From Cumbanchero to Remembranzas: Catching up with Roy McGrath


By Don Macica –

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.”

The first Cumbanchero, March 2015

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 Remembranzas Quartet with special guest Victor Junito, March 2017

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.

Roy McGrath and the Remembranzas team in the studio

Review and photos: Miguel Zenón at SRBCC’s Folclórico

By Don Macica,
Photos by Charlie Billups

A long awaited community event took place last night in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Saxophonist and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenón, visiting the city to present his Identities are Changeable project at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, came to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to share his motivations and processes behind Identities and explore different facets of Afro-Puerto Rican music with local musicians.

We were there, and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience, requiring the collaboration and mutual respect of many individuals and institutions to make it happen. Miguel Zenón, of course, but also the University, SRBCC’s executive director Omar Torres-Kortright and several Chicago musicians who help keep Puerto Rican culture alive: jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath and his quartet, traditional bomba ensemble Buya, and SRBCC’s own youth ensemble, Arawak’Opia.

Zenón opened the evening by talking about the process of creating Identities are Changeable, a multi-media big band project about the idea of identity among Puerto Ricans born in the United States. The concepts were illustrated by video excerpts. He then took several questions from the audience, which he answered thoughtfully and at length.

The music that followed was wonderful, starting with Zenón playing with the young musicians, singers and dancers of Arawak’Opia. A little loose, perhaps, but genuinely inspirational. McGrath, who was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, joined Zenón for a jazz take on three Puerto Rican classics, Obsesión, Perfume de Gardenaias and Capullito de Alelì. Finally, Buya took the stage with their usual energy and spirit while Zenón improvised in and around their powerful drumming, singing and dancing. The group learned Zenón’s composition Esta Plena especially for this occasion, and they nailed it.

Equal to the music was the sense of shared community in the room going back and forth between the performers on the stage and the people in the audience as barriers between the two dissolved. In just a couple of years, SRBCC has established themselves in Hermosa after over four decades based in Wicker Park. They have gone where the community needs them most, and bringing a world class talent like Miguel Zenón and presenting him for free is a testament to their commitment to the neighborhood. They have a huge summer of activity planned, starting almost immediately with programs presented in collaboration with The 606 and Night Out in the Parks. Visit their website srbcc.org for a complete schedule.

Photographer Charlie Billups, who has been documenting Puerto Rican and Latino culture in Chicago, was at the Zenón event and took the pictures below. You can view more of his work at his Tumblr blog or at charliebillups.com.

photo by Charlie Billups
Miguel Zenón with Buya
photo by Charlie Billups
With Arawak’Opia
photo by Charlie Billups
With Roy McGrath
photo by Charlie Billups
With Buya
photo by Charlie Billups
Miguel Zenón and Buya perform “Esta Plena”

 

San Juan to Chicago: Roy McGrath’s Jazz Journey

Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.

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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
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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.