It can be argued that Cuba has produced more innovative pianist/composers per capita than any other country on earth. A distinctly syncopated Cuban style emerged out of the blending of European classical music seasoned with African rhythms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous composer of this era is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. By the 1940s jazz was flavoring the stew along with a more overt reference to rhythms of African origin, leading to the development of mambo. When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, pianists Peruchín and Bebo Valdés often were often leading the band. It’s a tradition that continues to this day in the person of young pianists like Alfredo Rodríguez and Harold López-Nussa.
In between those early days of mambo and the emergence of this new generation, however, there are two pianists who tower over the rest.
Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba. The group, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.
Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young fusion bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (later Jack DeJonette). He made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year.
Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo, Juntos para Siempre, is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.
On February 23, that room will be the stage at Symphony Center when Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, two brilliant pianists and composers with a historic relationship within the Cuban piano tradition, present Trance, a collaboration that explores the profound spiritual connection at the very heart of Cuban music. Expect an open-ended, respectful conversation between two friends whose mutual admiration for each other leads to careful listening and thoughtful response, adding as needed until ultimately they almost speak as one.
And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will be plenty of sonic fireworks from these master musicians. After all, their hearts beat to the rhythm of Cuba.
Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance Friday, February 23 at Symphony Center, Chicago Tickets at cso.org.
Up until a few years ago, Brett Benteler was one of the elite Latin jazz bass players in Chicago. In 2015, though, he moved to New York City to further his musical ambitions. Before he did so, he told bandleaders and club owners not to worry: He knew a guy.
It was right around then that I started seeing this kid playing funky yet intricate electric bass guitar with bands like Roy McGrath’s Latin Sextet, Eric Hines & Pan Dulce and others. As it turns out, a newly arrived to Chicago Freddy Quintero was that guy.
Since then, I’ve seen Quintero play with several more bands, including the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, James Sanders & Conjunto, the Humboldt Park Orchestra, the Luciano Antonio Quartet and even supporting the New York/Colombian singer songwriter Gregorio Uribe on a solo trip to Chicago sans his Big Band. This Thursday, the young Venezuelan bassist takes another step forward by joining Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdés for a four-night stand at Chicago’s legendary Jazz Showcase.
When I said “kid” above I was not exaggerating. Quintero moved to Chicago in 2015 at the age of 19 and I was seeing him play shortly after that. I finally got a chance to talk with him a bit last summer, and I followed that conversation up this week with a few more questions. How did this kid become fully integrated into Chicago’s Latin and salsa scene in just a couple of years?
“I first came to Chicago because, while attending a music seminar in 2012, I met a group of musicians that were part of a program called ‘The Abreu Fellowship’ from the New England Conservatory, and one of these musicians helped me to find a full-tuition scholarship at North Park University,” says Quintero. “However, I could not come to Chicago during that time due to many reasons, and not being able to speak English was the most crucial. Three years later my father sent me to Chicago to study English at an ESL program with the intentions of getting back the offer from NPU, but the scholarship was not available anymore.”
Quintero continues, “I didn’t know anyone when I moved to the city besides that one person that I kept in touch with from North Park University. When I arrived to Chicago, they sent me an invitation to participate in a meeting where I met Brett Benteler, and I would say that everything started right after that. I got my first gig subbing out for Brett with a Latin jazz band called Contrabanda. I remember being super nervous because I thought that we were going to have a rehearsal or at least they would send me the sheet music, but it never really happened. Nonetheless, I think I did a good job. After the gig, I made some connections with the musicians who later invited me to sit in with a salsa band at Sabor a Café. A couple the months later, Benteler moved to New York City and he decided to leave all his gigs with me. I believe this is how more people started to call me to play with them. First, they would say that Brett recommended me. Then, they would just ask if I was available to play with them, and I guess this is when I realized that I must have been doing something good and that I was already part of the music scene in Chicago.”
I’m curious as to how someone so young made such an impression on Benteler and other musicians, so I ask Freddy about growing up in Venezuela. “My formal music education started when I was twelve years old in my hometown Punto Fijo, Venezuela. I was very fortunate to be part of El Sistema (Venezuela’s internationally renowned national music program) where I had the opportunity to perform with different orchestras and conductors for several years until I decided to move to the United States. My education within El Sistema was strictly classical. The instrument that I chose to play was the upright bass, and I remember being the only child playing that huge instrument at my nucleo, which is what the El Sistema programs are called around the country.”
