A Conversation with Melvis Santa

By Don Macica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melvis Santa and Ashedí

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

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

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.

Oscar-Perez

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.