Miguel Zenón discusses “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera”

By Don Macica

“He’s a larger than life figure. I’ve been connected to him for as long as I can remember listening to music. When I was a child, his music was always present around the house. This was before I had any thought of becoming a musician. When he passed, it was like a president had died or something, a period of national mourning. That really affected me.”

I’m speaking by phone with Miguel Zenón about his new album with the Miguel Zenón Quartet, “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera,” the latest of several albums spanning almost 15 years in which the saxophonist and composer explores the emblematic subject of Puerto Rico, both musically and culturally.

“Later on, when I began to study music, I realized that Rivera was a genius,” Zenón continues. “Since then, he’s always been my guy. Over the years, I dabbled around the edges, arranging some of Rivera songs for David’s group (Zenón played alto sax for nearly 5 years in a group led by fellow Puerto Rican David Sánchez before forming his own quartet in 2005) and later on for my ‘Alma Adentro’ album. I finally felt it was time for a full investigation.”

The product of that investigation will make its Chicago debut September 19 at the Jazz Showcase when the Miguel Zenón Quartet (Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums) begin a four-night residency. Zenón has been coming to the historic Chicago jazz venue regularly for almost twenty years, first as a member of David Sánchez’ group, then as leader of his current quartet. In 2013, he brought his Rhythm Collective side project.

L to R: Hans Glawischnig, Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenón, Henry Cole – Photo by Noah Shaye

Although I’ve long known that Rivera was an important figure, I didn’t quite understand the depth of that reverence. I knew that Zenón was preparing this tribute from a conversation that I had with him last fall at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when he celebrated the release of his previous album, “Yo Soy la Tradición”, with a concert there. I immersed myself in the music and story of Ismael Rivera before calling Zenón. I believed it was necessary to understand more about Ismael Rivera before I could approach a tribute to him.

The story is considerably more complex than this brief outline, but Ismael Rivera’s career is roughly divided into two periods: His work as lead vocalist in the groundbreaking 1950s and early 60s pre-salsa output of Cortijo y Su Combo, led by his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo, and the 1970s, when he formed Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos after the ascendency of salsa in New York. In between those two periods are five years in prison due to a 1962 drug bust, which ended Cortijo’s combo.

Rivera, nicknamed Maelo, is a genius in the way that saxophonist Charlie Parker is a genius: employing an unprecedented and innovative approach to art and technique so that their field (in Parker’s case jazz, in Rivera’s Afro-Caribbean improvised sonero singing) is forever divided up into pre- and post-eras. No less than the great Cuban singer Benny Moré dubbed Rivera “El Sonero Mayor.” It was natural, then, that Zenón would study Rivera’s vocal improvisations the same way he would study Parker.

“Rivera and Cortijo were grounded in traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music,” says Zenón, “and they brought that to the stage and dance floor, putting a specifically Puerto Rican spin to a sonero tradition that comes out of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré. What Maelo built on top of that was unprecedented. Maelo’s melodic and rhythmic gifts of invention took sonero to another level.”

“Rivera is an important cultural figure,” continues Zenón. “Maelo and Cortijo were guys from the ‘hood.” Zenón is referring to Santurce, San Juan’s historic working-class neighborhood (where, many years later, Zenón was born as well) populated largely by Afro-Puerto Ricans. “They took street music like bomba and plena and built a modern, popular sound out of it that didn’t rely on Cuban son as its only reference. No one had done that before, and people loved it. The story goes that songwriter Bobby Capó, who was a big advocate, arranged for them to perform on a popular television show. When the band showed up, the producers saw they were these black guys from the streets and didn’t want to even let them in the hotel where the show was broadcast from, let alone put them on the air. Bobby argued that they’re here, what else are you gonna do? The producers relented, and Cortijo y su Combo became a huge sensation. People loved their attitude, their rhythms, their choreography, everything.”

“Later on, they became the backup band for Benny Moré, and that took them to big stages everywhere, not only in Puerto Rico, but all over Latin America and in New York.”

