By Omar Torres-Kortright, Photos by Charlie Billups
Last Saturday, February 8, iLe, the Latin Grammy-winning artistic persona of composer and singer Ileana Cabra, solidified her position as one of the most captivating and original music projects to come out of Puerto Rico in the last decade. Her Almadura Tour, which will visit 15 North American cities over the next month, had a dream start at Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mauer Hall in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
As always, the night offered an x-ray into the heart and soul of this highly committed artist. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, iLe invites the audience into a world inspired by the complex cultural and musical influences of her Caribbean identity. Every thought, every move, and every word had a purpose in this carefully-crafted, and highly personal artistic statement on the political and social struggles of her native Puerto Rico. Motivated and provoked by Hurricane María, her newest production provides context to the colonial status of Puerto Rico by delving deep into the island’s history with songs like Odio, inspired by the 1979 killings of two independentistas at Cerro Maravilla and Ñe, ñe, ñe; a clear dig at the island’s politicians using plena as its rhythmic driving force.
While many of iLe’s hits are made for the dancing public, I didn’t expect to see the audience standing from the first song to the last, creating a special bond with her Chicago fans that I had not witnessed in her previous visits. The intimate size and pristine acoustics of Mauer Hall allowed iLe to connect on a personal level with every one of the lucky 400+ music enthusiasts that filled the sold-out venue.
Ile’s performance included material from her Best New Artist Latin Grammy-winning Ilevitable (2016), as well as the multilayered and polyrhythmic 2020 Grammy Nominated Almadura (2019). Throughout the night she showcased the depth and range of her voice, capable of going from classic bolero in songs like Triángulo and Temes, to salsa (Te quiero con Bugalú and Déjame Decirte) and even Dominican palo in the closing song of the evening, the powerfully rhythmic La Curandera (The Healer). The healer, she explained before beginning the song, offers a deliberate pause to shake off bad energy and press the reset button… kind of like what many Puerto Ricans had to do after Hurricane María and, more recently, the January 2020 earthquakes.
ile’s performance showcased the talents of her swinging 9-piece band that combines an impressive mix of established and emerging talent from the Island of Enchantment, including musical director Ismael Cancel (drums and percussion), Bayoán Ríos (guitar), Adalberto Rosario (guitar), Jeren Guzmán (congas, percussion), Jonathan González (bass, percussion), Zacheaus Paul (keys, percussion), Jorge Echevarría (trombone), and Hommy Ramos (trombone). The impeccable sound was made possible thanks to the able hands and ears of Bobby Connelly-Nadal, who also came directly from Puerto Rico to nurture the distinctive sonic elements that make up iLe’s artistic DNA.
It has been truly amazing to watch Ileana Cabra’s growth as an artist over the course of just a few years and two albums. The timelessness of her sound disregards fashion in order to convey something deeper and more lasting. It’s easy to imagine a very long and rewarding artistic career to come.
“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”
Composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón is talking about Identities are Changeable, his multi-media big band project based on interviews he conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. It is making its long awaited Chicago debut on Thursday, May 26 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Chicago.
Zenón, however, is not confining his Chicago visit to just this concert. On Tuesday, May 24, he’ll participate in Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. And while one project might represent contemporary, cutting edge jazz and the other traditions that date back hundreds of years, the former almost certainly would not exist without the latter. That’s how tightly Zenón has interwoven his heritage into his art.
Beginning with his third album as a leader, Jíbaro (2005), and continuing with Esta Plena (2009) and Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011), and Oye!!! Live In Puerto Rico (2013), Zenón created a series of thoughtfully framed works that interpret different facets of Puerto Rican culture. Along the way, he became a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what’s been called the “Genius Grant”, placing him at the forefront of a new movement that has brought Zenón to prominence in jazz. But beyond his facility at writing and playing music, there is a great intellectual subject at the center of Zenón’s artistic world: the complexity of Puerto Rican culture.
“I consider myself a jazz musician,” says Zenón. “It is the music that speaks to me the most and the reason why I became a musician in the first place. But I’m also a Latin American musician from Puerto Rico, and that’s always going to be there and is going to be represented in everything I do, no matter what. The music I write for my band represents these two sides of who I am musically.”
When I last interviewed Miguel Zenón at length, Identities are Changeable was still months from being released. Zenón and his quartet were previewing a more portable version of it at the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival, and they would return the following year for a weekend run at the Jazz Showcase. Until now, though, the full project had only been performed in a handful of cities. This complete version finds the Miguel Zenón Quartet joined by an additional 12 musicians and augmented by a video installation that brings to life the words and people from which Zenón built the music. Given its size and expense, it is rarely performed.
“I think we’ve had about 8 performances with the Big Band and the Video and maybe 3 or 4 with just the Quartet and the Video,” says Zenón. “We performed in New York City twice, at Carnegie Hall and Hostos College in the Bronx. [They were] both very different experiences. On one side it was amazing to get to perform at such a historic venue; on the other it was really great to get to perform in the Bronx, which has a very large Puerto Rican community.”
He continues, “The music on this album is inspired by the idea of national identity, as experienced by the Puerto Rican community in New York City. The music was written around a series of interviews I conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican decent. I asked them all a series of question and then used their answers to create a narrative, which is then translated into specific themes such as ‘Language’, ‘Home’ or ‘Traditions’ and so forth. I wrote music with the idea of creating an interaction between the band and the audio you hear from the interviews.”
The voices heard on the Identities album, which was released in November 2014, include thinkers, musicians, poets and family members. The live performance further employs David Dempewolf’s video installation as something of a seventeenth member of the band, illuminating and enhancing the heart of the music and thoughts expressed.
