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: John Santos, My Music is Who I Am

John-Santos
By Don Macica –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Con ritmo: Agúzate’s Guide to Summer in Chicago

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

By Don Macica –

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

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

Of course, you’re invited too!

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

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Bomba con Buya

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

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

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Eddie Palmieri

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

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

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

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

Anibal Velasquez

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

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Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars

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

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

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

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Candido Camero

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

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

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

Trust us, we will count it.

Concert Review: Roy McGrath’s Julia al Son de Jazz

By Don Macica –

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Roy McGrath Quintet with students of Arawak’Opia

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.

Roy McGrath at Sabor a Café
Roy McGrath at Sabor a Café

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 conguero Victor 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.

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Julia al Son de Jazz

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 Alma Adentro, 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.

San Juan to Chicago: Roy McGrath’s Jazz Journey

Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.

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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
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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.

Oscar Perez and Carlos Henriquez: Directions in Latin Jazz

Two emerging artists of Caribbean heritage take divergent paths to making their mark on jazz.

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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.

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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.

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Oscar Perez, Prepare a Place for Me (Myna Records)

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Carlos Henriquez, The Bronx Pyramid (Blue Engine)
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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.

Intercambio: Orbert Davis and Cuban cultural diplomacy

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photo by Zoe Davis

By Don Macica.

In October of 2012, jazz trumpeter and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder/leader Orbert Davis traveled to Havana, Cuba to do research for a project he was creating with Frank Chaves of the River North Dance Company. A year later, the product of this research became one of the best multi-discipline concerts of 2013: Havana Blue.

Research, however, was only part of the reason for Davis’s visit. There were both personal and musical goals as well, and they were not unrelated. Davis, an African-American, was also seeking to learn more about another branch of the African Diaspora in the Cuba as a way to better connect with his own African heritage. The musician in him, inspired by the jazz that emerged as perhaps the signature cultural contribution of Africans in North America, wanted to get to know firsthand the African-rooted music of Cuba and the people who made it.

One of the places that Davis visited on the trip was one of the country’s top performing arts schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), “akin to our Julliard” as Davis puts it. Students here are trained to be classical musicians – there is little jazz instruction. Thoroughly impressed by the student’s sheer talent and quick adaptability to jazz improvisation, Davis vowed to return, which he did in December 2014, with members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to perform a with the students at the Havana Jazz Festival.

‘Timing is everything’, for a jazz musician, is sort of insider talk about the importance of rhythm. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, it also applies in general use to more or less mean being at the right place at the right time. For Davis and his CJP cohorts, it meant being in Cuba and working closely with the students and faculty of ISA on the historic day when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their mutual intention to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after over half a century of recrimination and hostility.

At the Havana Jazz Festival, the young students “became” the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with the help of workshops and master classes from Davis and other CJP members including Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, Leandro Lopez-Varady and Stewart Miller. The concert was a huge success, and almost immediately upon returning home, Davis & company went about the work of bringing the students to Chicago to help perform a new Davis composition, Scenes From Life: Cuba!, which will have its premiere on Friday, November 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.

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Leandro Lopez-Varady with ISA student Beatriz Arias – photo by Zoe Davis

One of the students, 17 year old violinist Beatriz Arias, said this when asked why she gave up her Christmas holiday to be in the project: “My motivation was to exchange with different countries, play and learn about jazz and other popular music besides classical,” adding “I didn’t learn improvising at school. It was mainly from my father who plays the tres, so he was like my school for improvisation. But I’ve never done this before. It was all an inspiration in the moment.”

It says something about both the Cuban educational system and the Cuban soul that someone so young who had never played jazz could hang and improvise with these top shelf jazz musicians and shine.

According to Orbert, it was a quality shared by all the students. He attributes this to the Cuban experience and sensibility. “We invited a pair of traditional Cuban drummers to work and later perform with the students. They began by discussing and demonstrating a rumba rhythm. It quickly turned into a jam session with the students singing and dancing. All of the kids knew the chant, they knew the song. They didn’t learn that in school. It was part of who they are at home.”

Davis goes on to praise the educational system. “We tend to think of Cuba as the third world. They’re poor, they need our help… I’ve been in music education a very long time, but there were two things there that I never experienced before. First, the teachers and administration give the students everything they need and want.” The second thing relates to the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic itself. “CJP is a third stream orchestra: 100% jazz, 100% classical. Many of our string musicians come from a strictly classical background, and there is a process of training and adaptation for them to understand jazz. What was astonishing in Cuba was that these classically trained musicians adapted to swing and improvisation so quickly. It was phenomenal what these kids were playing in just a few days. You’d never in a million years think that it was all brand new to them. They are truly third stream musicians.”

