By Jeff Cebulski
In terms of “community,” the pandemic was often diabolical. Isolation was a major problem, and those who sought face-to-face relationships were often the cruel victims of the virus that devastated societies. Thus, for many the challenge was to change isolation to solitude.
More often than not, jazz musicians in particular spent time at home dreaming up new music. One of these was the Puerto Rican-bred, Chicago-area tenor saxophonist Roy McGrath, whose involvement with his ethnic community is deep and wide. During the pandemic, McGrath used a musical potion to stave off his own depressive moments, giving himself a goal to look forward to. When the virus hit, McGrath was in the midst of what became the Menjunje project. A menjunje is a kind of homemade potion used to salve illnesses, usually using sugar cane juice (guarapo), ginger, lemon, and honey; some included other stimulants such as garlic and cayenne pepper. (We European types have our own such concoctions, such as the Hot Toddy.)
Access to technology like Zoom that facilitated online gatherings played a crucial role in maintaining his sanity. For musicians, especially, the ability to gather is a staple of their psyches. In his liner notes, McGrath said, “I knew exactly which musicians I wanted to play in Menjunje and I communicated directly with them.” The techno involvement of those players and their contributions to McGrath’s vision was a key part of his pandemic menjunje.
The result is a well-recorded and mixed selection of arranged-for-jazz songs of the beloved Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Antonio Caban Vale (aka “El Topo”) along with four excellent original McGrath compositions, all delivered in a seamless display that exemplifies the players’ high musicianship and the beauty of Afro-Caribbean music.
The inclusion of Vale’s music developed after McGrath was commissioned in 2017 by the Seguno Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to arrange and perform Vale’s music as part of a tribute concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of El Topo’s hit, “Verde Luz.” Having been inspired, McGrath used the isolation to compose four of his own songs within the same vein. While the saxophonist was clearly loyal to the spirit of El Topo in his initial arrangements, it’s the original, more Afro-Cuban material that resonated the brightest to my jazz-inclined ears.
It helps that McGrath selected some of Chicago’s rising musicians, including 2018 Luminarts Jazz Competition winner Constantine Alexander on trumpet and bassist Kitt Lyles, whose steady, well-recorded acoustic bass bolsters all the selections. (Alexander and McGrath are two-fifths of the post bop group Fire’tet, which will play at Andy’s on March 17.) Include the internationally respected pianist Eduardo Zayas and the versatile drummer Efrain Martinez, and you have a stellar band. On maybe the best arrangement of the Vale selections, “Linda Morena,” the whole band percolates intensely, with Alexander adding a fine solo.
The “jazz” of most of this album begins with the arrangements. With the exception of the bomba “Cuembé Na’ Má” and the final cut, “Bolerito,” every selection trades off rhythms, which gives the listener something else besides a version of instrumental pop music. One notable piece is Vale’s “Antonia,” his ballad dedicated to the memory of a college student who was murdered by a police officer during a demonstration in 1970. Here, it begins as a bolero and shifts to a rumba, perhaps to accentuate the associated drama.
In the seis araucano to guaguanco arrangement of Vale’s “Guamani,” the cuatro contribution of Jose A. Carrasquillo, a music manager for the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, creates the most direct instrumental bridge to El Topo’s performances.
The variating rhythms are handled with ease by a crack percussion duo: Victor Junito Gonzalez of the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble and a noted up-and-comer, Victor Quintana-Ocasio.
And McGrath knows how to compose to his players’ strengths. “Groove #4” coalesces the Cuban cha-cha with the guaguanco, as Zayas’ lower-keyed intro leads to a brightly rendered melody from McGrath and Alexander; Lyles adds a pleasantly melodic interlude in conjunction with Zayas’ comping, with the leader providing an eloquent aside. “Cuembé Na’ Má” crackles with a post bop horn display bolstered by sumptuous, percolating percussion. “For Zee” is McGrath’s ballad, led by a wistful start from Zayas; the saxophonist’s statement is lavish and expressive. Later, “Bolerito” is what it claims, a sinuous love song that glides its melodic steps to the album’s finish, featuring some of McGrath’s most flexible playing.
For all of his talent, McGrath has been relatively unheralded, which should change after this recording gets around. His playing has a richness of tone that provides a sonic depth in the midst of the danceable ambiance. This album, featuring a well-balanced mix by McGrath and Andy Shoemaker, is a worthy tribute to a prized, diasporic musical heritage that has its rightful place at the center of Chicago fine art. One hopes that the menjunje it provides, as well as its provocateur, will carry on with more application, recognition, and appreciation.
Roy McGrath, Menjunje. (JL Music - 2023).
Get the Recording:
Roy McGrath, saxophone
Constantine Alexander, trumpet
Eduardo Zayas, piano
Efraín Martínez, drums
Kitt Lyles, acoustic bass
Victor Junito González, conga, punteador, barril
Javier Quintana-Ocasio, barril, requinto, bongo, quinto, campana
José A. Carrasquillo, cuatro
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association.