Agúzate Interview: Melvis Santa

Melvis 3
By Don Macica –

Melvis Santa has been a professional musician for over half of her life. At the age of 14, she and a group of friends in Havana, Cuba formed the all-female vocal ensemble Sexto Sentido. No less than Chucho Valdés called them “the best Cuban vocal quartet of the past 30 years.” After 12 years of success, she left that group in 2008 to try her hand at a solo career. She spent some time touring and recording two CUBADISCO Award-winning albums with Interactivo, a all-star fusion band in Cuba lead by pianist and composer Robertico Carcassés.

She then formed her second group, Santa Habana, that was a bit more jazz oriented, but with a pop feel permeated by deep Afro-Cuban grooves. The debut album was released internationally via the BIS label.

Meanwhile, she launched a second career as an actress, appearing in a number of short Cuban films and the full length feature 7 Days in Havana in a segment by Spanish director Julio Medem.

In other words, Melvis Santa is kind of a big deal in Cuba. Why then, in 2014, did she move to New York City?

“In Cuba, you get to a point where you are in a comfort zone. It’s a small country, so you get recognized, people like what you do. It’s very easy to forget that you have to continue to push yourself and grow. That’s what I like about New York. I have to push myself there.”

I’m speaking with Melvis after a rehearsal for her performance later that evening at Sabor a Café, and intimate music venue in Chicago, where she will present her new Ashedí Project with a hand-picked group of some of Chicago’s best jazz and Latin musicians, including trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Alemana, bassist Brett Benteler (who recently left Chicago for New York as well, but returned for this show) and conguero Frankie Ocasio.

20160528_225623
Steeped in Afro-Cuban tradition, Melvis is also fully immersed in the wider music world. She cites Cuban artists like Merceditas Valdés and Marta Valdés as influences, but also Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Rosa Passos and Ella Fitzgerald.

“New York is the best platform for a creative artist. Not only are the great living jazz artists there, but also important Cuban artists as well, like Roman Diaz [a master Afro-Cuban percussionist who made his own Havana-New York transition in 1999], a deep repository of Afro-Cuban knowledge and rhythms, who I now get to learn from first hand. Not only do I get to learn the old ways, but also the new, because in New York even traditional musicians are very open.”

I ask Melvis what the Ashedí Project is.

“Ashedí is an idea that I had. In my case, it’s a new stage in my career where I’m embracing influences from my childhood such as Afro-Cuban tradition, and connecting them with jazz and other genres of music in Cuba and the world. Ashedí is an Afro-Cuban Yoruba word that is used as an invitation. In a Yoruba ceremony, when we talk about the ashedí, it is an invitation to other practitioners to be part of the ceremony. And that’s exactly what I want to do with this project. So what you hear today, in this music, is an invitation to these particular musicians. I told them in the rehearsal, yes, look at the notes on the paper, but then play and do what you love. I’m looking for that vibe that is ashedí.”

The performance later that evening validates this approach. In rehearsal, the basic structure of each composition (almost all of them are new, although she did dip into Santa Habana for Inmensidad, a gorgeous evocation of the orisha Yemayá) was sketched out as Melvis directed from behind a piano, allowing each musician to find their way into the melody. In performance, it was quite literally night and day as the musicians found their footing. Bentler and Ocasio were subtle and effective, keeping the pulse grounded in Afro-Cuban tradition, while Davis and Alemana were given free reign to improvise and did so with incisive and sometimes spectacular solos. Depending on the needs of the song, Santa split her time between supporting the melody from the piano or out in front, where her voice and charisma riveted the audience.

20160528_232826_HDR
Santa is a very good songwriter, but two of the highlights of the evening came in what were essentially tributes to the two sides of Santa’s ashedí: An alluring duet between Santa and guitarist Alemana on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and the encore, an incandescent cover of Marta Valdés’ En la Imaginación.

Orbert Davis, who is not only a trumpeter but also a composer, bandleader and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, summed it up perfectly the next day: “It was one of the most musical nights of my life.”

The latest development in Santa’s career is joining the dynamic all-female Afro-Cuban jazz group Maqueque, led by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba and working with Afro-Cuban musicians for several decades, recording the landmark album Spirits of Havana in 1989 with Yoruba Andabo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the very same Merceditas Valdés that Santa cites as an important influence.

“Because Jane has spent so much time in Cuba, she knew of my work with Sexto, Interactivo and of course Santa Habana. It’s almost like a family, we are very close. I am a bit older than the other members [of Maqueque], but when their singer Daymé Arocena, who was once a student of mine, left to concentrate on her solo career, Jane called me. I went to see Maqueque at the Blue Note in New York and it went from there.”

Santa tells me Maqueque is recording a new album with her, so I ask if she is recording herself.

“Moving to New York was a very big step, and I only did it two years ago. I spent the entire first year just absorbing everything and going to concerts of musicians that I had always admired. So, yes, I am thinking about recording again soon, but I am still learning and there is still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t want to rush it.”

20160528_232532
It would seem that Melvis Santa has some pretty big artistic ambitions, but is willing to take some time in getting there. The rest of us will have to be patient. Meanwhile, though, we can hope for more perfectly musical nights like the one at Sabor a Café.
___

About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

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

By Don Macica –

20160324_202836_HDR
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.

12744676_1171937449486101_6484030723212590728_n
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.

San Juan to Chicago: Roy McGrath’s Jazz Journey

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

roymcgrath-web-768x1024

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
________

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.