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.