Cuban jazz piano takes over Chicago

Roberto Fonseca, Omar Sosa, and Harold Lopéz-Nussa bring an abundance of tradition and innovation to Chicago in March & April

By Don Macica

It’s probably just a coincidence. Artists plan their tour schedules far in advance. If you are touring North America, Chicago can be counted on to host a performance. Somehow, though, Chicago gets to experience three of the current crop of fine Cuban jazz pianists in the space of a mere four weeks. Each is about a decade apart in age, leading to intriguing comparisons of influence and approach.

A high standard was set this past Sunday night when Roberto Fonseca, who sits in the middle of this age range, brought his trio to the Old Town School of Folk Music’s original location on Armitage Avenue. Fonseca’s career has run on parallel tracks for the past two decades. On the one hand, he’s a highly innovative composer/pianist who freely mixes in elements like classical music, hip hop, R&B, sampling, and jazz fusion into an Afro-Latin framework and is also known for his collaborations with artists like Malian singer/songwriter Fatoumata Diawara.

On the other, his deep reverence for Cuban tradition and the musicians who came before led to him becoming the pianist for Buena Vista Social Club and a producer/musical director for the late Ibrahim Ferrer and the evergreen Cuban diva Omara Portuondo. In fact, the last two times I saw Fonseca in Chicago he was leading Portuondo’s band and sensitively injecting modern touches into her classic repertoire.


His own trio hasn’t, to my knowledge, been here since a memorable 2014 performance at the now-shuttered Mayne Stage. It was with the highest expectations, then, that I anticipated the Old Town School show. You know those customer service surveys you are endlessly asked to take? If I had one for this show, it would easily rate “Exceeded Expectations.” As both a musician and arranger, Fonseca has done what many prodigies do when they get a bit older: pare back the virtuosic flights a bit and concentrate on the song.

Fonseca primarily drew from his most recent album Yesun (a contraction of two Yoruban orishas, Yemaya and Oshún, goddesses of the sea and rivers respectively). His piano playing was extraordinary, showing deep command yet never showing off. He gave plenty of room to his long-time bassist Yandy Martínez to shine as well, who alternated between electric bass guitar and acoustic double bass according to the song’s need. Fonseca mainly confined himself to expressive grand piano but mixed in electronic sounds from a sampler before finally busting loose with funky Stevie Wonder-style clavinet on “Cadenas.” “Kachuca” was (at least this was how I read it) a tribute to both Cachao and Chucho Valdes and included a jaw-dropping double bass solo by Martínez and finished with an audience sing-along of the coro “de Cuba yo soy”.

Cuban soul and ritmo lay at the foundation of every tune and was explicitly brought forward through interpretations of two classics, “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Besame Mucho.” While it can sometimes feel as though there is some unwritten law that states that if you are Cuban you must play a bolero, Fonseca’s arrangements and the band’s virtuosity found freshness in both tunes.

One Cuban pianist that generally does not follow this unwritten law is Omar Sosa. Born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

A hallmark of Sosa’a highly personal approach is collaboration. Each album and subsequent tour feature a new one, although if a project is particularly rewarding there might be a sequel somewhere down the line. Transparent Water, his album with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, brought him to the Old Town School for a transcendent show exactly a year ago. By then, though, he had already recorded a new duo project, Aguas, with Cuban singer and violinist Yilian Cañizares, a classically trained musician who completed her formal education at Switzerland’s Conservatoire de Fribourg. She was first drawn to jazz there, especially the French-Italian violinist Stéphane Grapelli. Like Sosa, she now makes her home in Europe.


Aguas is an album infused with Yoruban spirituality, indelible melodies, meditative interludes, passionate playing and Cañizares simply gorgeous voice. Both musicians are comfortable in the area of electronic sampling as well, lending subtle atmospheric and rhythmic touches. A certain longing inhabits every song, being as it is the reflections of two generations of Cubans living far from their island home. Like Fonseca’s Yesun, Aguas too is an offering to the orishas, specifically to Oshún, goddess of rivers and love.

Omar Sosa and Yilian Cañizares will bring their Aguas Trio tour to the Jazz Showcase March 13-15, preceded by a night of duets between Sosa and the wonderful Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles.

