Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, is where it all comes together. Like urban centers everywhere, it attracts people from both rural areas and smaller towns. It is where traditions meet and are fused with energy and experimentation to become something new.
In 2007, university student Catalina Garcia, who was studying anthropology, met Nicolás Junca and Santiago Prieto, a pair of aspiring musicians enthralled by French gypsy jazz. She joined the duo as a singer and they began playing informally for friends at parties, weddings and other gatherings. Catalina was studying French as well, so her language skills and the duo’s musical direction were a perfect fit. Thus was born Monsieur Periné, likely the world’s first and only Colombian gypsy jazz band.
They began performing professionally a few years later. In 2012 they recorded and released their first album, Hecho en Mano, and began to attract attention beyond Colombia. Their second album, Caja de Musica, featured an expanded musical palette and was produced by Eduado Cabra, whom you may know better as Visitante of Calle 13.
“When we recorded our first album, we still hadn’t performed much outside of Colombia.” I’m speaking by phone with Catalina Garcia during a break in rehearsals for a North American tour that will bring them to Thalia Hall in Chicago this Wednesday, March 22. “Our songs were limited a bit by that, although we brought in other Latin influences like boleros. So what we were doing mostly was blending French gypsy jazz with Colombian folkloric sounds, especially in percussion.”
Garcia continues, “That album gave us a chance to tour outside of Colombia and we used those travels as a journal of ideas and impressions when we started working on Caja de Musica. We were very lucky that Eduardo Cabra noticed us and offered to produce, because he had done considerable traveling throughout Latin America to explore those sounds for Calle 13. It was a good fit, and he was a big help in bringing those instruments in and building the songs.”
The results were successful artistically and commercially. You can still hear the gypsy jazz influence on Caja de Musica, but now it is (if I could use a cooking metaphor) a broth to which several other spices and ingredients have been carefully added, resulting in a pan-Latin sancocho where reggae riddims overlay French strumming and jaunty Venezuelan clarinets sit alongside Argentine charango, all of it filtered through Monsieur Periné’s sunny sound.
It was a sound good enough to earn Monsieur Periné a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2015. The band, which has grown to 8 members, is just now beginning to compose songs for its follow up. “We’ve now toured both Europe and North America,” says Garcia. “We’re reaching audiences that aren’t necessarily fans of Latin American music, and we’re meeting and learning from them. We are really excited to be coming back to the United States because there are people from different nationalities and backgrounds that identify with our music. It’s a beautiful place to play.”
The final stop on Monsieur Periné’s 2016 tour was at Pilsen Fest, where they wowed a large audience late into the night, blowing past the curfew that usually closes down street festivals at 10pm. Live, their music takes on yet a third dimension, as they play lengthy instrumental build ups to their songs and follow with extensive soloing in their midsections. Somehow, they make traditional Colombian rhythms one with Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing.
It’s great, then, that the first stop on this tour is back in Pilsen, just a bit down 18th Street at the crown jewel of Chicago’s mid-sized music venues. They’ll likely road test some new songs, as they hope to begin recording the new album in June. Garcia tells me that they are working with collaborators on the new songs. “We did all the composing on our first two albums by ourselves, but this time we want to work with other artists that we admire. Some of them are Colombian, but some are also from other parts of the world. We are looking for ways to learn from other kinds of music than ours. We want to continue to enrich our sound.”
Monsieur Periné with Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta and Los Gold Fires
Wednesday, March 22, 8PM at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, Chicago
Tickets at thaliahallchicago.com
Beginning with Jibaro in 2005, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón has conceived and recorded a series of albums built on the Puerto Rican experience. Both Jibaro and 2009’s Esta Plena explored folkloric sources, while 2014’s Alma Adentro interpreted classics from the golden age of Puerto Rican songwriting by such luminaries as Rafael Hernández, Sylvia Rexach and Pedro Flores. 2014 saw the remarkable Identities are Changeable, which based its compositions not on musical sources, but interviews with Puerto Ricans born in the mainland United States that explored their sense of identity.
Each was progressively more complex than the previous. Jibaro was simply a quartet. Esta Plena added additional percussion and Alma Adentro utilized a string ensemble. Identities was a big band album. At the core of all four, though, was Zenón’s quartet. The title of his brand new album, Típico, might lead you to believe that it is a continuation of this conceptually themed series, but it is instead a more purely musical project that takes as its starting point the core experience of that working quartet since 2005: pianist Luis Perdomo, Henry Cole on drums and bassist Hans Glawischnig.