Many an academic study has been written examining Rivera and Cortijo’s significance to everyday Puerto Ricans, and I won’t quote them here, but suffice it to say it’s a big deal. It’s no surprise, then, that Zenón was drawn to Maelo for personal, socio-cultural and artistic reasons. To drive the point home, Zenón brought in one of those scholars, César Colón-Montijo, to write Sonero’s liner notes.

“I didn’t make the album to expose Rivera to a wider audience, especially among jazz fans,” says Zenón, “but if that happens it would be great. His music deserves it.”

Before listening closely to Zenón’s album, I researched and assembled the original versions of the source material in the same order as the tunes appear on “Sonero”, then committed them to memory as best I could. It’s worth noting that neither Rivera nor Cortijo were songwriters. Some of Puerto Rico’s best, including Capó and the great Tite Curet Alonso, took care of that, often writing tunes expressly for them. Rivera’s genius was in his improvised singing, essentially “composing” in real time much like a great jazz musician.

For “Sonero,” Zenón and his quartet take those written and improvised compositions, examine them, break them down, reassemble them and build new themes on top of them. The album’s 10 tracks are divided equally between the early Cortijo material and the later sides that he recorded for Fania.

Capó’s 1975 tune “Las Tumbas”, as an example, begins with Rivera’s verse (his “prison blues” according to Colón-Montijo) played gracefully by pianist Luis Perdomo and then gradually picked up by the rest of the quartet. The simple melody is lovingly spun out over the course of 3 minutes until, just as the coro is briefly hinted at, Zenón and company abruptly take on the original’s opening horn fanfare before exploring variations the coro for several minutes, returning to the fanfare at the end.

The 1958 Cortijo y su Combo classic “El Negro Bembón”, also penned by Capó, once again starts by taking Rivera’s vocal as Zenón’s initial theme, only this time it’s one of his exuberant improvisations, which is then played against the band’s ensemble work. A similar approach carries Curet Alonso’s 1978 “Las Caras Lindas”, Rivera’s ode to the varied and beautiful black faces of the Caribbean.

The rest of the album continues in this vein, with Colón-Montijo’s liner notes helpfully providing the social and personal context of each song. [Author’s note: Yes, I am suggesting that you buy the CD for its beautiful and informative packaging rather than simply streaming the audio. You won’t regret it.]

Zenón and the rest of his quartet, while all fans of salsa, resist the urge to “salsify” the tunes. “Although salsa and jazz both emerge out of popular traditions and the music of the people, they took different directions,” remarks Zenón. “But the source is the same.”

The Miguel Zenón Quartet may be masters of modern jazz, but the heart and soul of Puerto Rico embeds its spirit into every note of “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera.”

Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase, September 19-22, two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets and information at jazzshowcase.com

A Conversation with Melvis Santa

By Don Macica

If you go to the Facebook page of Ashedí, the group led by Melvis Santa that consists of her and three master Afro-Cuban percussionists, you’ll see it’s titled “Ashedí – Afro Cuban Jazz Meets Rumba”. But to hear the Cuban singer, pianist and composer explain it, they knew each other all along. If fact, they’re family.

“Afro-Cuban traditions are, for me, the spiritual cousins of blues and jazz,” Melvis tells me by way of explaining how Ashedí came together, first as an exploratory concept and later solidifying into the ensemble that will perform twice in Chicago this weekend, including their debut at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival and a return visit to a venue that has been something of her Chicago home, the restaurant and intimate music venue Sabor a Café.

It was at Sabor a Café that I first met Melvis Santa in 2016. She had a show there later that day that went under the name ‘Ashedí Project.’ I interviewed her after a rehearsal with the Chicago musicians who, for that day, were Ashedí. The four split the difference between jazz and Latin, with trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Brett Bentler and conguero Francisco Ocasio.