Unlike Sosa, Harold Lopéz-Nussa continues to make his home in Havana, although he maintains dual French-Cuban citizenship. It is not only his Cuban heritage that informs his music, but also the country’s present-day reality and his desire to share both with the world. His expansive 2016 album Un Viaje was released amidst the optimism that greeted President Obama’s visit to Cuba. The latest, Un Día Cualquiera, comes as the Trump administration’s tightening of restrictions and general xenophobia seek to isolate the island once again.


The Harold Lopéz-Nussa Trio comes to the Old Town School on Wednesday, April 8. Judging from the subtlety, swing, and power of Un Día Cualquiera, the performance could prove to be the equal of Fonseca’s show. Lopéz-Nussa is less inclined to stray far from the language of jazz to make his points, but it doesn’t make his music any less compelling. Whereas Un Viaje reached beyond Cuba in spirit, approach and guest artists, Un Día Cualquiera sticks to his working trio of Havana musicians as an almost defiant statement of Cubanismo, saying, in effect, this is us, this is how we live, this is who we are. There is a tribute to Bebo Valdés, two tunes written by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, another that incorporates Rafael Hernández’ Cumbanchero into its lightning-fast piano runs, and at least one tune inspired by Afro Cuban spiritual practice.

Witnessing the combined output of Roberto Fonseca, Omar Sosa, and Harold Lopéz-Nussa, it’s apparent that a Cuban piano tradition that stretches back over a century is in very good hands and continues to have a bright future. Chicago is lucky indeed to be able to experience all of them in such a compact time frame.

Omar Sosa – Gustavo Ovalles Duo
Jazz Showcase, Thursday, March 12. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

Omar Sosa Aguas Trio featuring Yilian Cañizares and Gustavo Ovalles
Jazz Showcase, Friday-Sunday March 13-15. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

Harold López-Nussa Trio
Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, April 8. Tickets at oldtownschool.org

Review: iLe opens her U.S. tour at Chicago’s Old Town School

By Omar Torres-Kortright, Photos by Charlie Billups

Last Saturday, February 8, iLe, the Latin Grammy-winning artistic persona of composer and singer Ileana Cabra, solidified her position as one of the most captivating and original music projects to come out of Puerto Rico in the last decade. Her Almadura Tour, which will visit 15 North American cities over the next month, had a dream start at Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mauer Hall in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

As always, the night offered an x-ray into the heart and soul of this highly committed artist. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, iLe invites the audience into a world inspired by the complex cultural and musical influences of her Caribbean identity. Every thought, every move, and every word had a purpose in this carefully-crafted, and highly personal artistic statement on the political and social struggles of her native Puerto Rico. Motivated and provoked by Hurricane María, her newest production provides context to the colonial status of Puerto Rico by delving deep into the island’s history with songs like Odio, inspired by the 1979 killings of two independentistas at Cerro Maravilla and Ñe, ñe, ñe; a clear dig at the island’s politicians using plena as its rhythmic driving force.

While many of iLe’s hits are made for the dancing public, I didn’t expect to see the audience standing from the first song to the last, creating a special bond with her Chicago fans that I had not witnessed in her previous visits. The intimate size and pristine acoustics of Mauer Hall allowed iLe to connect on a personal level with every one of the lucky 400+ music enthusiasts that filled the sold-out venue.

Ile’s performance included material from her Best New Artist Latin Grammy-winning Ilevitable (2016), as well as the multilayered and polyrhythmic 2020 Grammy Nominated Almadura (2019). Throughout the night she showcased the depth and range of her voice, capable of going from classic bolero in songs like Triángulo and Temes, to salsa (Te quiero con Bugalú and Déjame Decirte) and even Dominican palo in the closing song of the evening, the powerfully rhythmic La Curandera (The Healer). The healer, she explained before beginning the song, offers a deliberate pause to shake off bad energy and press the reset button… kind of like what many Puerto Ricans had to do after Hurricane María and, more recently, the January 2020 earthquakes.

ile’s performance showcased the talents of her swinging 9-piece band that combines an impressive mix of established and emerging talent from the Island of Enchantment, including musical director Ismael Cancel (drums and percussion), Bayoán Ríos (guitar), Adalberto Rosario (guitar), Jeren Guzmán (congas, percussion), Jonathan González (bass, percussion), Zacheaus Paul (keys, percussion), Jorge Echevarría (trombone), and Hommy Ramos (trombone). The impeccable sound was made possible thanks to the able hands and ears of Bobby Connelly-Nadal, who also came directly from Puerto Rico to nurture the distinctive sonic elements that make up iLe’s artistic DNA.