“The title ‘Típico’ refers to something that is customary to a region or a group of people or something that can be related to a specific group of people. And when I was writing the music, I was thinking about the music that identified us as a band.”
I’m speaking with Miguel Zenón by phone as he is preparing to take the quartet to California for the first leg of a Típico tour that will bring him to Chicago’s Jazz Showcase March 9-12.
“I wanted to go back to that initial idea of just writing something for the band and focusing on the things that I feel the band can do well and use the record as a showcase for that.” Zenón continues, “The way we usually put records together, even when there are large ensembles or conceptually bigger projects, they all start with the quartet. The other elements are added to that, but when we go out on tour it’s usually just the quartet again. So this time, when putting this record together, I thought about the music as not just the first layer of a bigger project, but with the band itself as the main attraction.”
In a few of the album’s tracks, sounds and ideas initially created by individual band members figure in the new compositions. On “Corteza”, Zenón based the melody on a Glawischnig’s bass solo first heard on Esta Plena. “Entre las Raíces” started with a Luis Perdomo piano solo on his album Awareness, while “Las Ramas” takes its starting point from figures that drummer Henry Cole has developed over the years that include his Afrobeat Collective album Roots Before Branches.
I ask Zenón if it’s fair to say that Típico is a more purely musical record. “There definitely isn’t a grand concept on this record. I wanted to do something that was more reflective of our experience as a band. If there’s a concept at all, it’s modern music written for a specific group of players that have developed a language together that we use to communicate with each other and create something that we can communicate to a listener.”
The idea of communicating to a listener interests me. Zenón’s music is quite intricate and carefully planned, but as a listener I’m not thinking about complex time signatures or harmonic cadences. If anything, music provokes a human response, be it pleasure, thoughtfulness, serenity, etc. I tell Zenón this and ask him to comment on the dynamic between composer, player and listener.
“When I’m putting music together, I’m trying to do it out of a place of truth and an honest representation of who I am. So it really needs to be ‘me’. A lot of things that we do start as ideas or systems or exercises, technical things, but then you want to put that in a context where it relates to a listener. There’s a balance needed between an intellectual level and a more human, sentimental point of view if it’s going to reach someone else besides us. My process is a slow one of putting together various ideas and conceptual things, but then I look for ways to add elements to the mix so I can communicate to other people. “
The ‘típico’ of Típico is this culture that exists within the Miguel Zenón Quartet, and not a reference to a geographical region. The compositions themselves have their origin in Zenón’s experience as both an observer and participant in this culture, with few obvious outside points of reference. There are sonic moments that jump out at me: The studio layering of multiple saxophone and bass lines that open “Ciclo”; a simple and very human whistle that opens the increasingly complex variations of “Las Ramas”; 30 seconds or so of in the pocket vamping from drummer Henry Cole in “Corteza”; the delicate intro to “Cantor”.
None of these compositions are likely to bring to mind Latin music. There are, however, two tracks that do conjure this feeling, one deliberately and the other, I believe, naturally flowing out of Zenón’s Puerto Rican heritage.
The lovely melody at the heart of Sangre de mi Sangre (inspired by Zenón watching his daughter play in a park) has a lyrical beauty that sounds like it could have appeared on Alma Adentro. “I actually wrote lyrics to that melody when I first sketched it out. I was watching her play and thinking about our connection, then also thinking about my parents and how they probably felt about me when I was young,” Zenón continues, “In a sense, the version that appears on the record resulted from the same sort of process that I used on Alma Adentro – start with the melody of an existing song, then build a new arrangement from that. We’ve never played it with the lyrics, but I always think about them when I play it.”
The title track makes explicit reference to Latin folkloric music. “I was trying to capture a specific feeling of folklore, specifically this harmonic cadence that I recognize in a lot of the music I like from Latin America. I played around with this cadence a lot of different ways and combined it with different elements and rhythms. Even though it is an original composition, it evokes that folkloric sound when you hear it.”