I ask Melvis how Ashedí transitioned from the rotation of accompanists to the set line up of herself and rumba masters Roman Diaz, Rafael Monteagudo and Anier Alonso.

“Having the opportunity to live in New York as an artist has been an ongoing source of inspiration and a challenge at the same time,” says Santa, who left a notably successful music career in Cuba when she moved to New York from Havana in 2014. “The level is very high and there is no limit when it comes to creativity since people from every corner of the world get together there. With Ashedí I was looking for something, so I tried different formats with different musicians and let the music absorb their influences and cultural backgrounds to see where that could lead me. At some point you clearly understand what is that you really want to do, and how you best can do it. Likewise, you learn to identify what, where, or who you don’t want to waste your time and creative energy with.”

As a young girl in Cuba, Santa was absorbing diverse musical sounds from an early age.

“I learned to sing before properly speaking, and to dance before I could properly walk. By the time I first came to a music school at 8 years old I had already years of performing in community events, attending arts workshops with my mom, attending children’s theater plays with my dad, opera concerts with my aunts, religious ceremonies with my grandma, and so on… I first “discovered” R&B and Jazz through my mom. She worked as an English translator, so she brought home a lot of music in English to practice her accent. She especially loved Anita Baker, Minnie Ripperton, and Steve Wonder.

“I remember while in high school during a listening session with friends someone played Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins. I never forgot that sound. One day my mom brought home the album Unforgettable, in which Natalie Cole sings 22 jazz standards honoring the legacy of her father, Nat King Cole. My favorite tune was Lush Life, but still I didn’t know what jazz meant, I just loved the quality of sounds and how it made me feel.”

At the same time, Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition is deeply embedded in Melvis’ music. “I grew up into a small but very diverse family who holds dear various traditions from Havana and Matanzas: Yoruba, Congo, Arara, Abakua, Catholicism and even Atheism… In the social context and time where I grew up you didn’t learn any folkloric material attending a music school because the educational system is built on western music. You have to be born into a family that practices Popular and/or folkloric traditions, or just be part of the scene of certain neighborhoods to learn the codes. So you graduate as a classical musician, but it doesn’t necessarily means that you don’t have a folk background.”

She goes on, “In Cuba everything happens at the same time, especially in the culture. You are born into a wide range of contexts and you—unconsciously at first­—learn to navigate each one on the go. Just absorbing everything like breathing.”

I return to the subject of New York City and the beginnings of Ashedí.

“I think the concept of Ashedí could have only be born in the U.S., specifically in New York, and that is mainly because it came as a result of my encounter with a Cuba I didn’t get to know,” she says, referring in part to meeting and working with Cuban master musician (and now Ashedí member) Roman Diaz, who left Cuba for New York himself in 1999. “The musical melting pot that is New York, Chicago, New Orleans and many other big cities with their culturally diverse communities and history have definitely contributed to shape my own concept, as well. Although, now that it is ‘born’, I’m positive it could coexist in modern Cuba or anywhere in the world.”

Melvis Santa views her art as it develops in the U.S. part of a continuum. “From the early twentieth century, Mario Bauza and Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker and Machito, Graciela and Dinah Washington, to Dizzy and Chano, and so on… Afro-Cuban jazz stood on his own in New York, and those were some special combinations!” She considers percussionists Diaz and Monteagudo as “the continuation of pioneers like Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, Chano Pozo, and many other Afro-Cuban master percussionists who had the opportunity to assimilate and incorporate jazz as a second language, without losing their roots.”

Santa is totally committed to her art. “There is nothing separate in anything that I do. It all comes from my personal and professional experience,” she says. “Everything is completely intertwined, and I understood that concept since my early childhood. As a professional artist, my mission is to express myself through the arts. And if what I do can help others find their own way of expression, I’m genuinely happy to share my experience with them. I’m not only relying on my natural gifts or talents, I have consciously studied and developed different ways of expression, which involves my cultural background plus diverse art forms such as theater, dance, film, writing, singing, music… I’m still exploring and learning.”