When I point out that he is obviously not making his reputation as a classical musician in Chicago, Quintero tells me “El Sistema helped me a lot with my music reading and basic concepts of theory, so it was a very smooth transition by the time I decided to play the bass guitar. Although my formal education was classical, on my own time I would play rock with a band I had, and years later a group of friends and I gathered to create what it was the first big band in the history of my city, the Falcon Latin Jazz Big Band. I would say that jazz was one of the last genres that I ended up discovering and I feel it was sort of magical. The first recording I remember listening to was Spain by Chick Corea from his album Light as a Feather. After that I just wanted to keep digging to find new jazz artists.”
Quintero cites several artists as influences, from classical composers to rock, salsa and jazz bands, including over a dozen bassists from across the musical spectrum. When I ask him how he views himself, he states “I consider myself as a musician that is capable of playing different styles of music and enjoying all of them at the same time. I grew up in a house listening to Venezuelan music every morning, Pop, Rock, Funk and R&B in the afternoon, and Latin music at night. So, this is how I see myself, as a musician with no limits. “
Quintero is grateful for the strong foundation that El Sistema provided him, and credits it for his success so far. “I was very fortunate to be part of El Sistema because I believe that most of the musicians that come from that music program have a strong foundation in discipline, respect, perseverance, humility, and musicality that sometimes is really hard to find in others. In my personal opinion, this is really the only way I was able to be introduced to people like Victor Garcia and his band the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, where I have learned and I keep learning every time I have the opportunity to perform with them.”
In addition to all of this performing, Freddy is finally back at school as well, majoring in Music Education at Northeastern Illinois University.
Quintero appreciates the unique quality of the music scene in Chicago, saying “You never know when you are about to play with a famous or really good musician because there are no boundaries, meaning that the only mission is to play the gig, not to discuss who has more gigs, or a bigger house, you know? This is why I strongly believe that preparation is everything.”
That brings us to playing with Chuchito Valdés. “Working with an artist such as Chuchito has been a blessing. Just recently I had the honor to play with him at Yoshi’s, a legendary jazz club located in Oakland, California. When he called me to do that gig, I couldn’t believe it. For the same reason, I am extremely grateful that someone like Chuchito trusts in the work that I do. Hopefully we will keep touring the US, and this is going to be just the beginning of something bigger.”
So, I ask him, what can we expect from this weekend’s Chuchito Valdés shows?
“I would say that the music will lean towards both jazz and Latin directions and probably some funk, too. The drummer for the gig will be Luis Prieto Rosario. He is an amazing drummer and a great timbalero.”
Chuchito Valdés Trio with Freddy Quintero and Luis Prieto Rosario
Jazz Showcase, January 25-28. Two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee jazzshowcsase.com
Chicago is a fortunate city in that The Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro Eddie Palmieri, has visited us with various bands in tow four times in as many years. Despite the enormous expense of taking a big band on the road, the good folks at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have dug deep into their pockets not once, but twice, to bring the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park. Interspersed with those huge events were a show at the deeply missed Mayne Stage with trumpeter and Simpático album collaborator Brian Lynch and a Latin Jazz Septet performance at Symphony Center.
Chicago’s hot streak continues this Friday when the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music presents the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band for two shows. The visit follows up the April release of Sabiduria, a richly textured and rhythmically exciting album featuring Eddie’s core band and a diverse cast of guest musicians ranging from Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fé to New Orleans saxophonist (and Mardi Gras Indian Chief) Donald Harrison and the king of funky drumming himself, Bernard Purdie, who first played with Eddie on the 1971 landmark album Harlem River Drive.
Sabiduria expertly covers everything from Afro-Cuban roots music to New Orleans second line funk, all under the wide umbrella of Latin Jazz. When salsa took a turn into slick corporate vapidity in the early 90’s, Palmieri refused to go along for the ride, instead concentrating his formidable talents as a composer, arranger and pianist into jazz and producing the frankly amazing Palmas in 1994. La Perfecta II in 2002 was something of a return to classic salsa, charanga, and mambo in honor of the 4oth anniversary of his groundbreaking debut as a bandleader, but it, too, was graced with tremendous jazz improvisers given plenty of room to do their thing. Simpático won a much deserved Grammy for best Latin Jazz Album in 2007.