I jokingly tell Zenón that the piano intro to “Típico” sounds like a montuno played upside down, but to my surprise he readily agrees. “That’s exactly what it is,” he says. “We’re trying to play around with it, sort of like it’s a mirage of something that’s there, but at the same time, not there. I was trying to emulate a feeling I get when I listen to that music, but not the actual music itself.”
Miguel Zenón is no stranger to Chicago. He was here twice in 2016. In the spring he presented Identities are Changeable in concert at the Logan Center and conducted a discussion and performance of its themes and sources at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. He returned to Chicago in early fall to perform Yo Soy La Tradición, a world premiere work for saxophone and string quartet, at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Miguel Zenón Quartet, however, hasn’t been at the intimate confines of the Jazz Showcase since 2015. When I spoke to Zenón prior to that appearance, he said, “I feel honored that we have become part of the musical family at the Jazz Showcase for so many years now. (Showcase owners) Joe and Wayne (Segal) have a long history of supporting younger bandleaders, especially Latin American musicians such as Danilo Pérez and David Sánchez, both of whom have already become such an integral part of the history of the club. I look forward to performing at this great venue for many years to come.”
Better now than later.
Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase March 9-12. Shows at 8 & 10pm plus 4pm all ages matinee on Sunday. Info and advance tickets at jazzshowcase.com.
Many of us made it out to Ravinia last summer to catch the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Adiós Tour.” By this time, sadly, several of the legends who rocketed to worldwide fame in the 1990s were no longer with us, most notably Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén Gonzáles. Still, it was definitely worth the trip up to Highland Park to revel in nostalgia one more time.
There is one member of this club, however, who not only still walks the planet, but has no intention of saying adiós: Omara Portuondo. This year finds the legendary Cuban vocalist back out on the road for her “85 Tour,” named for the birthday that she will celebrate later this month. Don’t mistake this for another nostalgia fest, though. The world tour, which comes to Symphony Center on October 21, finds her accompanied by an all-star band of first rate jazz musicians, including American violinist Regina Carter, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen and Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, whose band (Yandy Martinez, Ramsés Rodríguez and Andrés Coayo) powers the rhythm section.
The standard narrative that accompanies the BVSC phenomenon is that these amazing artists were rescued from obscurity by Ry Cooder and filmmaker Wim Wenders. There is some truth in that, but it doesn’t apply to all of its members. In fact, Portuondo was actively performing and recording in the years immediately preceding the release of the BVSC album and movie. She has been active separately from the group in the years since as well, singing with everyone from the flamenco star Diego El Cigala to American avant-garde saxophonist David Murray and Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia.
Omara Portuondo was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via e-mail. The following responses have minor edits for clarity.
Don Macica – The common assumption in the United States is that your career, along with many of your colleagues in the film and album Buena Vista Social Club, was revived, even rescued by that project. It’s true that world wide fame followed it, but tell me a bit more about the years from 1967 up until the late 1990’s.
Omara Portuondo – Well, some of us were active. Actually I was invited to join the band because I was recording and they invited me to sing with Ibrahim Ferrer. I started [my career] dancing with my sister at the Tropicana, and from then I joined the Loquibamba, Cuarteto las D’aida, until the moment I recorded my first solo album in 1959, Magia Negra. I joined Orquesta Aragón in the 1970s [and] recorded albums with Adalberto Alvarez and Chucho Valdes… Some people do not know that, but I toured a lot before the success of Buena Vista.
(Editor’s Note: I did a bit of research, and there’s even more to the pre-BVSC years, including a 1983 documentary and being awarded an Alejo Carpentier Award for artistic achievement in 1988.)
DM – After over half a century of singing, what keeps you going? Has your work with younger musicians like Roberto Fonseca introduced another phase?
OP – Music is my life. It’s the source to keep going, along with my son and my granddaughter. I love what I do, and when this happens things are easier. Well, it does not mean that you have to be lazy. You have to work hard, but when things comes from your heart, people can feel it.
DM – You’ll be accompanied by a pair of incredible jazz musicians, Regina Carter and Anat Cohen, who aren’t particularly known for playing Latin music, although Cohen loves Brazilian choro. What can we expect from this collaboration and concert?
OP – Oh, I’m so excited and happy about this. For my 85th anniversary tour I wanted to invite artists that I admire and that could give a personal touch to the music. They are very talented and they understand perfectly the music connection. Your know, music is universal and we are simply enjoying so much of the reunion.
