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

By Don Macica –

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Roy McGrath Quintet with students of Arawak’Opia

Jazz is, at its best, ever evolving and in the moment. You need to bring a ton of skill and creativity to the table, but once the meal is served, the conversation really begins, elevating what was notes and words on paper into the realm of the spirit.

That’s the context in which I caught the March 24th performance of the Roy McGrath Quintet’s work in progress, Julia al Son de Jazz, at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.

The suite of original (with one exception.. more on that later) Latin jazz compositions take their inspiration from the life and poetry of Puerto Rican activist and poet Julia de Burgos. The idea was first commissioned by SRBCC last summer for an outdoor performance at the park named after de Burgos that’s part of The 606, an urban trail that stretches for a few miles through a handful of Chicago neighborhoods, reaching Hermosa at its western end. Saxophonist McGrath, seizing the opportunity, immediately starting writing new songs instead of falling back on standards and familiar tunes. A crack assemblage of Chicago’s top Latin jazz musicians was quickly put together and actress Rossanna Rodriguez was tapped to recite de Burgos’ poetry.

That initial project took place on a sunny fall Saturday, and though promoted ahead of time, it served more as an unexpected and delightful curiosity to people strolling, biking and rollerblading the trail. That could have been the end of it, but McGrath, it turns out, was only getting started.

He continued writing over the winter and workshopped a version of the project at Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant and intimate music venue, in early February. In that informal performance, McGrath himself handled the poetry, and, um, he’s not a bad reader for a saxophone player. Still, you could hear new ideas and arrangements continue to be fleshed out. McGrath had already agreed to present Julia al Son de Jazz at SRBCC in March, and he needed to work things out in front of an audience, which is essential for jazz. The audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t.

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

Armed with what he learned at Sabor a Café, he put together the band for last week’s performance, which included pianist Edwin Sanchez, drummer Jean-Christophe Leroy, bassist Freddy Quintero and conguero Victor Junito. And, thankfully, actress and writer Veronica Rodriguez Gotay handling the poetry recitatives.

A quick word about Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center: It’s an absolute gem. In addition to providing a full slate of cultural and after-school programs for the neighborhood and wider Chicago community, the space itself is gorgeous in a funky, loft inspired way: Exposed brick walls covered with Puerto Rican art, groovy mid-century modern furniture, a nice antique bar off to one side, and great sight lines for its large stage. One of their youth programs is the Arawak’Opia dance and music ensemble, and these bright and talented kids performed a short set before McGrath took the stage.

Julia al Son de Jazz now opens with a solo recitation of a de Burgos poem, Rio Grande de Loiza, carefully setting the tone for what is to come. The band then kicks into a mid-tempo groove with a gentle keyboard flourish, supporting an original English language poem by Abner Bardeguez that honors Julie de Burgos (sort of a mini-biography/introduction). McGrath pays close attention to his band, directing them even as he plays. The saxophonist is well on his way to becoming a respected player in jazz, equally adept in straight-ahead as well as Latin idioms. I caught him last January covering John Coltrane’s Blue Train in its entirety, and he and his straight-ahead ensemble did a great job honoring ‘Trane’s spirit. McGrath takes chances and goes to inventive places with his horn.

Roy McGrath was born and raised in Puerto Rico, yet inspired to pursue jazz by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He brings his boricua heritage to his writing, but jazz is the primary language. Various strains of folkloric and popular Puerto Rican sounds are interwoven into his Julia compositions, never more apparent than when he invited Arawak’Opia to join the band to add a solid bomba foundation to the introduction to one of the songs.  They nailed it.

The rhythm and cadence of Julia de Burgos’s poetry inspire as well, and it is very apparent that the music is fully integrated into the words and vice-versa. This isn’t poetry with jazz, but poetry and voice as one more essential instrument in a cohesive ensemble arrangement.

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Julia al Son de Jazz

The one tune not written by McGrath was Rafael Hernández’ Los Carreteros, which he introduced by saying he learned it in choir long before he ever picked up a saxophone.  But, like Miguel Zenón on his Puerto Rican songbook album Alma Adentro, McGrath put his own writing and arranging skills to work in adapting it for de Burgos’ poetry.

Julia al Son de Jazz is still a work in progress. The Chicago Park District will be presenting it three more times around the city this summer, and each performance will come with much valued rehearsal time. As with the Sabor a Café performance, McGrath will take what he learned at SRBCC to continue development with the eventual aim of recording it for an album.

I’ll be in the park, and I’ll be first in line to buy the album when it comes out.

All photos by Don Macica

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

Orquesta el Macabeo: Old school salsa for the 21st Century

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By Don Macica.

When I first heard Orquesta el Macabeo live in 2013, I was transported to a place that lived more in my imagination than anywhere else. I had seen documentaries about the birth of salsa in New York City and enjoyed every gritty, grainy frame. These films hinted at what it must have been like when these brash young upstarts first rose from the streets of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. Listening to Orquesta el Macabeo, however, made me feel like I was there. I was blown away. This was a far cry from your average ‘salsa night’ in a club.

They’ve only been back to Chicago once, playing Agúzate’s Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival later that same year. On September 4, however, I’ll return once again to el barrio when Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center presents Orquesta el Macabeo in a benefit concert.

Before the 11 musicians who make up the band got together, they each had a musical history in anything but salsa: hardcore, metal, ska, reggae, hip-hop. And yet, as they put it on their SoundCloud page, “They do not mix salsa with those music genres. This is straight up Salsa.”