That was followed by a long period of studio silence until filmmaker Bobbito Garcia asked him to contribute music to Doin’ It In the Park, his documentary on New York street basketball, in 2012. Three tunes from those sessions made it to Sabiduria. We have the visionaries at Ropeadope Records to thank for adding nine more and making them all widely available.
Core musicians from these sessions (Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero congas, Camilo Molina timbales, Louis Fouche alto sax) will be joined by trumpeter Alex Norris and bassist Ruben Rodriguez at the Old Town School shows.
Eddie Palmieri was kind enough to answer a few of my questions when I reached out to him last week.
Don Macica (DM) – I’ve read that you turned to jazz because it’s hard to land salsa gigs, but I also know that you studied the jazz greats along with the Cuban greats when you were coming up in the 50s. Do you have a preference? What do you consider yourself as an artist?
Eddie Palmieri (EP) – I have always been a leader of Orchestra Dance Bands. The writing was on the wall in the early 90’s when the (salsa) genre changed regarding true dance music. The structures were changed to emphasize the vocalist and the tension and resistance needed in the arrangement were abolished. Salsa Romantica or Salsa Sensual became the popular sound and personally I will never succumb to musical mediocrity.
So, Latin Jazz was the mission. In 1994 I became a Governor in the New York Chapter of NARAS and I was able to become a driving force for the Academy to recognize and open up a category. I consider myself a sincere musical student. The playback of my discography does not lie.
DM – Sabiduria feels a little bit like a career summation, albeit a very adventurous one. There’s great jazz, but also some very pure Afro-Cuban stuff and the title track is a fat slice of jazz-funk that recalls Harlem River Drive. Is there any separation between these genres in your approach?
EP – Sabiduria, in my opinion, is the greatest “Latin Jazz” recording ever! The personnel that my son Eddie Palmieri II put together and produced was outstanding. Like I said earlier I have always loved musical extensions throughout my career.
DM – What was the inspiration that brought Donald Harrison to Sabiduria?
EP – Donald Harrison has always been a part of this family since Palmas in 1994. We love him dearly and not only is he a great musician but a great human being.
DM – At the age of 80, where do you get your energy and creativity? What does the future hold for Eddie Palmieri?
EP – Getting stronger every day! Chocolate Armenteros, the great Cuban trumpet player, said “When you get to the age of 50 you start counting by ones”, so I am only 30 years old with 60 years of musical and bandstand experience!
Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band: Eddie at 80 – Friday, October 27, 7:00 & 9:30pm. Old Town School of Folk Music. Tickets at oldtownschool.org
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.”
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 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.
Beginning with Jibaro in 2005, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón has conceived and recorded a series of albums built on the Puerto Rican experience. Both Jibaro and 2009’s Esta Plena explored folkloric sources, while 2014’s Alma Adentro interpreted classics from the golden age of Puerto Rican songwriting by such luminaries as Rafael Hernández, Sylvia Rexach and Pedro Flores. 2014 saw the remarkable Identities are Changeable, which based its compositions not on musical sources, but interviews with Puerto Ricans born in the mainland United States that explored their sense of identity.
Each was progressively more complex than the previous. Jibaro was simply a quartet. Esta Plena added additional percussion and Alma Adentro utilized a string ensemble. Identities was a big band album. At the core of all four, though, was Zenón’s quartet. The title of his brand new album, Típico, might lead you to believe that it is a continuation of this conceptually themed series, but it is instead a more purely musical project that takes as its starting point the core experience of that working quartet since 2005: pianist Luis Perdomo, Henry Cole on drums and bassist Hans Glawischnig.
“The title ‘Típico’ refers to something that is customary to a region or a group of people or something that can be related to a specific group of people. And when I was writing the music, I was thinking about the music that identified us as a band.”
I’m speaking with Miguel Zenón by phone as he is preparing to take the quartet to California for the first leg of a Típico tour that will bring him to Chicago’s Jazz Showcase March 9-12.
