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.
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 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.
DM – Sabiduria 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?
EP – Sabiduria, 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!
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
For salsa singer Enrique Calderón, when he finally felt it was time to write and record his first single, he kept his mind focused on one very important thing: For it to be a success, people needed to dance.
That’s how it started for Calderón, a young Mexican-American from the south suburbs who could play jazz and classical music on the trumpet, when he began hitting Chicago’s salsa nightclubs in the late 1990s.
Back then, there were actually a few full time salsa spots in the city, not just clubs that occasionally offered salsa nights. Calderón’s main haunt was Tropicana D’Cache, which occupied the space that is now Concord Music Hall. He admits that the scene was attractive: The dancing, the bands, the beautiful women. “I became a pretty good dancer, winning a couple of dance contests,” says Calderón.
I asked Calderón how, being of Mexican descent, he got into tropical music. “Both of my parents were from Mexico, my dad from Michoacán and my mom from Mexico City. Both her and my grandmother were big fans of tropical music, stuff like Perez Prado, Sonora Santanera, Sonora Mantancera. Groups like that would come to Mexico City all the time. So, when I was growing up here in the States, that sort of stuff would always get played around the house.”
Still, like most kids, he was not especially fond of his parent’s music. His tastes ran toward hip-hop, house and other urban music. At the same time, though, the jazz lessons that he’d been getting left an impression, and he even privately tried singing a bit, imitating Harry Connick, Jr.
Later, when he was immersed in the salsa scene and knowing that he had a decent singing voice, he began to pester bands into letting him sing back up, finally getting a big break when Jesus Enríquez, who was huge on the Chicago scene, invited him to sing with his group. Soon enough he was singing backup with lots of local orquestas as well as national artists whenever they came to town.
He eventually formed a group named La Unica with a couple of close friends while continuing to work with national artists. But in 2004, he decided to call it quits for a while. By 2011, though, he was ready to return. He got a few higher profile band gigs with Rica Obsesión, Nabori and the Humboldt Park Orchestra. He was also doing backup vocals with a new generation of salsa singers such as Willito Otero, Kayvan Vega, NG2, Carlos Mojica, Maelo Ruiz and Frankie Negron when they came to Chicago. Finally, in 2016, he formed his own group.
Now, most salsa bands survive on doing covers of popular songs, and Calderón’s certainly fills that bill. You don’t hear too many brand new songs on salsa night. But in 2017, Calderón decided to take the next step and began working with singer Ricky Luis and Afinca’o leader Joe Mende on producing new original music.
The result is a new single, Más Tiempo, debuting this Sunday night, September 3, at the Cubby Bear’s Salsa Sunday Labor Day show. Also on the bill is Ricky Luis, a Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles, and Afinca’o, who are also debuting a new single. So, it’s kind of all in the family, and a pretty big night for all three.
The sound of salsa has changed over the decades, and it is currently enjoying something of a back to basics moment. “That’s the sound I wanted to get on this first single,” says Calderon, “percussion and horns, kind of a classic approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore what gets the dance floor going, so there is a little bit of that romantic salsa feel, and the lyrics are about a relationship I was having at the time. People relate to it, they want to sing along, and they want to dance. Do you know how many people sing along to Yo No Sé Mañana?” Calderon asks, referring to the massive and often covered Luis Enrique song from 2009 that is a guaranteed dance floor filler.
Más Tiempo does a good job of navigating the gulf between salsa dura and salsa romántica. The arrangement is tight, with skillfully arranged horns and percolating percussion. Calderon’s voice is a little more rugged than the average crooner, and his sense of the rhythm is superb. At the same time, there is a hooky little chorus tailor-made for the audience sing along. A nice little touch comes near the end, when Calderón gives the shouted affirmation “México presente!”
Calderón is still a dancer at heart. “When I’m on stage with my band, and I notice that I’m not dancing, well, then I know it’s time for the band to bring the energy up.”
Look for a lot of energy this Sunday night at the Cubby Bear.
Salsa Sundays at Cubby Bear featuring Enrique Calderón, Afinca’o, and Ricky Luis | Sunday, September 3, 10PM (doors open 7PM) | Facebook
The 2016 Colombian Fest had some tremendous music, but its cramped location on the hot asphalt of the Copernicus Center parking lot made it pretty uncomfortable on a July weekend. In only its second year, the fest had already outgrown its space.
Fortunately, Colombian Fest founder Jorge Ortega saw this as well and immediately started looking for something roomier, which he found at Kelvyn Park in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. With the help of the Chicago Park District and the local alderman’s office, Colombian Festival transformed itself in 2017 into Chicago’s Colombian Festival al Parque.