“I was touring the world with different hardcore punk bands, and I come from a DIY background. I had an idea that when I got home I would gather some friends from other bands and see if we could jam some of our favorite Puerto Rican songs, like you would hear in any bar.” This is Macabeo’s founder and director, bassist José lbañez, speaking to me by phone from his home in Trujillo Alto, PR. “Originally, the idea was just for us, with no expectations, and if somebody would let us play in a bar or something, great. But all of us being DIY people, we soon wanted to write our own songs. We got really excited, doing things our way, learning but not feeling constrained by rules of what we could or couldn’t do.

“We got our first show in a little bar that only fit 40 people. We only had three songs, so we repeated them 2 or 3 times! People seemed to like it right away. I have a home studio, so we started working on writing more and making our first record.” That record eventually came out in 2010 as Salsa Macabra, followed by El Entierro in 2011 and Lluvia con sol in 2013.

orquesta-macabeo-band

Bending or breaking rules is not a minor issue, and even now there are serious salseros who don’t believe Orquesta el Macabeo is doing it right, just as there are purist rockers who think Macabeo is only joking around. But, as lbañez notes, “Normal people who have normal lives listen to the music and like it. They don’t care if it’s this way or the other way.” Most rockers in Puerto Rico, he says, like salsa just fine. I can’t help but compare this attitude to early salsa’s creators, who took whatever they needed from tropical music—son, bomba y plena, merengue, boleros—and adapted it to their particular situation as urban dwellers also familiar with rock and R&B. In other words, the ‘rules’ of salsa weren’t written yet.

In addition to their dynamic live sound and unconventional stage presence, there is another quality that makes Orquesta el Macabeo stand out, and it is one that owes as much to punk as it does to the early days of salsa. Their lyrics have a reality to them, describing everyday life in circumstances that are sometimes harsh. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real. At the same time, they wield a sharp sense of humor as one of their weapons.

Willie Colón once said, in defining salsa as a thing culturally separate from the Cuban son that it sprang from, called it “… a manifestation of cultural resistance… its melodies are essentially urban. Salsa is like a newspaper, a chronicle of our lives in the big city, and that’s why it talks about such topics as crime, drugs, pain, uprootedness and even about our history of exploitation and underdevelopment.” In a different context, it’s why Chuck D of Public Enemy called rap the “Black CNN”, and the same spirit is at the heart of hardcore punk as well, a way of articulating anger at an unjust system. It’s protest music.

Decades later, lbañez says much the same thing. “I like to listen to music that says something to me, and I want to write music like that, stories from the neighborhood, stories of the city, the social situation… things that mean something to me. Our songs are not empty. They have something to say.” In addition to lbañez, another six members contribute lyrics and music, all of it original and all of it reflective of a continuing DIY ethos.

Macabeo isn’t doing protest songs per se, but they are not turning a blind eye to society either. Se Pone Difícil describes someone who lives off the system but doesn’t give back, and predicts their demise. Cogiendo pon is a Puerto Rican expression for claiming achievement through others efforts. Alacrán compares gangsters to scorpions and warns of their sting. Perhaps the most poignant of all is Lluvia con sol, which deftly sketches out the difficulties of simply living your life in a system that leaves you powerless. The video for Lluvia starkly contrasts these lyrics against cheerful images of vintage tourism, introduced as “… the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a land of song and laughter, a tiny bit of the United States in the warm seas of the Caribbean,” and later extols the island’s progress “under the guidance of the Stars and Stripes.” Ouch.

Yet, in the midst of this, there is time to dance, time to boast and time to party with songs like Macabiónico, La Conga, Swing and La Dieta, which extols the glories of delicious and fatty food. As someone who believes chuletas can-can is both the most delectable and dangerous recipe ever invented, I can relate.

Our conversation turns to Orquesta el Macabeo’s recently released 7” single for Spain’s Vampisoul label, which salsifies a pair of punk rock songs from mid-90s Spain, Eutanasia and En la luna. “I was into heavy metal first, then hardcore around the age of 15” says lbañez. “These bands [La Polla Records and Eskorbuto] were very popular at the time, and because they sung in Spanish I could understand them. They were among my favorites.” He continues “I think it’s important to pay these bands a tribute and make these songs we love so much part of our own history. Music has no limits or barriers, and we show it this way: turning these two 100% punk songs into Latin tropical rhythms, while respecting the atmosphere of the original tracks.”

 

The other new Orquesta el Macabeo song couldn’t be more different from Eutanasia. La puerta está abierta is a flat out gorgeous tune performed as a duet with Mimi Maura, a Puerto Rico born singer who splits her time between San Juan and Buenos Aires. It’s structured a bit like the Miguel Matamoros classic Lagrimas Negras, with Maura’s languid bolero giving way to a cha-cha-cha chorus about halfway in. Even here, though, a DIY approach is in play. Maura comes from a rock & ska background and is the partner of Sergio Rotman, a member of Argentina’s legendary Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. “Sergio loves our project and asked us to make a song together with Mimi, which we totally accepted, as we love them and it is a good way to be known in Argentina.” says Ibañez. “He then put out Siete años macabros to expose us in his country, a compilation of our three albums plus the bonus track with Mimi.” In a final homegrown twist, the song itself was written by Maura’s father, Puerto Rican singer Mike Acevedo, back in the 1960s.

 

The band’s DIY principles have remained firm since its founding in 2008. lbañez explains, “We write our own songs, make our own music, record in our home studio and distribute our own albums. Our decisions are still made as friends getting together to play music, not dictated by a business scheme dreamed up in an office. We don’t want a record company telling us what to do.”

Lest all of this sound too serious, don’t worry. Salsa is, at heart, designed for dancing, and a Macabeo show is first and foremost a dance party. Given that the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center can hold several hundred people, this should be a very big party indeed.

Orquesta el Macabeo, Friday, September 4, 8pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4046 W. Armitage, Chicago. Tickets at srbcc.org.

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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.