“I wanted to go back to that initial idea of just writing something for the band and focusing on the things that I feel the band can do well and use the record as a showcase for that.” Zenón continues, “The way we usually put records together, even when there are large ensembles or conceptually bigger projects, they all start with the quartet. The other elements are added to that, but when we go out on tour it’s usually just the quartet again. So this time, when putting this record together, I thought about the music as not just the first layer of a bigger project, but with the band itself as the main attraction.”
In a few of the album’s tracks, sounds and ideas initially created by individual band members figure in the new compositions. On “Corteza”, Zenón based the melody on a Glawischnig’s bass solo first heard on Esta Plena. “Entre las Raíces” started with a Luis Perdomo piano solo on his album Awareness, while “Las Ramas” takes its starting point from figures that drummer Henry Cole has developed over the years that include his Afrobeat Collective album Roots Before Branches.
I ask Zenón if it’s fair to say that Típico is a more purely musical record. “There definitely isn’t a grand concept on this record. I wanted to do something that was more reflective of our experience as a band. If there’s a concept at all, it’s modern music written for a specific group of players that have developed a language together that we use to communicate with each other and create something that we can communicate to a listener.”
The idea of communicating to a listener interests me. Zenón’s music is quite intricate and carefully planned, but as a listener I’m not thinking about complex time signatures or harmonic cadences. If anything, music provokes a human response, be it pleasure, thoughtfulness, serenity, etc. I tell Zenón this and ask him to comment on the dynamic between composer, player and listener.
“When I’m putting music together, I’m trying to do it out of a place of truth and an honest representation of who I am. So it really needs to be ‘me’. A lot of things that we do start as ideas or systems or exercises, technical things, but then you want to put that in a context where it relates to a listener. There’s a balance needed between an intellectual level and a more human, sentimental point of view if it’s going to reach someone else besides us. My process is a slow one of putting together various ideas and conceptual things, but then I look for ways to add elements to the mix so I can communicate to other people. “
The ‘típico’ of Típico is this culture that exists within the Miguel Zenón Quartet, and not a reference to a geographical region. The compositions themselves have their origin in Zenón’s experience as both an observer and participant in this culture, with few obvious outside points of reference. There are sonic moments that jump out at me: The studio layering of multiple saxophone and bass lines that open “Ciclo”; a simple and very human whistle that opens the increasingly complex variations of “Las Ramas”; 30 seconds or so of in the pocket vamping from drummer Henry Cole in “Corteza”; the delicate intro to “Cantor”.
None of these compositions are likely to bring to mind Latin music. There are, however, two tracks that do conjure this feeling, one deliberately and the other, I believe, naturally flowing out of Zenón’s Puerto Rican heritage.
The lovely melody at the heart of Sangre de mi Sangre (inspired by Zenón watching his daughter play in a park) has a lyrical beauty that sounds like it could have appeared on Alma Adentro. “I actually wrote lyrics to that melody when I first sketched it out. I was watching her play and thinking about our connection, then also thinking about my parents and how they probably felt about me when I was young,” Zenón continues, “In a sense, the version that appears on the record resulted from the same sort of process that I used on Alma Adentro – start with the melody of an existing song, then build a new arrangement from that. We’ve never played it with the lyrics, but I always think about them when I play it.”
The title track makes explicit reference to Latin folkloric music. “I was trying to capture a specific feeling of folklore, specifically this harmonic cadence that I recognize in a lot of the music I like from Latin America. I played around with this cadence a lot of different ways and combined it with different elements and rhythms. Even though it is an original composition, it evokes that folkloric sound when you hear it.”
I jokingly tell Zenón that the piano intro to “Típico” sounds like a montuno played upside down, but to my surprise he readily agrees. “That’s exactly what it is,” he says. “We’re trying to play around with it, sort of like it’s a mirage of something that’s there, but at the same time, not there. I was trying to emulate a feeling I get when I listen to that music, but not the actual music itself.”