DM – Last summer’s BVSC tour was the “Adiós” tour, but you are still going strong. Any plans for retirement?
OP – Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.
Omara Portuondo at Symphony Center. Friday, October 21 at 8:00PM. Tickets at cso.org.
When producer and DJ Gilles Peterson went to Havana in 2009 to explore a new generation of young Cuban musicians for his first Havana Cultura project, he encountered plenty of vocalists with talent to burn. It was from that album that I first learned about Daymé Arocena, Melvis Santa, Telmary Diaz and Danay Suárez. Helping him find these talented artists was the Cuban-born pianist Roberto Fonseca, who had toured the world with the Buena Vista Social Club and released a handful of critically acclaimed albums. Tucked away among the many singers and rappers who populated the albums 27 tracks was one outlier: Jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa, who closed the album like a Cuban Herbie Hancock with the lively La Jungla.
Now, through some wonderful cosmic alignment, Chicago will host both López-Nussa and Fonseca in the next week. The latter is part of an all-star band supporting Omara Portuondo, but it’s Lopez-Nussa that is touring behind a brand new album, the terrific El Viaje (Mack Avenue Records), and leading his own trio at Evanston SPACE on October 19.
The conservatory-trained pianist has actually been on the scene for over a decade, and this is certainly not his first trip off the island. He can be heard supporting David Sánchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott on their Cuban excursion Ninety Miles, recorded in Havana in 2010. He, too, has toured the world with Omara Portuondo and other musicians associated with the Buena Vista Social Club. El Viaje, notably, is the first international release of a Cuba-based artist since the lifting of restrictions associated with the longstanding trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, and López-Nussa’s subsequent U.S. tour follows in its wake.
But enough of context. On to the music!
López-Nussa is a superb pianist regardless of whether he is hewing to traditional Cuban folkloric sources or straying farther afield to straight ahead jazz, pan-African influences (his bass player and sometimes singer Alune Wade hails from Senegal) or even into tango and other South American sounds. Tracks alternate between the serene and introspective (the title track and the breathtakingly lovely Oriente) to lively and percussive (Bacalao con Pan, Feria), but overall the feeling is relaxed, not frantic. It feels as though López-Nussa has already figured out that he doesn’t need to show off his virtuosity, but just play. To these ears, the record sounds something like Weather Report in their prime, with its comfortable coexistence of global influences residing in the same song, propelled along by Wade’s electric bass.
The same tune opens and closes the album, Me Voy pa’ Cuba. It appears first as a bright and cheerful danzón that morphs into some furious piano runs, then returns as the framework for a boisterous rumba jam. In between are stops on a journey that begins and ends in Havana, but finds plenty of inspiration along the way.
Harold López-Nussa Trio, Wednesday, October 19, 7:30pm, Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave, Evanston. Tickets at evanstonspace.com
Melvis Santa has been a professional musician for over half of her life. At the age of 14, she and a group of friends in Havana, Cuba formed the all-female vocal ensemble Sexto Sentido. No less than Chucho Valdés called them “the best Cuban vocal quartet of the past 30 years.” After 12 years of success, she left that group in 2008 to try her hand at a solo career. She spent some time touring and recording two CUBADISCO Award-winning albums with Interactivo, a all-star fusion band in Cuba lead by pianist and composer Robertico Carcassés.
She then formed her second group, Santa Habana, that was a bit more jazz oriented, but with a pop feel permeated by deep Afro-Cuban grooves. The debut album was released internationally via the BIS label.
Meanwhile, she launched a second career as an actress, appearing in a number of short Cuban films and the full length feature 7 Days in Havana in a segment by Spanish director Julio Medem.
In other words, Melvis Santa is kind of a big deal in Cuba. Why then, in 2014, did she move to New York City?
“In Cuba, you get to a point where you are in a comfort zone. It’s a small country, so you get recognized, people like what you do. It’s very easy to forget that you have to continue to push yourself and grow. That’s what I like about New York. I have to push myself there.”
I’m speaking with Melvis after a rehearsal for her performance later that evening at Sabor a Café, and intimate music venue in Chicago, where she will present her new Ashedí Project with a hand-picked group of some of Chicago’s best jazz and Latin musicians, including trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Alemana, bassist Brett Benteler (who recently left Chicago for New York as well, but returned for this show) and conguero Frankie Ocasio.