Melvis Santa and Ashedí

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Humboldt Park Boathouse, Friday July 12 at 7 PM. jazzinchicago.org

Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago, Saturday July 13 at 9 PM (two sets). saboracaferestaurant.com or call (773) 878-6327 for reservations.

The Return of the Chicago Latin Jazz Jam Session

By Don Macica –

Nathan Rodriguez is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician and dedicated salsero who was virtually raised on the music, being mentored and given opportunities to perform by veteran salsa musicians at the Latin jam sessions that dotted the city, often sneaking into clubs while underage for the chance to play. Now 36 years old, Rodriguez is a bandleader in his own right with both Conjunto Borikén and Azucar, a Celia Cruz tribute project.

Unfortunately, the last weekly Latin jazz jam session to flourish in the city ended in 2012 when its founder, bassist Richie Pillot, passed away and Café Bolero, the club where it was held, closed its doors.

That was a year before Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico-born jazz saxophonist, moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. McGrath is first and foremost a jazz musician, but his Caribbean heritage is an indelible part of him and his music. Like Rodriguez, McGrath is a bandleader, composer and arranger, and his understanding of both the salsa and jazz idioms has made him an in-demand player in both camps.

A shopping mall in suburban Chicago is quite possibly the last place you might expect to find the heir to Café Bolero and the Latin jazz jam, but that is precisely where Nathan and Roy have teamed up to bring back what they both consider a vital resource and platform for Chicago’s jazz and Latin musicians. Of course, it helps that Lincolnwood Town Center houses an outpost of one of Chicago’s finer Cuban restaurants, 90 Miles Cuban Café.

“90 Miles’ owner Alberto Gonzales, who sees his restaurant as a means of celebrating and promoting Cuban food and culture, wanted to expand programming, and I was looking for a way to build more connection between Chicago’s salsa and Latin jazz musicians,” says Rodriguez, who was, at the time, booking and promoting the restaurant’s Friday and Saturday night live music. “Musicians don’t get that many opportunities to hang out together and play because most weekends we are all busy in other people’s bands,” Rodriguez continues. “I convinced him that a jam session would draw musicians from all over Chicago and that the music could be a draw with the general public as well.”

Judging by the sizable crowd that was there when I visited on a recent Tuesday, that prediction was proving accurate. But before he could get to that point, though, Rodriguez had to put together a core band that was good enough to attract others to join the action. For that, he called Roy McGrath for help. His connections in both the jazz and salsa communities blended perfectly with the solid reputation that Rodriguez had built in the last 20 years.

“As a Puerto Rican jazz musician, I’ve always straddled two worlds,” says McGrath. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that much crossover between the salsa and jazz communities. Salseros might have heard of Charlie Parker, and jazz musicians might know something about Chano Pozo playing with Dizzy Gillespie, but there are these two parallel worlds comprised of terrific musicians who often don’t know each other.”

When McGrath first arrived in Chicago, he knew he found the place he wanted to live and work and create art. “I immersed myself in the jazz scene and loved that there were regular jam sessions where I could learn a lot from working musicians and become a better player,” McGrath says. “Those places are so important for sharing knowledge and developing community, which in turn leads to more opportunities to play. But the salsa player in me didn’t have those same opportunities.”

Rodriguez agrees. “When I was a young player, getting the chance to hang with professionals was incredibly valuable. Some of them became mentors and inspired me to really take music seriously and work at becoming better.”

The band that Rodriguez and McGrath assembled is a virtual all-star ensemble. Besides Rodriguez and McGrath, you’ll usually find Brian Rivera and Tito Sierra on percussion, bassist Freddy Quintero, and veteran keyboardist Edwin Sanchez, who brings a decades-long career as a bandleader and arranger to the proceedings. “Edwin is so amazing,” says McGrath. “He knows every song on the planet, his montunos are crazy good and he can really solo.”