It has been truly amazing to watch Ileana Cabra’s growth as an artist over the course of just a few years and two albums. The timelessness of her sound disregards fashion in order to convey something deeper and more lasting. It’s easy to imagine a very long and rewarding artistic career to come.

Omara Portuondo, El Último Beso at the Old Town School of Folk Music

By Don Macica

It’s been four years since the Buena Vista Social Club concluded their “Adiós” tour and almost three since we last saw Omara Portuondo in Chicago. So it was with a measure of both excitement and trepidation that I greeted the news that the legendary Cuban diva was returning to Chicago on May 1. Excitement, because unlike her 2016 concert at Symphony Center, she would be performing this time at the intimate and acoustically perfect Old Town School of Folk Music. Trepidation because the concert’s title was “El Último Beso (The Last Kiss)”. Could she, at the age of 88, finally be retiring? In an interview that I did with her for Agúzate in October 2016, she stated flatly “Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Whether or not we ever get to see Omara Portuondo again in Chicago is unknown, so this might be our last kiss. But as she makes clear in this new interview, it is certainly not hers. One thing is for sure. You will want to be at the Old Town School on May 1 when they present “Omara es Cuba – El Último Beso”.

photos by Johann Sauty

DM – Last night I heard someone refer to the Chicago concert as being part of your farewell tour, and, of course, “El Último Beso” is in the title. Say it isn’t so!

OP – Well, I’m not retiring, the Last Kiss is my last worldwide tour, which will take a couple of years and will visit a lot of countries. But I will keep performing, probably not on long worldwide tours, but music is my life!

DM – I understand that this tour will run until 2020 and truly be global, with stops in Asia, Europe and South America as well as North America, and then ends up back home in Cuba. Does the worldwide popularity of Cuban music surprise you?

OP – That’s correct; I’m really looking forward this tour. It’s going to be really special for me. I’m not surprised by the connection Cuban music has. This is because our music has so many influences, tradition and connects very well with the audience. 

DM – I feel that we are incredibly lucky that you are mostly playing smaller, intimate theaters and clubs on this tour, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing you in larger concert halls. Was this a deliberate choice?

OP – I’m happy performing, true though that on clubs the connection is very close and intimate. It’s priceless to see the audience reaction, their smiles and dance with them. My heart is full of joy to meet again with my American fans. 

DM – You are once again being supported by Roberto Fonseca and his band. Fonseca is that rare musician who completely understands the core qualities of classic Cuban music yet is also strikingly adventurous and globally attuned in some of his own work. What has it been like working with him for the past several years?

OP – He is a unique human being. So gifted and talented. That’s our musical heritage and education, young musicians have a profound respect for our musical tradition but at the same time they are open to new sounds and influences. My connection with Robertico is simply beautiful. His personal way to perform is so unique, I feel dancing when singing with him. 

DM – As I understand it, the repertoire on this tour will focus on classics, including songs from the Buena Vista era. Can we expect any surprises?

OP – Oh, definitely yes. I’m listening to all my albums, talking with the musicians that will be with me in this tour and I’m putting my heart to get a unique set list that will be unforgettable! But it’s a surprise, so you will have to come and see it!

Omara Portuondo, Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, May 1, 8 PM – oldtownschool.org

Concert Preview: Salsa and Latin jazz veteran Jerry Medina y La Banda

– By Don Macica –

For every star of salsa music, there are a dozen of unsung heroes that, despite their immense talents, are lesser known, providing the necessary support for the star to shine. Quick: How many salsa horn players can you name? Beyond Willie Colón and those who are primarily known as Latin jazz musicians, you are likely to have to think for a while. But a salsa song without horns would feel empty, and the same goes for the lead vocalists and most certainly the coro singers.

Jerry Medina is all three: A dynamic lead vocalist, expert coro singer and talented trumpet player. With the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda earlier this decade, he became a terrific bandleader as well.  His name might not immediately come to mind, but a deep perusal of your record collection will find him turning up all over the place. He’s appeared on something like 50 albums since 1981 (up to and including the recent Grammy-nominated Fase Dos by Juan Pablo Diaz), including releases by Ismael Miranda, José “El Canario” Alberto, Oscar d’Leon, Cheo Feliciano and more.  He has a pair of Grammy Awards on his shelf for Palmieri’s 1987 album The Truth / La Verdad and the 2000 collaboration between Palmieri & Tito Puente, Masterpiece. When the stars of Fania regrouped for world tours in the 1980s and 90s, Medina was there with them.