Steeped in Afro-Cuban tradition, Melvis is also fully immersed in the wider music world. She cites Cuban artists like Merceditas Valdés and Marta Valdés as influences, but also Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Rosa Passos and Ella Fitzgerald.
“New York is the best platform for a creative artist. Not only are the great living jazz artists there, but also important Cuban artists as well, like Roman Diaz [a master Afro-Cuban percussionist who made his own Havana-New York transition in 1999], a deep repository of Afro-Cuban knowledge and rhythms, who I now get to learn from first hand. Not only do I get to learn the old ways, but also the new, because in New York even traditional musicians are very open.”
I ask Melvis what the Ashedí Project is.
“Ashedí is an idea that I had. In my case, it’s a new stage in my career where I’m embracing influences from my childhood such as Afro-Cuban tradition, and connecting them with jazz and other genres of music in Cuba and the world. Ashedí is an Afro-Cuban Yoruba word that is used as an invitation. In a Yoruba ceremony, when we talk about the ashedí, it is an invitation to other practitioners to be part of the ceremony. And that’s exactly what I want to do with this project. So what you hear today, in this music, is an invitation to these particular musicians. I told them in the rehearsal, yes, look at the notes on the paper, but then play and do what you love. I’m looking for that vibe that is ashedí.”
The performance later that evening validates this approach. In rehearsal, the basic structure of each composition (almost all of them are new, although she did dip into Santa Habana for Inmensidad, a gorgeous evocation of the orisha Yemayá) was sketched out as Melvis directed from behind a piano, allowing each musician to find their way into the melody. In performance, it was quite literally night and day as the musicians found their footing. Bentler and Ocasio were subtle and effective, keeping the pulse grounded in Afro-Cuban tradition, while Davis and Alemana were given free reign to improvise and did so with incisive and sometimes spectacular solos. Depending on the needs of the song, Santa split her time between supporting the melody from the piano or out in front, where her voice and charisma riveted the audience.
Santa is a very good songwriter, but two of the highlights of the evening came in what were essentially tributes to the two sides of Santa’s ashedí: An alluring duet between Santa and guitarist Alemana on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and the encore, an incandescent cover of Marta Valdés’ En la Imaginación.
Orbert Davis, who is not only a trumpeter but also a composer, bandleader and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, summed it up perfectly the next day: “It was one of the most musical nights of my life.”
The latest development in Santa’s career is joining the dynamic all-female Afro-Cuban jazz group Maqueque, led by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba and working with Afro-Cuban musicians for several decades, recording the landmark album Spirits of Havana in 1989 with Yoruba Andabo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the very same Merceditas Valdés that Santa cites as an important influence.
“Because Jane has spent so much time in Cuba, she knew of my work with Sexto, Interactivo and of course Santa Habana. It’s almost like a family, we are very close. I am a bit older than the other members [of Maqueque], but when their singer Daymé Arocena, who was once a student of mine, left to concentrate on her solo career, Jane called me. I went to see Maqueque at the Blue Note in New York and it went from there.”
Santa tells me Maqueque is recording a new album with her, so I ask if she is recording herself.
“Moving to New York was a very big step, and I only did it two years ago. I spent the entire first year just absorbing everything and going to concerts of musicians that I had always admired. So, yes, I am thinking about recording again soon, but I am still learning and there is still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t want to rush it.”
It would seem that Melvis Santa has some pretty big artistic ambitions, but is willing to take some time in getting there. The rest of us will have to be patient. Meanwhile, though, we can hope for more perfectly musical nights like the one at Sabor a Café.
About the author:Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.
By Don Macica,
Photos by Charlie Billups
A long awaited community event took place last night in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Saxophonist and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenón, visiting the city to present his Identities are Changeable project at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, came to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to share his motivations and processes behind Identities and explore different facets of Afro-Puerto Rican music with local musicians.
We were there, and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience, requiring the collaboration and mutual respect of many individuals and institutions to make it happen. Miguel Zenón, of course, but also the University, SRBCC’s executive director Omar Torres-Kortright and several Chicago musicians who help keep Puerto Rican culture alive: jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath and his quartet, traditional bomba ensemble Buya, and SRBCC’s own youth ensemble, Arawak’Opia.