For the sessions, Rodriguez and McGrath divide up responsibilities along the lines of their own instruments, Nathan cuing the percussionists and Roy calling the tunes and working with the horn players.

On the Tuesday I was there, plenty of musicians, both professional and amateur, came to join in. Some of the pros included conguero Pete Vale, a salsero who also plays with Dos Santos, drummer Jonathan Wenzel, who is a member of, among others, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and McGrath’s Remembranzas Quartet, jazz trumpeters Thomas Madeja and Leon Q. Allen, bassist Chris Nolte and timbalero Eddie Dones. The joyful noise that they created fairly levitated the room.

“I want the music to be at a high level, but not elitist,” says McGrath. “It’s not always easy to mesh the jazz and salsa cats because the two styles speak different languages that are second nature to one but unknown by the other. So, I want the atmosphere to be inviting and fun, not intimidating to either side. That way everybody benefits, even when mistakes are made. We’re even drawing a lot of jazz vocalists who are willing to take a standard like ‘Misty’ and sing it as a bolero. It’s pretty cool. The learning curve can be steep for both sides, but when folks relax and have fun good things happen and they come back another week.”

Rodriguez voices a similar sentiment. “There are a lot of salsa players, but not a lot of venues that book salsa bands, so this gives them an opportunity to play more often, especially the young guys that are just breaking in but not yet getting called for gigs. At the same time, everyone gets to hang together, have some fun, and learn from each other.”

McGrath sees an additional benefit to the sessions, something that says a lot about how he views music as a means of social engagement.

“I’m excited about this as a musician, of course, but my reasons for bringing these two worlds together run deeper. There’s a big racial divide in Chicago, and encountering it surprised and bothered me after coming from Puerto Rico and also spending a few years studying music in New Orleans. I want this to be a safe place where musicians of all types can come together to share and learn about each other and maybe overcome some of those barriers that segregate people. People can get past their fears and prejudices when the conditions are right, so that’s what I’m hoping will happen here.”

The Latin Jazz Jam is every Tuesday from 7:30 – 9:30 PM at 90 Miles Cuban Café, 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood, IL (Lincolnwood Town Center)

Interview: Miguel Zenón’s “Yo Soy la Tradición” Benefit Concert and Album

by Don Macica –

In September of 2016, jazz composer and alto saxophone player Miguel Zenón premiered a new composition at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Puerto Rico-born musician has used the music and culture of his home (and its corresponding diaspora in the U.S.) as conceptual source material for album length explorations ever since his 2005 release Jíbaro. Several more albums followed over the next decade, including Esta Plena, Alma Adentro, Oye! Live in Puerto Rico and Identities Are Changeable. With the exception of Oye!, which was more overt in its Latin instrumentation, all of these works were written with Zenón’s core jazz quartet (Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole) as its principal means of expression.

Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by Hyde Park’s David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Festival, also mines Puerto Rican traditions for its subject material, but this time around the writing was in collaboration with the Chicago based classical new music ensemble Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust and Russell Rolen). The concert was warmly received, and a year later Zenón returned to Chicago to enter the studio with Spektral. The album that resulted is a collection of 8 works for alto sax and string quartet that derive from Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious and musical traditions, yet sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. There are echoes of older Spanish traditions like flamenco (the hand claps on Cadenza are clearly inspired by flamenco, but not unrelated to composer Steve Reich’s Clapping Music) and dances that preceded the island’s European colonization, but also jagged harmonies, rapid minimalist rhythmic sections and beautifully lyrical passages that recall, to these ears, Zenón’s playing on Alma Adentro‘s boleros. The quartet is fully integrated into each movement, never merely a backup band to a sax player.

The CD will be released September 21 and celebrated with a concert at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will benefit Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts.