Miguel Zenón is no stranger to Chicago. He was here twice in 2016. In the spring he presented Identities are Changeable in concert at the Logan Center and conducted a discussion and performance of its themes and sources at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. He returned to Chicago in early fall to perform Yo Soy La Tradición, a world premiere work for saxophone and string quartet, at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Miguel Zenón Quartet, however, hasn’t been at the intimate confines of the Jazz Showcase since 2015. When I spoke to Zenón prior to that appearance, he said, “I feel honored that we have become part of the musical family at the Jazz Showcase for so many years now. (Showcase owners) Joe and Wayne (Segal) have a long history of supporting younger bandleaders, especially Latin American musicians such as Danilo Pérez and David Sánchez, both of whom have already become such an integral part of the history of the club. I look forward to performing at this great venue for many years to come.”
Better now than later.
Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase March 9-12. Shows at 8 & 10pm plus 4pm all ages matinee on Sunday. Info and advance tickets at jazzshowcase.com.
“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
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 conBuya with special guest bomba maestroLeró 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.
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 BuyaJuly 25 in Blackhawk Park and Iré Elese AbureAugust 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.
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.
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.
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 congueroCandido Camero with Candido himself.
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 ShowcaseJune 16-19.
Triple Threat! Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta with funk/soul/reggae band Fatbook and global jazz beatmaster Makaya McCraven at Martyrs June 17.
Jazz is, at its best, ever evolving and in the moment. You need to bring a ton of skill and creativity to the table, but once the meal is served, the conversation really begins, elevating what was notes and words on paper into the realm of the spirit.
That’s the context in which I caught the March 24th performance of the Roy McGrath Quintet’s work in progress, Julia al Son de Jazz, at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.
The suite of original (with one exception.. more on that later) Latin jazz compositions take their inspiration from the life and poetry of Puerto Rican activist and poet Julia de Burgos. The idea was first commissioned by SRBCC last summer for an outdoor performance at the park named after de Burgos that’s part of The 606, an urban trail that stretches for a few miles through a handful of Chicago neighborhoods, reaching Hermosa at its western end. Saxophonist McGrath, seizing the opportunity, immediately starting writing new songs instead of falling back on standards and familiar tunes. A crack assemblage of Chicago’s top Latin jazz musicians was quickly put together and actress Rossanna Rodriguez was tapped to recite de Burgos’ poetry.
That initial project took place on a sunny fall Saturday, and though promoted ahead of time, it served more as an unexpected and delightful curiosity to people strolling, biking and rollerblading the trail. That could have been the end of it, but McGrath, it turns out, was only getting started.
He continued writing over the winter and workshopped a version of the project at Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant and intimate music venue, in early February. In that informal performance, McGrath himself handled the poetry, and, um, he’s not a bad reader for a saxophone player. Still, you could hear new ideas and arrangements continue to be fleshed out. McGrath had already agreed to present Julia al Son de Jazz at SRBCC in March, and he needed to work things out in front of an audience, which is essential for jazz. The audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t.
Armed with what he learned at Sabor a Café, he put together the band for last week’s performance, which included pianist Edwin Sanchez, drummer Jean-Christophe Leroy, bassist Freddy Quintero and congueroVictor Junito. And, thankfully, actress and writer Veronica Rodriguez Gotay handling the poetry recitatives.
A quick word about Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center: It’s an absolute gem. In addition to providing a full slate of cultural and after-school programs for the neighborhood and wider Chicago community, the space itself is gorgeous in a funky, loft inspired way: Exposed brick walls covered with Puerto Rican art, groovy mid-century modern furniture, a nice antique bar off to one side, and great sight lines for its large stage. One of their youth programs is the Arawak’Opia dance and music ensemble, and these bright and talented kids performed a short set before McGrath took the stage.
Julia al Son de Jazz now opens with a solo recitation of a de Burgos poem, Rio Grande de Loiza, carefully setting the tone for what is to come. The band then kicks into a mid-tempo groove with a gentle keyboard flourish, supporting an original English language poem by Abner Bardeguez that honors Julie de Burgos (sort of a mini-biography/introduction). McGrath pays close attention to his band, directing them even as he plays. The saxophonist is well on his way to becoming a respected player in jazz, equally adept in straight-ahead as well as Latin idioms. I caught him last January covering John Coltrane’s Blue Train in its entirety, and he and his straight-ahead ensemble did a great job honoring ‘Trane’s spirit. McGrath takes chances and goes to inventive places with his horn.