Medina released a couple of solo albums in the 1980s, but a more lasting contribution came as a member of Batacumbele, a groundbreaking and deeply rooted Afro-Caribbean  ensemble where he both played trumpet and sang lead. The group is notable for being entirely Puerto Rican at a time when people were looking to Cuba for new sounds, but one listen reveals a sprawling collective that more than held their own with their Cuban counterparts like Irakere.

Medina was in the studio throughout the 90s and into the new millennium providing support for many of the big crossover Latin records of that decade, but he always kept one foot in the world of improvisational and folkloric music with groups like Descarga Boricua, bomba legends Hermanos Ayala and Grupo Afro Boricua.

He came into his own as a bandleader and lead singer in the 2000s with the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda. The group bridges Caribbean folklore and Latin jazz in an updated version of Batacumbele’s template, and even flexes some funk & hip-hop chops. They made an electrifying appearance at the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in March 2014. In 2015 Medina and La Banda released A Mi Manera, which included the talents of Giovanni Hidalgo, Paoli Mejías, Efraín Toro, Pablo Rosario, Luisito Marín, Prodigio Claudio, and Ricardo Pons.

A Mi Manera is a stylistically diverse collection of songs that ranges from jazzy big band sounds (complete with scatted vocals) to driving timba to a radical reworking of the Rafael Hernandez classic Capullito de Alelí. The title track is not,thankfully, a cover of the Paul Anka chestnut but an original composition that is Medina’s manifesto for the group. You can hear a little bit of lots of stuff in it: A cuatro solo for the traditionalists, a rap, some scratching, a swinging horn chart, funk bass, Medina’s scatting and a snaky, shifting rhythm pattern.  This is indeed Medina’s way.

It’s a tribute to Medina’s talent, energy and spirit that, after 35+ years in the business, he can come up with something this fresh and contemporary that still manages to be an extension of the great salsa records that he’s contributed to over the years. In the process, he honors Puerto Rican creativity, culture and music.

Jerry Medina y La Banda
Wednesday, August 29, 8:30pm: Old Town School of Folk Music oldtownschool.org
Thursday, August 30, 7:30pm: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center srbcc.org
Both shows are free with a suggested $10 donation

Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo return to Chicago

– By Don Macica –

One of the highlights of last year’s World Music Festival Chicago simply did not get heard by enough people, even with two shows. But that’s OK. One of the roles of the fest has always been to introduce artists to Chicago for the first time, paving the way for a return visit. Fortunately, Chicago didn’t have to wait long for the return of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo.

The group is again doing two shows, both presentations of the Extended Play partnership between the Old Town School of Folk Music and Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. They’ll be joined at SRBCC on Saturday 3/24 by Chicago’s Bomba con Buya for the center’s annual Abolition of Slavery in Puerto Rico celebration, and the Old Town School will present them Sunday 3/25. The school is offering an Afro-Venezuelan Dance Workshop that Sunday afternoon as well.

All Afro-Latin music shares a common root which is, of course, Africa. The reasons for the considerable variances in sound and rhythm are multiple. First, Africa is a continent, not a country. The kidnapping of African people for the slave trade drew from seven distinct cultural regions over several centuries. Secondly, there were five European powers colonizing the Americas, each with their own customs and traditions. Lastly, you had the influences of whatever indigenous traditions survived the initial colonization, before the slave trade began in earnest.

All of which is to say that, when I first heard the music of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo, it was both familiar and different. El Clavo, it should be noted, is a village in Venezuela, not a variation on the clave rhythm that is at the center of Afro-Cuban music. Like the town of San Basilio in neighboring Colombia, El Clavo was founded by escaped slaves. The residents trace their heritage back to what is now Senegal in West Africa. Because of this, you can hear some of the Senegalese sabar style of drumming in La Parranda El Clavo’s music. But you’ll also hear the call and response vocals of Cuban rumba and Puerto Rican bomba, originating in Central Africa. And where sabar almost exclusively uses high pitched drums rapidly hit with sticks as well as hands, La Parranda El Clavo’s rhythms also have a deeper bottom that supplies a pulse.

And then there is Machado herself, who cites Cuba’s Celia Cruz, Colombia’s Totó La Momposina and Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora as influences on her powerful voice.