Zenón opened the evening by talking about the process of creating Identities are Changeable, a multi-media big band project about the idea of identity among Puerto Ricans born in the United States. The concepts were illustrated by video excerpts. He then took several questions from the audience, which he answered thoughtfully and at length.
The music that followed was wonderful, starting with Zenón playing with the young musicians, singers and dancers of Arawak’Opia. A little loose, perhaps, but genuinely inspirational. McGrath, who was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, joined Zenón for a jazz take on three Puerto Rican classics, Obsesión, Perfume de Gardenaias and Capullito de Alelì. Finally, Buya took the stage with their usual energy and spirit while Zenón improvised in and around their powerful drumming, singing and dancing. The group learned Zenón’s composition Esta Plena especially for this occasion, and they nailed it.
Equal to the music was the sense of shared community in the room going back and forth between the performers on the stage and the people in the audience as barriers between the two dissolved. In just a couple of years, SRBCC has established themselves in Hermosa after over four decades based in Wicker Park. They have gone where the community needs them most, and bringing a world class talent like Miguel Zenón and presenting him for free is a testament to their commitment to the neighborhood. They have a huge summer of activity planned, starting almost immediately with programs presented in collaboration with The 606 and Night Out in the Parks. Visit their website srbcc.org for a complete schedule.
Photographer Charlie Billups, who has been documenting Puerto Rican and Latino culture in Chicago, was at the Zenón event and took the pictures below. You can view more of his work at his Tumblr blog or at charliebillups.com.
“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.
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.
Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.
By Don Macica –
At some point in the summer of 2015, Roy McGrath’s name became ubiquitous, so much so that I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?”
First, I noticed that his quintet was performing at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival. A few weeks after that, I was having lunch with the owner of Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant that presents live music on weekends. “Roy McGrath, man, ooo, you gotta hear him.” I finally heard him in early September when he joined the groove-jazz backing band of Puerto Rican rapper Siete Nueve at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. A week later I caught him backing up master percussionist Michael Spiro at Sabor a Café, and a week after that I unexpectedly stumbled across him in a comparsa de plena as part of the Chicago World Music Festival. He led a Latin jazz ensemble in a project that matched original music to poetry a week later, and shortly after that I learned he was taking his straight-ahead quartet, with whom he had recorded Martha, an excellent CD of original compositions (and a couple of well chosen covers), on a month-long tour of Mexico.
And then there was this mystery: How could a 6’2” white guy with the name McGrath be a Puerto Rican? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so when he returned from Mexico we made arrangements to meet for coffee, which was remarkably easy to do because it turned out we were neighbors.
“When I was around 15 and in high school, a friend gave me her father’s saxophone because she heard me say that I wanted to play one. It supposedly belonged to a member of El Gran Combo, who gave it to her father, and it was in horrible shape, really beat up. Two weeks later, I was playing a gig in front of 5,000 people at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.”
McGrath pauses, no doubt reading the incredulity on my face. “Oh. Well, I had a friend who had a reggae band, and they were opening up for Israel Vibration. My friend wanted horns in this gig because Israel Vibration had horns in their band. I sounded terrible, and I did for a long time.”
He continues, “A couple of weeks later I went to the San Juan Borders store and bought two CDs out of their bargain bin: John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. That was it. I knew I wanted to play jazz.”
McGrath had a friend who played guitar and they formed a quartet which almost immediately scored a gig making $50 a week. He was already a working jazz musician, learning and playing the standards.
Things changed less than a year later. “I was in a bad car accident when I was 16, and that experience really made me reflect and get serious about playing. I replaced the beat up horn with a new one.”
I should point out that while McGrath is serious about his work ethic, he is more modest, even critical, of his talent. I should also point out that, a little more than a year after first picking up a horn, McGrath was offered a 3/4 scholarship by Loyola University in New Orleans to study music.
“Yeah, New Orleans,” McGrath says. “I was offered scholarships to a few schools, but I wanted to study jazz. Of course I picked New Orleans.”
McGrath completed his undergraduate work in three years, but hung around the Crescent City for two more, soaking up culture and seeking knowledge. “I loved New Orleans. It felt like home. It was hot, so that felt right. The traditions there are similar to the Caribbean. People say ‘Hi’ to you on the street, and you could become friends just like that. It was also musically similar to Puerto Rico in the way that music is heard everywhere. They blast jazz like we blast salsa.”