Davis will, in a sense, use these young students as teachers and vice-versa in the upcoming CJP concert. “The string section seating will alternate: American, Cuban, American, Cuban… Whatever we do will rub off on them, and whatever they do will rub off on us.”

This concert, like the 2014 trip that preceded it, will truly be an intercambio, a cultural exchange in which both parties will have much to give and receive. Orbert Davis alludes to this near the end of our conversation.

“These students are the future, and we want them to know what this new relationship is about. It’s not about when American companies get down to Cuba and make all this money. There’s some anxiety in Cuba about change, a sense of being conquered again, but this time by money. But for us, it’s about people; it’s about sharing what’s most important. The students will go home knowing this.”

Friday’s concert will be preceded by nearly a week of rehearsals, but it won’t be all work. In all, 36 Cubans are coming, including the president of the University, and there will be time to visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History and the National Museum of Mexican Art. They’ll also partake in that Chicago culinary institution, deep dish pizza. They will go home knowing the best of Chicago. Native Chicagoan that I am, I feel that they’ll experience the best this country has to offer. Judging from what Orbert Davis says, we’ll get to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer us.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Scenes from Life: Cuba! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with special guests from the Universidad de las Artes. Auditorium Theatre, Friday, November 13, 7:30pm. Tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40

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By Don Macica.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s true supergroup, Irakere. The band led by pianist Chucho Valdés didn’t labor in isolation for long. In 1977, a jazz cruise left New Orleans carrying musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and a young Ry Cooder (yes, the same Ry Cooder whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years later) and dropped anchor in Havana. After catching an Irakere performance and being blown away by what they heard, they engaged in some jazz diplomacy back in the U.S. and soon Irakere was known around the world.

In addition to Valdés, the group also featured the young Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. Paquito defected to the United States in 1980 and Sandoval followed 10 years later, yet Chucho stayed the course and Irakere continued as a band until 2005, recording classic albums like Misa Negra along the way.

Chucho is now 74, but if that seems at all elderly to you, remember that his father, the legendary Bebo Valdés, lived to the age of 94 and was producing music until the end, providing the inspiration (and soundtrack) for the wonderful animated film Chico and Rita. Irakere may be no more, but Chucho is still going strong, as evidenced by his work as a solo artist and two recent recordings by his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Anniversaries being what they are, though, 2015 finds Chucho honoring the groundbreaking group he founded with the brand new album Tribute to Irakere –Live in Marciac (Jazz Village) and subsequent tour with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, which will bring him to Symphony Center on November 6.

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The members of the Afro-Cuban Messengers are young enough to count Irakere as influences on their musical development, so you have something of a dream matchup on the Tribute album: Young disciples led by the maestro himself.

Unlike their equally innovative contemporaries Los Van Van, Irakere were first and foremost a jazz ensemble, not a dance orchestra. Their first appearances outside of Cuba were at the Newport and Montreaux Jazz Festivals respectively. Nonetheless, Cuban audiences want to dance, and Irakere’s first big hit was the funk burner Bacalao con Pan, brimming with electric bass, blaring horns and rock guitar wedded to folkloric Cuban percussion and the incandescent virtuosity of Valdés, D’Rivera and Sandoval’s solos. Later on, as the sheer firepower of D’Rivera and Sandoval departed, Valdés reconceived the ensemble’s dynamic by writing stronger arrangements that emphasized the group sound, resulting in extended works like the four-part suite Misa Negra.

This approach to writing and arranging now carries over to the Afro-Cuban Messengers, the name of which is Chucho’s nod to legendary drummer Art Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers. Both of the group’s previous albums, Chucho’s Steps and Border-Free, are unmistakably jazz albums. The former serves as Valdés’ tribute to American jazz while the latter digs deeper into Afro-Latin folklore, but each is clearly the work of a fluid and seasoned jazz ensemble.

On Tribute to Irakere, the Messengers grow from a sextet to a 10 piece orchestra, adding tenor and alto sax plus two additional trumpets, the better to approximate Irakere’s 11 member powerhouse lineup. The album contains a mere 6 selections, but two of them stretch over 17 minutes and none are shorter than 7. Instead of filling the album with old Irakere hits, 4 of the 6 tracks come from the previous Messenger albums, but now arranged to take advantage of Irekere’s trademark sound: A tight and punchy horn section, deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban chants, percussive grooves and powerful soloing, all performed with blow-the-roof-off intensity. There’s also one Irakere classic, Juana 1600, and what you might call a ‘new’ Irakere song as imagined by a younger generation called Afro-Funk, which sounds exactly as you think it would with a title like that, but better.