I thought I heard similarities to bomba when listening to the group at last year’s World Music Fest. The SRBCC show with Bomba con Buya will put that theory to the test, and I’m hoping the groups will play at least one song together. Regardless of whether or not that happens, I’ll be at both shows again this year, and might even bring my two left feet to the dance workshop.
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Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo
Saturday, March 24, 7:30PM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Info &   tickets…
Sunday, March 25, 7:00PM, Old Town School of Folk Music. Info & tickets…

Afro-Venezuelan Dance Workshop with La Parranda El Clavo
Sunday, March 25, 1:00PM, Old Town School of Folk Music. Info & tickets…

The Spirit Flows: Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita’s Transparent Water

– by Don Macica –

There’s little chance that, on encountering him for the first time, you would mistakenly guess that Omar Sosa is anything other than Cuban. Dressed in white, he’s a practicing santero whose personal Orisha is Obatala, the deity of purity, wisdom and the light of consciousness.  He often begins his performances with a lighted candle which he then extinguishes, wafting the dissipating smoke over his piano as something of a blessing to the instrument. In the santería faith, music and ceremony are one.

Yet Sosa is very much a global citizen. Though born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area (where he established himself as a major force on the local Latin jazz scene) and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

Transparent Water, his collaboration with Senegalese musician Seckou Keita that he’ll bring to the Old Town School of Folk Music on March 15, isn’t even his newest album. That would be Es:sensual, recorded with Germany’s NDR Bigband and arranged by the legendary Brazilian producer Jaques Morelenbaum. Both albums are the product of Sosa’s globetrotting ways and ceaseless artistic curiosity, as is yet another already recorded album that will be released this September. (More on that below.)

Fortunately for Chicago, Sosa has found time in his schedule to put together a tour for Transparent Water with kora player Keita and a frequent collaborator, Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalle. As you might imagine from the title, Transparent Water is a meditative invocation of the flowing of the human spirit, and the Old Town School’s flawless acoustics and reverent audiences are a perfect match. (It was at OTS where I first heard Omar Sosa live almost 15 years ago, and that indelible performance remains my favorite.)

I reached out to Omar Sosa with a few questions about the album and the creative spirit that brought it into existence.

DM: The last time you visited Chicago, it was on the heels of your album ilé with your Quarteto AfroCubano. And while that album was billed as a “homecoming” because it celebrated your Cuban roots, it was anything but inward looking or strictly bound to Cuba. Now, with Transparent Water, you are directly engaging with Africa in the form of kora player Seckou Keita and extending that to Japan by utilizing the koto and China with the sheng and bawu.  What are you looking for in these sounds and collaborations?

OS: I first heard and played with Seckou Keita in London in March 2012, when I was invited by drummer Marque Gilmore to a special show he was producing called Exhibiton of Sound.  I was completely captivated by Seckou’s kora playing – it’s propulsive but gentle rhythmic qualities, its sophisticated but accessible melodic and harmonic elements.  I felt a really good chemistry with Seckou that night, so I was inspired to invite him to join me for a recording project.  About a year later, we gathered at a studio in Osnabrück, Germany and shared song ideas and co-created and prepared the music we recorded that same week.

Just prior to meeting Seckou in Germany, I had been invited to participate in a multi-artist residency in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, curated by Spanish bagpipe player Christina Pato.  One of the musicians there was Wu Tong from Beijing, who plays a traditional flute-like instrument from China called the sheng.  Again, I was captivated, and the extraordinary bending sounds of the sheng stayed in my head and I started hearing them mix with the recordings that Seckou and I made.

As fortune would have it, I was invited to a festival in Shanghai in September of 2013 with my Quarteto AfroCubano, and was able to arrange to travel to Beijing after the show and visit with Wu Tong in his home studio and record tracks that we used in the mixing of the basic tracks with Seckou, and Wu Tong and I recorded a few new pieces as well.

At some point during this process, I saw a show in Paris of the Vietnamese guitarist, Nguyen Le, who has long been a hero of mine.  In his ensemble was Mieko Miyazaki, the koto player from Japan, and yet again, I was captivated by her sound and expressiveness.  As I was planning to mix the Transparent Water tracks in Paris with my producer friend, Steve Argüelles, I was able to invite Mieko to come to Steve’s studio and contribute a few parts to the project.

So, to a large extent, I do not have a fully formed conception or vision of a musical project mapped out in advance.  I am open and susceptible to incorporating sounds into the creative process that I hear along the way.  It’s a matter of being flexible and curious about how various sounds can combine.