And, of course, he was working as often as he could, playing in brass bands, jazz bands, funk bands. “Never turn down a gig,” he says. “You’ll always learn something.”
After five years in New Orleans, McGrath arrived in Chicago in 2012 to continue his studies at Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. “It was great. Like, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is on the faculty there! I studied directly with Victor Goines, who heads up the jazz department.” He recorded Martha a few months later with a quartet formed with fellow Northwestern grads.
I ask him why he remained here after graduation instead of moving to, say, New York. “Chicago, man. What a great music city. The jazz scene here is epic. There are so many good players. Some of the best in the world are here. The salsa scene is amazing as well. There’s a brass band and funk scene, even reggae. Everything’s here! Plus, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans, so I don’t miss my culture. If I’m homesick, I can just go down to La Bomba for dinner.”
His ‘never turn down a gig’ work ethic remains strong. On the morning we met, he had just returned from an out of state gig with a merengue band. “Merengue is hard, man, all these rapid, percussive runs. Not at all like jazz or salsa. I learned a few things.”
McGrath has another habit that influences his growth as a musician. He is completely unafraid to seek out established musicians he admires and talk to them. “It’s like playing all the different kinds of music, but in addition to practical knowledge, you might learn something spiritual or cultural from their experiences, and that’s valuable too.”
The saxophonist has two projects as a leader coming up in the near future. First, he’ll lead a straight-ahead sextet in January performing what, for him, was a seminal jazz influence—the entire John Coltrane Blue Train album. “We’re in pretty intense rehearsals right now, because I want to honor ‘Trane, not copy him.” The performance is presented by the Jazz Record Art Collective, a monthly series at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, and visual artist Sarah Mueller will paint as McGrath’s sextet plays.
The other is a further extension of the Latin jazz project he first created last fall for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and The 606 called Julia al Son de Jazz, in which original compositions are performed with one or possibly two poets reciting the words of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. “I’m trying to get two voices, one female and the other male, so I can arrange the tonal quality like I would with different horns.” Sabor a Café is presenting the project in February.
The two very different gigs are illustrative of McGrath’s artistic ambitions. “I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Latin’ musician because I consider myself primarily a straight-ahead player. At the same time, I’m Puerto Rican and my culture is invested in what I create. I really admire Miguel Zenón. He doesn’t play Latin jazz, but he came up playing in salsa bands and everything he’s done and learned is in his music.”
He hopes to study with Zenón sometime soon. “I feel that I’m finally ready. Before this, I would have been wasting his time.” McGrath’s modesty is on display once more, but if you’re keeping score, you’ll realize that he’s barely a decade out of high school and already possesses degrees from two of the best music schools in the country. He also makes a living in music, gigging in one band or another several nights a week in addition to leading two of his own. “Oh, yeah, I never want to go back to making pizzas or washing dishes.”
And, in case you’re still wondering about the name. “My father was a half Irish Mexican-American from Texas who moved to Puerto Rico, where he met my mom, who is German-American and was born in Thailand but grew up on the island, so she considers herself as boricua.” This fairly complex multi-cultural background perhaps offers a clue to McGrath’s artistic goals. Jazz itself is a confluence of cultures, rising as it did out of New Orleans, where the African Diaspora met and mingled with French, Spanish and other influences, including the ‘Latin tinge’ of the Caribbean. It is the United States’ great gift to the rest of the world, and McGrath is determined to take his music there. “Besides the Mexican tour, I’ve already played in China and I want to go back soon.”
I hope he continues to call Chicago home for a long time to come.
John Coltrane’s Blue Train by the Roy McGrath Sextet – Wednesday, January 20, 9pm at the Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St, Chicago. jazzrecordartcollective.com
Julia al Son de Jazz with The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet – Friday, February 12, 9pm at Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago. No cover, but reservations are recommended. saboracaferestaurant.com
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.
Two emerging artists of Caribbean heritage take divergent paths to making their mark on jazz.
