaetan kept everything on high burn the entire evening. Luques Curtis on bass anchored it all, and Nelson Gonzáles on tres was a constant reminder of the Cuban son foundation from which salsa emerged, particularly on Palmieri’s arrangement of the 1946 Arsenio Rodriguez classic Dame Un Cachito Pa’huele. All were allowed to shine repeatedly with solos during the entire 90-minute concert, and each brought 110% to every note and gesture.
Palmieri himself entered the stage first for a brief solo piano performance, then brought out the band, each of whom he introduced with warm regard before they played a single note. They kicked off with 15 delirious minutes of Pa’ la Ocha Tambó after which Palmieri, beaming with pride, remarked “This is how our music is supposed to be played.” A similarly lengthy Pa’ Huele followed, and then I lost track, because after awhile you surrender to the moment and simply become present in the joy that 12 musicians and 10,000 of their close friends can radiate. Once in awhile Palmieri would leave his piano bench to lead the crowd in clapping the clave, which I have to say (judging from the smile on Palmieri’s face) we all did flawlessly.
Words are pretty inadequate when it comes to describe music of this high caliber, so I’m going to turn it over to photographer Charlie Billups to tell the rest of the story. Thank you, Eddie. And thank you, Chicago.
Jazz is, at its best, ever evolving and in the moment. You need to bring a ton of skill and creativity to the table, but once the meal is served, the conversation really begins, elevating what was notes and words on paper into the realm of the spirit.
That’s the context in which I caught the March 24th performance of the Roy McGrath Quintet’s work in progress, Julia al Son de Jazz, at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.
The suite of original (with one exception.. more on that later) Latin jazz compositions take their inspiration from the life and poetry of Puerto Rican activist and poet Julia de Burgos. The idea was first commissioned by SRBCC last summer for an outdoor performance at the park named after de Burgos that’s part of The 606, an urban trail that stretches for a few miles through a handful of Chicago neighborhoods, reaching Hermosa at its western end. Saxophonist McGrath, seizing the opportunity, immediately starting writing new songs instead of falling back on standards and familiar tunes. A crack assemblage of Chicago’s top Latin jazz musicians was quickly put together and actress Rossanna Rodriguez was tapped to recite de Burgos’ poetry.
That initial project took place on a sunny fall Saturday, and though promoted ahead of time, it served more as an unexpected and delightful curiosity to people strolling, biking and rollerblading the trail. That could have been the end of it, but McGrath, it turns out, was only getting started.
He continued writing over the winter and workshopped a version of the project at Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant and intimate music venue, in early February. In that informal performance, McGrath himself handled the poetry, and, um, he’s not a bad reader for a saxophone player. Still, you could hear new ideas and arrangements continue to be fleshed out. McGrath had already agreed to present Julia al Son de Jazz at SRBCC in March, and he needed to work things out in front of an audience, which is essential for jazz. The audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t.
Armed with what he learned at Sabor a Café, he put together the band for last week’s performance, which included pianist Edwin Sanchez, drummer Jean-Christophe Leroy, bassist Freddy Quintero and congueroVictor Junito. And, thankfully, actress and writer Veronica Rodriguez Gotay handling the poetry recitatives.
A quick word about Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center: It’s an absolute gem. In addition to providing a full slate of cultural and after-school programs for the neighborhood and wider Chicago community, the space itself is gorgeous in a funky, loft inspired way: Exposed brick walls covered with Puerto Rican art, groovy mid-century modern furniture, a nice antique bar off to one side, and great sight lines for its large stage. One of their youth programs is the Arawak’Opia dance and music ensemble, and these bright and talented kids performed a short set before McGrath took the stage.
Julia al Son de Jazz now opens with a solo recitation of a de Burgos poem, Rio Grande de Loiza, carefully setting the tone for what is to come. The band then kicks into a mid-tempo groove with a gentle keyboard flourish, supporting an original English language poem by Abner Bardeguez that honors Julie de Burgos (sort of a mini-biography/introduction). McGrath pays close attention to his band, directing them even as he plays. The saxophonist is well on his way to becoming a respected player in jazz, equally adept in straight-ahead as well as Latin idioms. I caught him last January covering John Coltrane’s Blue Train in its entirety, and he and his straight-ahead ensemble did a great job honoring ‘Trane’s spirit. McGrath takes chances and goes to inventive places with his horn.
Roy McGrath was born and raised in Puerto Rico, yet inspired to pursue jazz by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He brings his boricua heritage to his writing, but jazz is the primary language. Various strains of folkloric and popular Puerto Rican sounds are interwoven into his Julia compositions, never more apparent than when he invited Arawak’Opia to join the band to add a solid bomba foundation to the introduction to one of the songs. They nailed it.
The rhythm and cadence of Julia de Burgos’s poetry inspire as well, and it is very apparent that the music is fully integrated into the words and vice-versa. This isn’t poetry with jazz, but poetry and voice as one more essential instrument in a cohesive ensemble arrangement.
The one tune not written by McGrath was Rafael Hernández’ Los Carreteros, which he introduced by saying he learned it in choir long before he ever picked up a saxophone. But, like Miguel Zenón on his Puerto Rican songbook album AlmaAdentro, McGrath put his own writing and arranging skills to work in adapting it for de Burgos’ poetry.
Julia al Son de Jazz is still a work in progress. The Chicago Park District will be presenting it three more times around the city this summer, and each performance will come with much valued rehearsal time. As with the Sabor a Café performance, McGrath will take what he learned at SRBCC to continue development with the eventual aim of recording it for an album.
I’ll be in the park, and I’ll be first in line to buy the album when it comes out.
All photos by Don Macica
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.