Roy McGrath was born and raised in Puerto Rico, yet inspired to pursue jazz by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He brings his boricua heritage to his writing, but jazz is the primary language. Various strains of folkloric and popular Puerto Rican sounds are interwoven into his Julia compositions, never more apparent than when he invited Arawak’Opia to join the band to add a solid bomba foundation to the introduction to one of the songs. They nailed it.
The rhythm and cadence of Julia de Burgos’s poetry inspire as well, and it is very apparent that the music is fully integrated into the words and vice-versa. This isn’t poetry with jazz, but poetry and voice as one more essential instrument in a cohesive ensemble arrangement.
The one tune not written by McGrath was Rafael Hernández’ Los Carreteros, which he introduced by saying he learned it in choir long before he ever picked up a saxophone. But, like Miguel Zenón on his Puerto Rican songbook album AlmaAdentro, McGrath put his own writing and arranging skills to work in adapting it for de Burgos’ poetry.
Julia al Son de Jazz is still a work in progress. The Chicago Park District will be presenting it three more times around the city this summer, and each performance will come with much valued rehearsal time. As with the Sabor a Café performance, McGrath will take what he learned at SRBCC to continue development with the eventual aim of recording it for an album.
I’ll be in the park, and I’ll be first in line to buy the album when it comes out.
All photos by Don Macica
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.
Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.
By Don Macica –
At some point in the summer of 2015, Roy McGrath’s name became ubiquitous, so much so that I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?”
First, I noticed that his quintet was performing at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival. A few weeks after that, I was having lunch with the owner of Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant that presents live music on weekends. “Roy McGrath, man, ooo, you gotta hear him.” I finally heard him in early September when he joined the groove-jazz backing band of Puerto Rican rapper Siete Nueve at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. A week later I caught him backing up master percussionist Michael Spiro at Sabor a Café, and a week after that I unexpectedly stumbled across him in a comparsa de plena as part of the Chicago World Music Festival. He led a Latin jazz ensemble in a project that matched original music to poetry a week later, and shortly after that I learned he was taking his straight-ahead quartet, with whom he had recorded Martha, an excellent CD of original compositions (and a couple of well chosen covers), on a month-long tour of Mexico.
And then there was this mystery: How could a 6’2” white guy with the name McGrath be a Puerto Rican? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so when he returned from Mexico we made arrangements to meet for coffee, which was remarkably easy to do because it turned out we were neighbors.
“When I was around 15 and in high school, a friend gave me her father’s saxophone because she heard me say that I wanted to play one. It supposedly belonged to a member of El Gran Combo, who gave it to her father, and it was in horrible shape, really beat up. Two weeks later, I was playing a gig in front of 5,000 people at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.”
McGrath pauses, no doubt reading the incredulity on my face. “Oh. Well, I had a friend who had a reggae band, and they were opening up for Israel Vibration. My friend wanted horns in this gig because Israel Vibration had horns in their band. I sounded terrible, and I did for a long time.”
He continues, “A couple of weeks later I went to the San Juan Borders store and bought two CDs out of their bargain bin: John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. That was it. I knew I wanted to play jazz.”
McGrath had a friend who played guitar and they formed a quartet which almost immediately scored a gig making $50 a week. He was already a working jazz musician, learning and playing the standards.
Things changed less than a year later. “I was in a bad car accident when I was 16, and that experience really made me reflect and get serious about playing. I replaced the beat up horn with a new one.”
I should point out that while McGrath is serious about his work ethic, he is more modest, even critical, of his talent. I should also point out that, a little more than a year after first picking up a horn, McGrath was offered a 3/4 scholarship by Loyola University in New Orleans to study music.
“Yeah, New Orleans,” McGrath says. “I was offered scholarships to a few schools, but I wanted to study jazz. Of course I picked New Orleans.”
McGrath completed his undergraduate work in three years, but hung around the Crescent City for two more, soaking up culture and seeking knowledge. “I loved New Orleans. It felt like home. It was hot, so that felt right. The traditions there are similar to the Caribbean. People say ‘Hi’ to you on the street, and you could become friends just like that. It was also musically similar to Puerto Rico in the way that music is heard everywhere. They blast jazz like we blast salsa.”