It’s this 10 member Afro-Cuban Messengers that will hit the Symphony Center stage November 6, and it can be safely assumed that roofs will again be blown. There is a chance that other Irakere classics will be played, as they were in Marciac. I, for one, relish the very idea of hearing Misa Negra live. Whatever comes, though, will be good enough for me.

Chucho Valdés, Irakere 40: Friday, November 6, 8pm at Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

The door is open. What’s next from Cuban music?

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Roberto Fonseca and Danay Suárez

By Don Macica.

Ever since Presidents Obama and Castro made their historic joint announcement in December 2014, many have been wondering, “What’s next?” Here at Agúzate, of course, we cover music and culture, so our thoughts have turned to what is presumably a coming wave of Cuban music. Early signs are good. Both Buena Vista Social Club and the legendary Los Van Van visited Chicago this summer, while the Festival Cubano presented Miguelito Cuni, Jr. and Pedrito Calvo. Chucho Valdés is coming to Symphony Center this fall.

Conspicuously absent, though, is a younger generation of Cuban artists. Recent appearances have been few and far between. Mayne Stage presented pianist Roberto Fonseca last fall, and the last year or so has also seen shows from singers Melvis Santa at Sabor a Café and Danay Suárez at the Unisono Festival in Pilsen. And, of course, the French-Cuban sister duo Ibeyi, who are garnering tons of stateside attention, were just at Thalia Hall. But as the recent multi-million dollar international deal recently signed between entertainment giant Sony and the Cuban label EGREM demonstrates, both record companies and concert promoters are clearly looking to Cuba for a good return on investment.

Young artists are, of course, the key to any future that includes Cuban music. The point was driven home to me at the recent Chicago Jazz Festival, when Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who has been traveling to Cuba since the 1980’s, brought the young all-female Cuban ensemble Maqueque to the Pritzker stage, where their performance prompted multiple standing ovations and the only audience demanded encore that I had witnessed all weekend.

Here, then, is my list of Cuban artists you are likely to hear more of soon.

Descemer Bueno – Much of the Spanish speaking world has likely already heard singer-songwriter and producer Descemer Bueno without realizing it due to Enrique Iglesias’s recent reggaeton-tinged cover of his song Bailando. Bueno has been splitting his time between the U.S. and Cuba for several years, having first come to notice way back in the 90s as a member of Yerba Buena. At the age of 44, Bueno isn’t a kid anymore, and some of his recent output reflects a slight drift toward adult-contemporary blandness. However, his recent song Habana would not have sounded out of place performed by Yerba Buena.

Diana Fuentes – Already signed by Sony, Diana Fuentes is perhaps a step ahead of some of her Cuban colleagues in terms of reaching a U.S. audience. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s married to Calle 13’s Eduardo Cabra and that he produced her latest album, Planeta Planetario. But she’s been making music in Cuba for over 15 years, working with stars like Carlos Varela and X Alfonso. Her early work showed influences of soul and R&B, but Planetario places her squarely in the singer-songwriter camp, where her music would be right at home alongside alt-Latino artists like Gaby Moreno, Julieta Venegas or Carla Morrison.

Los Aldeanos – Before the U.S. door to Cuban music slammed shut during the Bush presidency, it seemed that the hip hop group Orishas was ready to make a big impact. They even had a song featured in the mainstream Hollywood film Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. Unfortunately, Orishas broke up in 2010. Into the breach steps Los Aldeanos. You might recognize the duo of Aldo and El B from their collaboration Si Te Preguntan on Ana Tijoux’s La Bala. Like the best hip hop, their lyrics take unflinching aim at society’s injustices, so much so that they’ve endured criticism from the Cuban government.

Daymé Arocena – While the recent Maqueque concert at the Chicago Jazz Fest was dominated aurally by Jane Bunnett’s virtuosic saxophone, it’s very likely that the eyes and ears of the audience were often riveted on the woman standing front and center, Daymé Arocena. A powerful, deep voiced singer in a jazz vein, she also channels the santos with every syllable and move. If there wasn’t a category for santería jazz before, there is now.

Danay Suárez – Another jazz-influenced singer is Danay Suárez, an MC who moves more in the hip hop side of things, though her new EP finds her singing more and backed by a jazz combo led by Roberto Fonseca.  Her flow and rapid musical evolution draw favorable comparisons to Ana Tijoux. Both Suárez and the previously mentioned Daymé Arocena were featured prominently on DJ/producer Gilles Peterson’s series of Havana Cultura recordings.

Roberto Fonseca – Although he was just here in October 2014, I’d be remiss if I didn’t return to Roberto Fonseca for a moment. The pianist and composer effortlessly straddles several musical worlds. He’s worked with legends like Omara Portuondo and the late Ibrahim Ferrer, but also the dynamic young Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. He’s largely responsible for putting the band together for and producing the aforementioned Havana Cultura sessions of young Cuban artists. His own music freely combines elements from jazz, Cuban son, electronic sampling and African rhythms to startling effect.