DM: Similarly, you’ve gone back to Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles multiple times. What is it about his playing that works with your approach to music?

OS: Gustavo’s exceptional musical sensitivity playing the folkloric percussion instruments from his homeland and the closeness of those instruments to their roots in Africa has always attracted me greatly.  He is a master with the maracas, and quitiplas, and culo’e puya.  And he’s such a swinging ensemble player, always listening carefully, and never trying to overplay, which can happen with drummers.  Gustavo will also be joining me on the touring portion of an upcoming project with Cuban violinist / vocalist, Yilian Cañizares, who lives in Switzerland.  Yilian and I have recorded a CD called Aguas which will be released in September this year.

DM: You’ve put out close to 30 albums is a little over 20 years. Why are you so prolific? Is there a common theme that runs through all of your projects?

OS: There is so much amazing music on the planet, and everywhere I go (upward of 100 shows on five continents a year) I’m inspired by the new sounds and new instruments I encounter, often in traditional and folkloric contexts.  So many of these sounds inspire me to want to create new music!  So there really isn’t a common theme involved, except the expression of my own musical roots in the ritual melodic and rhythmic elements of African music that came to Cuba on the slave ships.
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Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita, Transparent Water | Old Town School of Folk Music, Thursday, March 15. Tickets at oldtownschool.org.

Concert Review: Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band

| By Don Macica | Photos by Charlie Billups –

Eddie Palmieri brought what was, for the celebrated salsa orchestra leader and NEA Jazz Master, a smallish ensemble with him to the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday night, but the joyful noise that they made together was a testament to the power of Eddie’s playing, composing and arranging skills. When you add in the charm and personality that El Maestro carries with him always, you have the recipe for a truly special night. Mixing references to both family and his beloved Puerto Rico into the between songs commentary, Eddie engaged the audience emotionally as well as musically.

The evening opened with a solo piano meditation on Palmieri’s late wife, weaving together two compositions, Mi Novia and Life, together in her honor. From there on, though, it was time for el ritmo.


As Eddie said in last week’s Agúzate interview, the man absolutely refuses to indulge in mediocrity. He reiterated this at the show, noting that the harmonic complexities of jazz wed to the African derived rhythms of Cuban drumming are pretty much everything that’s worth doing musically. And, of course, he had a band with him that was spectacular at both.

The all-Puerto Rico rhythm section of bassist Rubén Rodriguez, timbalero Camilo Molina, conguero Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero and El Rumbero del Piano himself absolutely killed it all night long. Meanwhile, Alex Norris’ trumpet and Louis Fouché’s alto sax burned with fire and grace.


In addition to selections from his latest album Sabiduria, the group went back to the 70s several times for recasts of classic Palmieri tunes like La Libertad Logico, Puerto Rico and Chocolate Ice Cream (written with the great Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros). Each was introduced with an anecdote from Palmieri’s life about the origins of the song. Some were humorous. Others addressed the tragic situation of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria but also the strength, resilience and pride of the Puerto Rican people, even suggesting that it was time for the island to resume its pre-conquest name of Borikén.


All in all, it was an extraordinary night. Today, as I go back and listen to classic records like Vamanos Pa’l Monte and Sentido, I’ll also have photographer Charlie Billups‘ images from the concert to remind me of just how extraordinary it was.




 

Eddie Palmieri: 80 Years and Growing

By Don Macica –

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 / Wisdom

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.

DMSabiduria 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?

EPSabiduria, 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!
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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

Extended Play: Crossing neighborhood borders with a world of music

Herencia de Timbiquí

By Don Macica –

If you live in Chicago and experience live Latin and world music on a regular basis, chances are you know, or at least have seen, Mateo Mulcahy. If you recognize the name, it’s because you know he’s the guy who brings all the cool world music to the Old Town School of Folk Music, located in the city’s north side Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Unlike a commercial talent booker or promoter, though, Mulcahy has a broader mission. The Old Town School is a non-for-profit organization, and Mulcahy is its Director of Community Projects and Events. He’s leading a new initiative called Extended Play that launches on February 1 in partnership with institutions in two other parts of the city; The DuSable Museum of African American History on the south side in Hyde Park and Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa on the west side.