“My starting point for Tradición was studying the folkloric music of Puerto Rico and identifying the elements that make it unique, then extract that and use it without emulating it.” I’m speaking to Miguel Zenón by phone as he is heading to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires to participate in an Astor Piazzolla festival. “Then I spent time studying classical chamber works from various periods until I felt ready to start writing. My early training as a player was in classical music, so I was at least familiar with it, but I didn’t begin studying it intently until much later when I started writing my own music.

“Writing for strings was a different and more challenging process than writing for my jazz quartet,” says Zenón.  “We’re a working band and we know each other very well. When I’m writing for them I have a sound in mind that I know they can do, so even if it’s a difficult passage I’m confident that it can be played well.

“I had been a guest musician on one of Spektral Quartet’s albums and enjoyed working with them,” Zenón continues. “So I knew they were terrific and creative musicians, but I was still unfamiliar with the technical capabilities of string instruments. So I would write passages and send them to Spektral and I would get feedback like ‘This part is great but it would be hard on our instruments to do this part here.’ They would make suggestions based on those sorts of things.”

I asked Zenón about the intersection of folkloric, jazz and classical music. “First of all, I’m a jazz musician, so there’s always an element of improvisation even when the writing is formal.  But I’m also a Puerto Rican jazz musician.  Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am. Lastly, even when I’m writing for jazz instrumentation, I’m aware of and applying harmonic and structural concepts learned from classical and new music composers. A string quartet is just a more identifiably classical format.”

As it happened, the long-reserved studio time booked to record the CD was scheduled just days after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico. Thus it was that Miguel Zenón found himself in Chicago for three days beginning September 22, 2017.

“We were in the studio in Chicago just after María struck, so obviously it was on our minds while we were recording. So the CD will always be connected to that.”

Spektral Quartet just published a moving blog post on their website, describing the atmosphere at sessions and describing how Zenón would call home repeatedly during breaks trying to get updates at a time when much of the island was flooded and without power. It also touched on how artists play through adversity. The post, titled Why our album release is a benefit for Puerto Rico, states “Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists.”

“At the same time I was calling home for updates,” Zenón says, “I was also calling musician friends in California to organize a benefit concert there. Later on I did one in Boston and another in New York. Spektral wanted to do something here and asked me if I knew somewhere in the community that would host. I immediately thought of Segundo Ruiz Belvis.”

This is not Miguel Zenón’s first visit to SRBCC. In May of 2016, the saxophonist preceded a full big band performance of Identities Are Changeable at the Logan Center with a community event at SRBCC that explained the concept of Identities (an exploration of identity and community of U.S. born Puerto Ricans) and included informal performances with the center’s youth ensemble, Chicago-based Puerto Rican saxophonist Roy McGrath, and local bomba powerhouses Bomba con Buya.

“I learned about the Centro years ago when I first started to come to Chicago to play the Jazz Showcase with David Sánchez’ band. I would always head to Humboldt Park to eat some food, hang out, buy records. I would hear about this place that was keeping the culture alive. Then about 3 or 4 years ago I was here for a Chicago Jazz Festival appearance and after my set I went to the neighborhood to jam with some salseros at Festival Boricua. It was there I met Omar.”

Omar is SRBCC Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright [Full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also a co-founder of Agúzate]. Zenón continues, “He told me about the Chamaco Ramirez documentary that he was working on and his work at the Centro.  Then the University of Chicago chose them as the community partner for my Identities concert at the Logan, so I had the opportunity to go out there and see it first-hand.

“So it was an easy choice to do our benefit there.”

I’m speaking with Miguel a week after he returned from several days in Puerto Rico as an Artist in Residence at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan. I ask him how things are there a full year after María.

“The infrastructure is a little better. Most people have electricity and running water. But deeper than that, there is still a struggle. There is still stuff to be fixed, but one thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that there is still a lot of trauma. People are traumatized. It is a deep experience that will influence a generation. But the overall situation is deeper than just the hurricane. A lot of negative things like the economic situation had been building for a while, and what the hurricane did was bring them to the surface.”