By Don Macica
A pair of terrific Latin jazz albums were released last fall that I meant to review for Agúzate, but never quite got around to because of the high level of activity on Chicago’s Afro-Latin scene. The parade of local and visiting artists took much of my focus and tended to set the agenda for what I was covering. Having said that, though, both of these albums were never very far from my iPod rotation, and they’re still there today. So, before 2015 slips into the haze of history (and Chicago’s scene heats up again), I thought you might want to know about them.
Both Oscar Perez and Carlos Henriquez are New Yorkers, Perez from a Cuban family growing up in Queens and Henriquez a Bronx-born Nuyorican. And both, at this point, have been professional musicians for well over 15 years, although the path they each took to get to this point in their respective careers is quite different. Pianist Perez released his first album, Nuevo Comienzo, back in 2007. His new album, Prepare a Place for Me, is his third, and with it he continues to develop a style in which his Cuban roots are present, but generally not deployed as obvious signifiers. Henriquez, by contrast, spent the last 15 or so years as a sideman, primarily as the bassist in Wynton Marsalis’ Septet as well as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Bronx Pyramid is his first album as a leader. With his impeccable jazz bona fides firmly in hand, Henriquez used his debut to fully embrace Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms.
Oscar Perez studied with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, and it shows in his approach to composing and playing. If you listen to Danilo’s early CDs, they have a more typical Latin jazz structure and feel, but since then, he’s charted a highly individualistic course, and Oscar Perez is on a similar trajectory. He shows his hand early, opening Prepare a Place for Me with a straight-ahead rendering of a tune named Just Everything, a song that he first recorded close to 10 years ago in a bolero style under the Spanish title Solamente Todo. He follows that up with the most Latin sounding track on the album, a Cuban-inflected take on Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight, perhaps paying tribute to his mentor Danilo Pérez, who recorded the same tune in an entirely different manner on his breakthrough album Panamonk in 1996.
Headin’ Over is the perfect soundtrack for a classy stroll through Manhattan, while Snake Charmer generates heat with a tune as twisty as it’s namesake lizard. By and large, though, Prepare a Place for Me simmers, a primarily piano-bass-drums affair augmented by the superbly expressive alto sax of Bruce Williams. At times, the album reminds me of the more introspective work of Miguel Zenón (and by extension his pianist Luis Perdomo), a musician that eschews the category of ‘Latin jazz’ in favor of a broader jazz approach that is nonetheless profoundly shaped by his Puerto Rican heritage.
There’s one other standard on the album, an exquisite and intricate rendering of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. It’s followed by the title track in a manner that almost suggests a suite. Things get a bit livelier for the Brazil-tinged Mushroom City before concluding with the elegiac Song for Ofelia, which Perez wrote in honor of his grandmother.
Carlos Henriquez proudly stamps his debut with the soul, sound and culture of his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and Bronx roots. After years of being a sideman on something like 50 straight ahead, pop, Latin jazz and salsa projects, not to mention his fifteen plus years with Wynton Marsalis, it goes without saying that his bass playing is superb. I first heard Henriquez’s quintet when he opened for Eddie Palmieri exactly a year ago at Symphony Center, and their set was good enough for me to briefly forget I was there to see el maestro. On Bronx Pyramid, Henriquez channels his playing and composing into a convincingly personal statement of identity.
The title track features the Cuban batá drumming of guest percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Chuchfrito is an appropriately greasy riff on Latin boogaloo. Descarga Entre Amigos is just that, an infectious salsa jam that features Rubén Blades on vocals. Joshua’s Dream is a gorgeous bolero that Henriquez wrote for his young son. Al Fin Te Vin is a charming danzón conceived as a duet for bowed bass and trumpet.
The album continues in this vein, a musical tour of Latin America (or perhaps simply the Bronx) touching on bomba, guaracha, rumba and more. There are a couple of relatively straight ahead tunes as well, including the lovely ballad Nilda, written in honor of Henriquez’s mom, and the hard swinging Eye of the Gemini, a “bonus track” that likely earns its designation because it didn’t quite fit the album’s themes, but was too good to leave off.
Two New Yorkers of Caribbean descent, two distinct approaches to Latin jazz, both producing deeply felt albums that reveal more with every listen. So, quick, before Chicago gets too busy again: Check them out.
Oscar Perez, Prepare a Place for Me (Myna Records)
Carlos Henriquez, The Bronx Pyramid (Blue Engine)
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.