Mateo Mulcahy was born in Chicago. He has both Mexico and Ireland in his heritage and grew up in a bilingual household. He spent several years in St. Louis leading a salsa band, hosting a radio show, promoting live Latin and world music and even owning a nightclub. These various capacities allowed him to make connections with that city’s various ethnic communities and continually expand his network. At times he reproduced shows in St. Louis that originated at the Old Town School’s La Peña series. Upon returning to Chicago in 2006, he was hired by the School to take over La Peña, but his background of working with many diverse communities led to him also programming the School’s Afro-Folk series and being assigned the broader task of connecting the School to communities beyond its immediate geographical area and to create more diversity at the school itself.

Mateo Mulcahy

“We (the Old Town School) pull almost exclusively from a 20 block radius of the building,” Mulcahy tells me over coffee in the school’s main performance hall. “but we always have had an interest in expanding our reach into the south and west sides. Early on I took Afro-Folk out to the South Shore Cultural Center and we hoped to extend classes out there as well.”  That effort ran out of funding pretty quickly, and Mulcahy has been searching for a way ever since to do something similar.

The Old Town School’s reputation beyond Chicago is highly regarded. “I can’t tell you how many artists that I work with say that they wish their cities had something like the Old Town School. New York City, London, Memphis, it doesn’t matter,” says Mulcahy. “There might be programs there that do something similar, but their focus is usually narrower, aimed at a particular community. The Old Town School’s mission tries to reach out to all of Chicago’s communities. We are the largest community arts school in the country.”

Even so, Mulcahy recognizes that there is unequal distribution of arts activity and education in Chicago. “There’s our 20 block radius, but virtually 90% of the city’s arts organizations are either downtown or on the north side like us. Vast parts of the city get very little.”

Cooperation between the Old Town School and community partners is crucial. A recently created 2 person engagement department has made these citywide partnerships more feasible. Last year’s 77 Beats program sought to celebrate the music and food of Chicago’s 77 distinct neighborhoods by producing over 45 events throughout the city in everything from cultural centers to parks and festivals, often utilizing the resources and talent in those neighborhoods.

Extended Play, which will bring Afro-Latin artists to Chicago this year, is a further step in that direction. As its name implies, the series extends the School’s long-running World Music Wednesday to three days and two additional venues. “We need to partner with organizations in other parts of the city and not keep everything to ourselves over there,” he says, gesturing toward the darkened stage. “Correspondingly, it is a benefit for the artists who come a long way to perform in Chicago to get the opportunity to play more than once.” Like 77 Beats, Extended Play is funded by the Chicago Community Trust, who have in recent years begun to focus more on the city’s under served neighborhoods.

El Tuyero Ilustrado

The partner organization’s missions are crucial to the programming decisions as well. Artists are selected in close consultation with partner venues to ensure that they reflect the programming objectives and mission of all institutions. In the case of this year’s launch of Extended Play, the thread that connects the DuSable Museum and Segundo Ruiz Belvis is the African Diaspora. The initial artists that will perform include El Tuyero Ilustrado, who play joropo music from Venezuela, and Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí. Artists perform for three consecutive days. In keeping with outreach goals, all concerts are free to the public.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I was able to get artists of this high caliber to launch this series,” Mulcahy says with a big smile. “Herencia de Timbiquí are superstars in Colombia, and El Tuyero Ilustrado are truly at the forefront of the joropo tuyero movement.”

Like a lot of Chicagoans, I first heard Herencia de Timbiquí at last year’s World Music Festival, and their show at Pritzker Pavilion was one of my personal fest high points. The 10-man ensemble mines a rich vein of traditional rhythms and instruments from Colombia’s Afro-Pacific region while modernizing it just enough to not sound like an anthropology lesson. They will be here in April.

El Tuyero Ilustrado, who kick off the series this Wednesday, are making their first appearance in Chicago. The duo consists of cuatro virtuoso Edward Ramírez and composer/singer/maraca player Rafa Pino. The project combines the joropo from the central region of Venezuela with original songwriting and uses the cuatro as a main instrument, rather than the more traditional arpa llanero.

Mulcahy discovered them at a music conference in Caracas and was totally blown away. “Venezuela has an incredibly diverse and rich musical offering,” says Mulcahy, “but joropo is the national music and the cuatro is definitely the national instrument. However, if you are going to replace a harp which has dozens of strings with a cuatro that has 4, it better be one incredible cuatro player. Edward Ramírez is at that level.”

Mulcahy and I end our conversation talking about Chicago’s world music community. “I’ve worked in other markets,” he says, “and I’m very happy to report that, in Chicago, the people who work on the cultural side of Latin and world music all get along and collaborate. It’s not a given that it works like that in other places. And working together enables us to get great artists to come to Chicago that individually we couldn’t afford.”