What a difference a year makes! Blessed with moderate weather, the weekend was a smashing success. As before, Ortega carefully booked the music with an eye toward reflecting the breadth and depth of Colombian music as well as the tastes of a multi-generational audience. Living legends were there like Julio Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada who, as music director at the Discos Fuentes label and with his group Fruko y sus Tesos, practically invented Colombian style salsa in the 1970’s, and the sound he created then still carries tremendous power forty years later. Representing the youth movement were artists like the dynamic Explosión Negra, who infuse traditional Pacifico rhythms with other Afro-Caribbean sounds and hip-hop swagger. Bogota’s Los Rolling Raunas take the interior mountain sounds of the Colombian Andes and perform them with rock energy.
The real pleasures of the weekend were aimed at the old folks, though, which is not to say that younger attendees didn’t show them lots of love. Los Embajadores Vallenatos demonstrated why they were one of the top vallenato bands of the 80s & 90s, and cumbia singer Pastor López hasn’t lost a step in his three decade career. Salsa singer Jorge Maldanodo, though a Puerto Rican, has been beloved in Colombia ever since a 1978 visit as lead singer with the legendary Sonora Mantancera. Checo Acosta, though a bit younger, is extraordinarily popular around carnaval time in Barranquilla, and his show was accompanied by a multitude of musicians and dancers replicating the Congo Grande Comparsa.
All of this would add up to a successful weekend, but it was the presence of the regal Totó la Momposina, Colombia’s undisputed queen of Afro-Latin folkloric music, that was truly historic. Her show nearly transcended music itself in its survey of all the sounds and colors that Colombian culture has given the world. Greeted by the ecstatic crowd, she and her expansive band rewarded them with over an hour of pure bliss. Her concert at Millennium Park a few nights earlier was both excellent and moving, but here, before something like a ‘hometown crowd’, it was on an entirely different level.
One wonders where the fest can go from here, but no doubt Jorge Ortega is already working on it.
Photos by Charlie Billups, commentary by Don Macica –
Hundreds of people filled Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center last night while one of the most important bands in Cuban music history, Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, performed a style of classic Cuban son that they practically invented in 1927 when they added a trumpet to the traditional tres Cubano, guitar and percussion. Of course, 90 years later, the band is in its fourth generation. While hardly innovative by 21st century standards, they provide a near perfect evocation of a sound that laid the foundation for what would become salsa 40 years later. If, as El Gran Combo has sung, “Sin Salsa no hay Paraiso (Without salsa, there is no paradise)”, then without Septeto Nacional, there is no salsa.
This was only the fourth time that Septeto Nacional has visited Chicago: Three since the Obama administration re-opened cultural exchange with Cuba and, before that, the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. That made it something of a historic night as well.
At the SRBCC show, at least three generations of folks, from retirees to children, filled the dance floor with varying degrees of skill but equal measure of joy. Meanwhile, the back of the room was filled with round banquet tables where friends and strangers alike gathered like family. All in all, it was an atmosphere more akin to a community party than a concert. Adding to that feel was that Septeto Nacional invited saxophonist Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico native who runs SRBCC’s youth Afro-Latin jazz program, to join them for a song. He responded with an improvised solo that evoked another genre that likely wouldn’t exist without Septeto Nacional: Latin jazz.
When I spoke with Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mateo Mulcahy a few months ago about their Extended Play series that partners with SRBCC, he talked about how Chicago’s network of cultural presenters allows the city’s residents to experience world renowned artists that any one organization could not afford to bring to town on their own. Septeto Nacional’s appearance was co-presented by HotHouse, who hosted the band the night before at Alhambra Palace. It is partnerships like this that allows an organization like SRBCC, whose main business is neighborhood youth services, to also be a place where people can come to hear world class music from Latin America.
Like the show by Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí just 2 weeks earlier, there was a sense of the barrier between performer and audience dissolving altogether, a vibe that SRBCC is increasingly adept at conjuring, as more and more people discover with each presentation. It is, I believe, a force that gives energy to the whole, resulting in an elevated experience on and off the stage.
Future shows at SRBCC include artists from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more. I suspect there are many more elevated experiences to come.
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.
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 CangrejerosdeSanturce 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.
Words and images by Charlie Billups, edited by Don Macica –
“His strong cumbia beat with his very skilled accordion play reminded me of parties in my wife’s hometown of Corozal. I could close my eyes on Sunday and imagined that I was in Corozal or at the beach with his music on in the background and people dancing in a beach side restaurant. The atmosphere at the festival was exactly like that of a festival in Colombia.”
Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups is recalling his two days spent at Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, which took place at the Copernicus Center July 16-17 during a sweltering mid-summer heatwave. He’s speaking about the artist who closed the weekend, the 80-year-old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez from Barranquilla, a port city on the country’s Atlantic coast. “His music represented the joy and fun of being Colombian.”
Billups continues, “The sounds that filled the festival represented several genres of music from different parts of Colombia, all of which are very popular. Cumbia, vallenato, champeta, salsa and merengue. When one of the many, many bands weren’t performing, DJs played vintage records to keep the energy high. The capacity crowd that packed the place on both days loved every minute of it.”
Experiencing Sunday night’s headliner was not the only time Billups felt himself transported from the northwest side of Chicago to the South American nation. He recalls Sunday’s late afternoon set by Charles King, who delivered a stirring performance with his champeta criolla, and how it brought him to another time and place. “The music was sweet reggae sounding but with deep roots in the Colombian coast town of Palenque and enhanced by Mr. King’s deep facial expressions. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in Cartagena on a taxi ride to the bus station and the driver had the radio on playing Mr. King’s El Martillo.”
Two of Saturday’s headliners especially stood out in Billup’s memory as well.
“Sonora Carrusales, the last performer that night, is a salsa band from Medellin. La Sonora has an extremely powerful sound that evokes Fruko and many bands from Medellin and Cali. The crowd exploded as the band played non-stop for 90 minutes. This band represents the strong salsa legacy that Colombia has. Cali is called the salsa capital of the world. Passion ran high thru the entire place and people did not want to leave even after the three encores by La Sonora.
“Earlier Saturday afternoon Jimmy Zambrano and former Binomio de Oro member Duban Bayona delivered to me what represents the heart of coastal Colombian music, vallenato. People in the crowd were transfixed by the soulful melodic performance of Grammy winner Zambrano’s accordion with Bayona’s strong voice. I have to say that this was like going to Colombia and walking down the street on a Saturday night and listening to this duo on picos [Colombian sound systems] in the balconies.”
Charlie Billups’ great photos are a testament to his love of Latin American culture and community. Several illustrate this article, and you can find many, many more at his website. For his part, Charlie has just one more thing to say.
The return of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park Monday night was a triumph by any conceivable measure. An audience of close to 10,000 people filled the Pritzker Pavilion seats and lawn on a hot summer night. The band rewarded the overflow crowd with a performance of epic proportions. Including Palmieri’s piano, there are 12 members of this orchestra, but if you closed your eyes while dancing with abandon (and trust me, there were many, many people dancing with abandon) you’d swear there were 50. The power emanating off the stage was the result of the very best Latin musicians playing at the top of their game for an adoring crowd and loving every minute of it.
Palmieri has been known by many nicknames over the last six decades or so since he formed La Perfecta, his first groundbreaking band: the Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro, El Rumbero del Piano. Or, a bit more obscurely, the Schoenberg of Salsa, a nod to the complex music of the contemporary classical composer. Over that time he has employed lo mejor de lo mejor of Latin musicians, and the current lineup stands with the best of them.
There were several standout moments from each and every person on stage. Hermán Olivera captures the spirit of original La Perfecta vocalist Ismael Quintana without resorting to imitation. Trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch are band leaders and innovators in their own right. The congas/bongos/timbales Holy Trinity of Pequeño Johnny, Nicky Marrero and Camilo Molina-Gaetan kept everything on high burn the entire evening. Luques Curtis on bass anchored it all, and Nelson Gonzáles on tres was a constant reminder of the Cuban son foundation from which salsa emerged, particularly on Palmieri’s arrangement of the 1946 Arsenio Rodriguez classic Dame Un Cachito Pa’huele. All were allowed to shine repeatedly with solos during the entire 90-minute concert, and each brought 110% to every note and gesture.
Palmieri himself entered the stage first for a brief solo piano performance, then brought out the band, each of whom he introduced with warm regard before they played a single note. They kicked off with 15 delirious minutes of Pa’ la Ocha Tambó after which Palmieri, beaming with pride, remarked “This is how our music is supposed to be played.” A similarly lengthy Pa’ Huele followed, and then I lost track, because after awhile you surrender to the moment and simply become present in the joy that 12 musicians and 10,000 of their close friends can radiate. Once in awhile Palmieri would leave his piano bench to lead the crowd in clapping the clave, which I have to say (judging from the smile on Palmieri’s face) we all did flawlessly.
Words are pretty inadequate when it comes to describe music of this high caliber, so I’m going to turn it over to photographer Charlie Billups to tell the rest of the story. Thank you, Eddie. And thank you, Chicago.
Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.
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.
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.
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.
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.