“What it boils down, too, at least in my opinion, is the political situation,” Zenón continues. “Puerto Rico continues to be in limbo. We’re connected to the states, but we don’t have the benefits of being a state. We have our own government, culture and language, but we are not a free country. And even our government isn’t really in charge because they have to answer to a fiscal control board created in the U.S.

“There is a realization shared by more people now that this limbo can’t continue because it isn’t working. Whether that is statehood or independence is open to debate, but the current situation is clearly not sustainable.”

What is clear is that, one year post-María, Puerto Rico is far from healed, and help is still needed. The particular fund for this benefit concert helps artists who, in many cases, are finding their roles more important than ever on this traumatized island. It doesn’t matter if that role explicitly addresses coping and constructive analysis or simply a balm from harsh daily realities. Both are vital as Puerto Rico heads into year two and an uncertain future.
__________

Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet: Yo Soy la Tradición
A Benefit for Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago
Friday, September 21, 7pm
$20 general admission, $50 and $100 VIP tickets available
Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org

Review: David Sánchez at the Jazz Showcase

– By Don Macica –

It has been far too long since Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sánchez has released any new music under his own name.

It’s not that he hasn’t kept busy since Cultural Survival came out in 2008. He was one third of the Ninety Miles Cuban project along with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Christian Scott that toured heavily for a few years. He’s turned up as a guest on several excellent albums, and he tours regularly, swinging through Chicago at least once every year or two.

So when, after Sánchez announced that he and his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Obed Calvaire) were playing new material and heading into the studio next week, it was very good news. Some of the tunes were getting their first public performance. A key element of jazz improvisation is, essentially, composing on the spot, and that makes this weekend of shows something of an intense road test of the ideas that will make the final cut in the studio next week. Jazz fans could hardly ask for anything more.


The new songs are for an album to be titled Caribe, and they explore exactly that, folkloric traditions of the Caribbean, particularly from Puerto Rico and Haiti, where Miami-born drummer Calvaire has roots. Rodriguez, like Sánchez, hails from Puerto Rico and Perdomo is Venezuelan, but the thing that they share in addition to their Caribbean heritage is that they are all dedicated jazz musicians. The music they made together Thursday night demonstrated just how jazz absorbs and embraces diverse influences, and they did so with profound artistry and commitment.


This is a band certainly capable of fireworks, which they delivered handily on tunes like “A Thousand Yesterdays” and “Land of the Hills,” titled after what the French colonizers called Haiti. On these tunes and others, Sánchez temporarily set down his horn to take up a barril de bomba to underscore the folkloric foundations of the rhythm.  It was the quieter moments, however, that impressed the most: “Canto” with Rodriguez’s bass intro and “Waves Under Silk,” that built on Perdomo’s repeated chords.


The David Sánchez Quartet has three more nights at the Jazz Showcase, two shows a night plus a Sunday afternoon kid-friendly matinee. If you want to explore creativity in action and gain an exclusive preview of an album to come, you’re advised not to miss it.

David Sánchez Quartet, December 14 – 17, Jazz Showcase, Chicago – jazzshowcase.com

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: Travels with Monsieur Periné


By Don Macica –

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.”
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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

Agúzate interview: Miguel Zenón’s Típico


By Don Macica –

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.
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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.

Interview with Omara Portuondo: “I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Omara Portuondo 2014
Photo credit: Fernand Forcade

By Don Macica –

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.

Magia Negra
Omara Portuondo circa 1959

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.
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Omara Portuondo at Symphony Center. Friday, October 21 at 8:00PM. Tickets at cso.org.

Harold López-Nussa: The next great Cuban jazz pianist?

Harold López-Nussa
photo: Eduardo Rodriguez

By Don Macica –

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.

mac_1114_harold_lopez_nussa_el_viaje_cover_3000x3000_rgb1
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.
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Harold López-Nussa Trio, Wednesday, October 19, 7:30pm, Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave, Evanston. Tickets at evanstonspace.com