Extended Play works much the same way. It would simply not be possible to get El Tuyero Ilustrado or Herencia de Timbiquí to come all the way to Chicago for a single audience of a few hundred people. That makes us a very lucky city indeed.
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Extended Play: El Tuyero Ilustrado
Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday February 1 at 8:30pm. oldtownschool.org
DuSable Museum of African American History, Thursday February 2 at 7pm. dusablemuseum.org
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, Friday February 3 at 7:30pm. segundoruizbelvis.org

Extended Play: Herencia de Timbiquí

Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday April 19 at 8:30pm
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, Thursday April 20 at 7:30pm
DuSable Museum of African American History, Friday April 21 at 7pm

Appreciation: SRBCC’s 45th Anniversary Celebration

SRBCC music
Clockwise from upper left: Buya, Pirulo y la Tribu, Roy McGrath, Arawak’Opia

By Don Macica, Photos by Charlie Billups –

There was a moment midway through the evening when things got a little emotional. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright (full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also Agúzate’s founder) was talking about how, shortly after he first arrived in Chicago upon graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, the homesick young man began to seek out expressions of Puerto Rican culture in the city. He learned about SRBCC and showed up one day, where he was welcomed with open arms and, as he noted, “never asked for a penny.”

He took some percussion classes, but soon learned that “being a musician wasn’t exactly my calling”. Nonetheless, he stuck around and gradually deepened his involvement, eventually joining the organization’s board. Then, in early 2015, SRBCC found itself without a director. Torres-Kortright, by now a successful private sector executive, knew that his heart was with the organization and took a leap of faith to apply for the job.

Torres-Kortright voice wavered with emotion several times while relating this tale and that of his subsequent appointment. It only became more teary as he described the organization’s mission and the youth it serves. He mentioned the achievements of his tenure, but not in the sense of look what I did. Instead, it was more I can’t believe the incredible privilege that I’ve been granted.

The 45th Anniversary Gala for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the Old Town School of Folk Music was a time to pause and celebrate, and they did it in the best way possible: with music. As percussionist John Santos noted in a recent talk at SRBCC, “My music is who I am.” Such is the power of music in Afro-Latin life.

The program was sequenced in a way that traveled back & forth through time. First up was the SRBCC’s youth bomba ensemble, Arawak’Opia, whom the center will send to Puerto Rico in January to directly experience boricua culture and study with masters. They were quickly followed by Buya, Chicago’s (and perhaps the United States’) finest professional bomba ensemble, many of whom first learned how to play decades ago at SRBCC.

Torres-Kortright’s remarks followed, and then he introduced saxophonist Roy McGrath, a fiercely talented jazz musician born in Puerto Rico but now living in Chicago. McGrath designed and leads the Center’s Afro-Caribbean Youth Jazz Program, and his trio performed a version of Rafael Hernández’ Perfume de Gardenias that matched McGrath’s inventive improvisation to folkloric drumming in stunning fashion.

Francisco "Pirulo" Rosado and Omar Torres-Kortright
Francisco “Pirulo” Rosario and Omar Torres-Kortright

Finally, it was time for the headliner, whom Torres-Kortright personally recruited on a trip home earlier this year. Pirulo y la Tribu are without a doubt the most exciting salsa band on the island.  They smoothly incorporate Cuban son and other Afro-Caribbean sounds, but they are unapologetically committed to salsa as their foundation and means of expression. The group is led by timbalero Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado, a charismatic, dreadlocked, baseball cap outfitted singer who one could easily mistake for a rapper or reggaeton artist. His youthful 8-piece band, wearing matching Cangrejeros de Santurce Roberto Clemente t-shirts,  is salsa to the core, including a smokin’ horn section. Pirulo y la Tribu come hard, infusing the music with energy, attitude and, above all, crack musicianship. They filled the dance floor from the very first note, the joyous crowd singing every chorus and punctuating every call and response. I’d call them the future of salsa, but they are already here, tu sabes?

It was, in short, an incredible night. The concert over, it seemed no one wanted to go home. People filled the lobby, but even as they exited, they lingered on the sidewalk, not quite ready to let go of the magic.

Of course, there is no need to let go. Better to think of SRBCC’s past 45 years as the foundation for another 45 as a beacon of culture and community. There’s plenty of magic to come.