And, of course, he was working as often as he could, playing in brass bands, jazz bands, funk bands. “Never turn down a gig,” he says. “You’ll always learn something.”
After five years in New Orleans, McGrath arrived in Chicago in 2012 to continue his studies at Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. “It was great. Like, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is on the faculty there! I studied directly with Victor Goines, who heads up the jazz department.” He recorded Martha a few months later with a quartet formed with fellow Northwestern grads.
I ask him why he remained here after graduation instead of moving to, say, New York. “Chicago, man. What a great music city. The jazz scene here is epic. There are so many good players. Some of the best in the world are here. The salsa scene is amazing as well. There’s a brass band and funk scene, even reggae. Everything’s here! Plus, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans, so I don’t miss my culture. If I’m homesick, I can just go down to La Bomba for dinner.”
His ‘never turn down a gig’ work ethic remains strong. On the morning we met, he had just returned from an out of state gig with a merengue band. “Merengue is hard, man, all these rapid, percussive runs. Not at all like jazz or salsa. I learned a few things.”
McGrath has another habit that influences his growth as a musician. He is completely unafraid to seek out established musicians he admires and talk to them. “It’s like playing all the different kinds of music, but in addition to practical knowledge, you might learn something spiritual or cultural from their experiences, and that’s valuable too.”
The saxophonist has two projects as a leader coming up in the near future. First, he’ll lead a straight-ahead sextet in January performing what, for him, was a seminal jazz influence—the entire John Coltrane Blue Train album. “We’re in pretty intense rehearsals right now, because I want to honor ‘Trane, not copy him.” The performance is presented by the Jazz Record Art Collective, a monthly series at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, and visual artist Sarah Mueller will paint as McGrath’s sextet plays.
The other is a further extension of the Latin jazz project he first created last fall for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and The 606 called Julia al Son de Jazz, in which original compositions are performed with one or possibly two poets reciting the words of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. “I’m trying to get two voices, one female and the other male, so I can arrange the tonal quality like I would with different horns.” Sabor a Café is presenting the project in February.
The two very different gigs are illustrative of McGrath’s artistic ambitions. “I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Latin’ musician because I consider myself primarily a straight-ahead player. At the same time, I’m Puerto Rican and my culture is invested in what I create. I really admire Miguel Zenón. He doesn’t play Latin jazz, but he came up playing in salsa bands and everything he’s done and learned is in his music.”
He hopes to study with Zenón sometime soon. “I feel that I’m finally ready. Before this, I would have been wasting his time.” McGrath’s modesty is on display once more, but if you’re keeping score, you’ll realize that he’s barely a decade out of high school and already possesses degrees from two of the best music schools in the country. He also makes a living in music, gigging in one band or another several nights a week in addition to leading two of his own. “Oh, yeah, I never want to go back to making pizzas or washing dishes.”
And, in case you’re still wondering about the name. “My father was a half Irish Mexican-American from Texas who moved to Puerto Rico, where he met my mom, who is German-American and was born in Thailand but grew up on the island, so she considers herself as boricua.” This fairly complex multi-cultural background perhaps offers a clue to McGrath’s artistic goals. Jazz itself is a confluence of cultures, rising as it did out of New Orleans, where the African Diaspora met and mingled with French, Spanish and other influences, including the ‘Latin tinge’ of the Caribbean. It is the United States’ great gift to the rest of the world, and McGrath is determined to take his music there. “Besides the Mexican tour, I’ve already played in China and I want to go back soon.”
I hope he continues to call Chicago home for a long time to come.
John Coltrane’s Blue Train by the Roy McGrath Sextet – Wednesday, January 20, 9pm at the Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St, Chicago. jazzrecordartcollective.com
Julia al Son de Jazz with The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet – Friday, February 12, 9pm at Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago. No cover, but reservations are recommended. saboracaferestaurant.com
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.
Two emerging artists of Caribbean heritage take divergent paths to making their mark on jazz.
By Don Macica
A pair of terrific Latin jazz albums were released last fall that I meant to review for Agúzate, but never quite got around to because of the high level of activity on Chicago’s Afro-Latin scene. The parade of local and visiting artists took much of my focus and tended to set the agenda for what I was covering. Having said that, though, both of these albums were never very far from my iPod rotation, and they’re still there today. So, before 2015 slips into the haze of history (and Chicago’s scene heats up again), I thought you might want to know about them.