Of course, any list of six artists is going to leave off a lot more than it includes, but that’s the beauty of it, yes? There are quite literally hundreds of young, creative Cubans that deserve to be heard. So head to the beach, and wait for the waves to come in. After all, they start a mere 90 miles away.

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.

Review: Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio

By Don Macica

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The landscape of Latin jazz is, of course, an ever evolving one. The current crop of jazz artists that are the acknowledged as among the best, such as Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez and Danilo Pérez, shy away from labeling their music, preferring instead to cite their Latin American heritage as a means of informing a highly individual approach to the art of jazz, capturing the soul of what it means to be Panamanian or Puerto Rican rather than building their compositions around standard, recognizable forms. Even in Chicago, the Dominican violinist James Sanders, who has led a very good Latin jazz ensemble for nearly 15 years, prefers these days to integrate Afro-Caribbean essence into a totally improvisational approach, forsaking charts for an open ended conversation.

It’s refreshing, therefore, that the San Francisco based trombonist Wayne Wallace so warmly embraces the term, putting it right there in the name of his ensemble. And maybe that’s because he’s African-American, not Latino, and thus free to explore a sound and style without the added significance of it being his heritage. However, saying that Wallace plays Latin jazz is not to say he is being conservative. Quite the contrary.

Wallace is no newcomer. He was a founding member and co-musical director of John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, and before that he worked with Conjunto Cespedes, a Bay Area folkloric ensemble, and before that he played with Pete Escovedo. In addition to being a player in the Bay Area Latin scene, he’s also a bit of a proponent and documentarian. His created the record label that he records for, and it recently released two terrific Salsa de la Bahia compilations featuring the cream of the local scene, with a companion film in the works.

For Wallace, Latin jazz is still a music of discovery, one in which he can be both a teacher and disciple. His approach is anchored in that jazz process in which one listens, learns and creates anew. His new recording, Intercambio (Patois Records), is founded on the idea of cultural exchange. In this context, jazz has as much to give to Caribbean folkloric music as the other way around. While firmly committed to the idea and forms of Latin jazz, Wallace still remains an explorer. There are several moments on the album that coax a smile out of the listener by doing the unexpected.

Four of Intercambio’s ten tracks are Wallace originals, and the balance is drawn from jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and fellow trombonist J.J. Johnson. By and large the album smolders, the Latin rhythms underpinning arrangements that feature Wallace’s beautiful and buttery tone. Three tracks are reminiscent of Kind of Blue-era Miles, with Wallace’s trombone gliding over the shifting rhythms.

Rhythmically, the albums ports of call go beyond San Juan and Havana to also include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Trinidad. There are a couple of burners, led off by the first track, the Wallace original Casa del Sol, which is dedicated to Eddie Palmieri. On this song, the quintet is expanded to 7 pieces to include violin and flute, referencing Palmieri’s legendary La Perfecta ensemble. Another Wallace original, Guarachando, kicks into high gear with a comparsa carnival rhythm, throws in steel drums for good measure, then brings back the flute and violin to trade fours in its mid-section before they all come together, only to be followed by a hot solo from Wallace himself.

 

The two remaining Wallace originals are quite nice as well. Como Vai alternates cha-cha-cha and samba rhythms in a way that brings to mind a pair of Stevie Wonder classics, You’ve Got It Bad Girl and Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing. Finally, Timbázo is built for grooving, funky trombones in conversation with the rhythm section, colored once again by Trinidadian steel drums, which return yet a third time on Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody n’ You along with a pronounced bomba feel.

John Coltrane’s Equinox is the standout among the covers, building off of Trane’s exploration of African roots with batá drums and güiro. The Hoagy Carmichael standard Heart and Soul is given a smooth salsa treatment that would satisfy any dancer while leaving room for some nice soloing and ensemble playing, especially when Wallace overdubs his trombone into a 4-piece section a la Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre.

Mile Davis provides the thematic centerpiece of the album with Solar, reimagined into En el Solar de Miles by Wallace, tying together Miles’ interest in African culture to the Cuban solares, Cuban fraternal organizations formed during slavery to maintain African cultural practices. Another Davis composition, Circle, closes the album, a moody number enhanced by a string quartet and featuring some of Wallace’s lovliest playing.

As noted earlier, Wayne Wallace is no conservative, despite working in a genre that’s been around for nearly 75 years. Intercambio gently but firmly moves Latin jazz forward. That’s no easy thing, but it is an essential one to a good jazz musician. In doing so, Wallace demonstrates that there is much still to be found inside of Latin jazz.

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio.
Patois Records, available July 7

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.