This is music that is intensely rhythmic, though not in a standard way that you would hear with, for example, a mambo orchestra. It’s definitely jazz, but this big-band score – Zenón’s first – presents a different kind of compositional and polyrhythmic challenge. It’s more like modern symphonic writing, with multiple meters and layers that keep all sixteen musicians, especially drummer Henry Cole, on their toes. The different rhythms that play against and with each other suggest the different identities that are the subject of the work.
I asked Zenón what to expect from Folclórico, which is being presented free of charge as a community outreach effort of Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and UChicago Presents.
“The plans for the center is to have a little presentation about Identities are Changeable, where I’ll talk about the genesis of the project and break down some of its essential elements. Then we’ll have a musical presentation, with me joining some local groups, Arawak’Opia, [bomba ensemble] Buya and jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath. Omar [Torres-Kortright, the director of the center] and I have been talking about this collaboration for many years now, so I’m really looking forward to this.”
Taken together, the local musicians playing with Zenón at SRBCC are a cross section of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. The members of Buya are, for the most part, U.S. born Puerto Ricans, but have dedicated themselves to roots music. Saxophonist McGrath, meanwhile, was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, where he leads a pair of jazz ensembles and plays in salsa and reggae bands around town.
Arawak’Opia is the center’s youth bomba ensemble, so I ask Zenón about working with kids. “It is something that I enjoy very much. I have this project in Puerto Rico called ‘Caravana Cultural’, which basically involves presenting free-of-charge jazz concerts in the rural areas of Puerto Rico. One of the essential elements of the project is the inclusion of a group of young music students from the area, who join us on stage for the final concert. It is always the highlight of the performance and something that gives me a lot of faith in the project and faith on the power of music in general.”
The Logan Center show presents a rare opportunity to hear one of the most compelling composers and performers in jazz working at peak capacity, while SRBCC’s community presentation will allow Chicagoans to go inside the artist himself. Chicago couldn’t be more fortunate.
Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music – Tuesday, May 24, 7pm. Free admission. Reserve tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org.
Miguel Zenon, Identities are Changeable – Thursday, May 26, 7:30pm, Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.
2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s true supergroup, Irakere. The band led by pianist Chucho Valdés didn’t labor in isolation for long. In 1977, a jazz cruise left New Orleans carrying musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and a young Ry Cooder (yes, the same Ry Cooder whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years later) and dropped anchor in Havana. After catching an Irakere performance and being blown away by what they heard, they engaged in some jazz diplomacy back in the U.S. and soon Irakere was known around the world.
In addition to Valdés, the group also featured the young Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. Paquito defected to the United States in 1980 and Sandoval followed 10 years later, yet Chucho stayed the course and Irakere continued as a band until 2005, recording classic albums like Misa Negra along the way.
Chucho is now 74, but if that seems at all elderly to you, remember that his father, the legendary Bebo Valdés, lived to the age of 94 and was producing music until the end, providing the inspiration (and soundtrack) for the wonderful animated film Chico and Rita. Irakere may be no more, but Chucho is still going strong, as evidenced by his work as a solo artist and two recent recordings by his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Anniversaries being what they are, though, 2015 finds Chucho honoring the groundbreaking group he founded with the brand new album Tribute to Irakere –Live in Marciac (Jazz Village) and subsequent tour with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, which will bring him to Symphony Center on November 6.
The members of the Afro-Cuban Messengers are young enough to count Irakere as influences on their musical development, so you have something of a dream matchup on the Tribute album: Young disciples led by the maestro himself.
Unlike their equally innovative contemporaries Los Van Van, Irakere were first and foremost a jazz ensemble, not a dance orchestra. Their first appearances outside of Cuba were at the Newport and Montreaux Jazz Festivals respectively. Nonetheless, Cuban audiences want to dance, and Irakere’s first big hit was the funk burner Bacalao con Pan, brimming with electric bass, blaring horns and rock guitar wedded to folkloric Cuban percussion and the incandescent virtuosity of Valdés, D’Rivera and Sandoval’s solos. Later on, as the sheer firepower of D’Rivera and Sandoval departed, Valdés reconceived the ensemble’s dynamic by writing stronger arrangements that emphasized the group sound, resulting in extended works like the four-part suite Misa Negra.
This approach to writing and arranging now carries over to the Afro-Cuban Messengers, the name of which is Chucho’s nod to legendary drummer Art Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers. Both of the group’s previous albums, Chucho’s Steps and Border-Free, are unmistakably jazz albums. The former serves as Valdés’ tribute to American jazz while the latter digs deeper into Afro-Latin folklore, but each is clearly the work of a fluid and seasoned jazz ensemble.
On Tribute to Irakere, the Messengers grow from a sextet to a 10 piece orchestra, adding tenor and alto sax plus two additional trumpets, the better to approximate Irakere’s 11 member powerhouse lineup. The album contains a mere 6 selections, but two of them stretch over 17 minutes and none are shorter than 7. Instead of filling the album with old Irakere hits, 4 of the 6 tracks come from the previous Messenger albums, but now arranged to take advantage of Irekere’s trademark sound: A tight and punchy horn section, deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban chants, percussive grooves and powerful soloing, all performed with blow-the-roof-off intensity. There’s also one Irakere classic, Juana 1600, and what you might call a ‘new’ Irakere song as imagined by a younger generation called Afro-Funk, which sounds exactly as you think it would with a title like that, but better.
It’s this 10 member Afro-Cuban Messengers that will hit the Symphony Center stage November 6, and it can be safely assumed that roofs will again be blown. There is a chance that other Irakere classics will be played, as they were in Marciac. I, for one, relish the very idea of hearing Misa Negra live. Whatever comes, though, will be good enough for me.
Chucho Valdés, Irakere 40: Friday, November 6, 8pm at Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org
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.