Both Oscar Perez and Carlos Henriquez are New Yorkers, Perez from a Cuban family growing up in Queens and Henriquez a Bronx-born Nuyorican. And both, at this point, have been professional musicians for well over 15 years, although the path they each took to get to this point in their respective careers is quite different. Pianist Perez released his first album, Nuevo Comienzo, back in 2007. His new album, Prepare a Place for Me, is his third, and with it he continues to develop a style in which his Cuban roots are present, but generally not deployed as obvious signifiers. Henriquez, by contrast, spent the last 15 or so years as a sideman, primarily as the bassist in Wynton Marsalis’ Septet as well as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Bronx Pyramid is his first album as a leader. With his impeccable jazz bona fides firmly in hand, Henriquez used his debut to fully embrace Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms.
Oscar Perez studied with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, and it shows in his approach to composing and playing. If you listen to Danilo’s early CDs, they have a more typical Latin jazz structure and feel, but since then, he’s charted a highly individualistic course, and Oscar Perez is on a similar trajectory. He shows his hand early, opening Prepare a Place for Me with a straight-ahead rendering of a tune named Just Everything, a song that he first recorded close to 10 years ago in a bolero style under the Spanish title Solamente Todo. He follows that up with the most Latin sounding track on the album, a Cuban-inflected take on Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight, perhaps paying tribute to his mentor Danilo Pérez, who recorded the same tune in an entirely different manner on his breakthrough album Panamonk in 1996.
Headin’ Over is the perfect soundtrack for a classy stroll through Manhattan, while Snake Charmer generates heat with a tune as twisty as it’s namesake lizard. By and large, though, Prepare a Place for Me simmers, a primarily piano-bass-drums affair augmented by the superbly expressive alto sax of Bruce Williams. At times, the album reminds me of the more introspective work of Miguel Zenón (and by extension his pianist Luis Perdomo), a musician that eschews the category of ‘Latin jazz’ in favor of a broader jazz approach that is nonetheless profoundly shaped by his Puerto Rican heritage.
There’s one other standard on the album, an exquisite and intricate rendering of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. It’s followed by the title track in a manner that almost suggests a suite. Things get a bit livelier for the Brazil-tinged Mushroom City before concluding with the elegiac Song for Ofelia, which Perez wrote in honor of his grandmother.
Carlos Henriquez proudly stamps his debut with the soul, sound and culture of his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and Bronx roots. After years of being a sideman on something like 50 straight ahead, pop, Latin jazz and salsa projects, not to mention his fifteen plus years with Wynton Marsalis, it goes without saying that his bass playing is superb. I first heard Henriquez’s quintet when he opened for Eddie Palmieri exactly a year ago at Symphony Center, and their set was good enough for me to briefly forget I was there to see el maestro. On Bronx Pyramid, Henriquez channels his playing and composing into a convincingly personal statement of identity.
The title track features the Cuban batá drumming of guest percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Chuchfrito is an appropriately greasy riff on Latin boogaloo. Descarga Entre Amigos is just that, an infectious salsa jam that features Rubén Blades on vocals. Joshua’s Dream is a gorgeous bolero that Henriquez wrote for his young son. Al Fin Te Vin is a charming danzón conceived as a duet for bowed bass and trumpet.
The album continues in this vein, a musical tour of Latin America (or perhaps simply the Bronx) touching on bomba, guaracha, rumba and more. There are a couple of relatively straight ahead tunes as well, including the lovely ballad Nilda, written in honor of Henriquez’s mom, and the hard swinging Eye of the Gemini, a “bonus track” that likely earns its designation because it didn’t quite fit the album’s themes, but was too good to leave off.
Two New Yorkers of Caribbean descent, two distinct approaches to Latin jazz, both producing deeply felt albums that reveal more with every listen. So, quick, before Chicago gets too busy again: Check them out.
Oscar Perez, Prepare a Place for Me (Myna Records)
Carlos Henriquez, The Bronx Pyramid (Blue Engine)
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.