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CD Review: Roy McGrath - Remembranzas

By Jeff Cebulski

Roy McGrath, tenor saxophone

Bill Cessna, piano

Joseph Kitt Lyles, bass

Jonathan Wenzel, drums

Ivelisse Diaz, baril de bomba (1)

Victor “Junito” Gonzalez, congas (3)

Rossana Rodriguez and Claritza Maldonado, voice (1)

JL Music, 2018.

Chicago-based jazz troubadour Roy McGrath, a splendid saxophonist, was commissioned in 2015 to craft an Afro-Caribbean suite honoring the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. The four-piece product, Julia al Son de Jazz, became the impetus toward McGrath’s second album as a leader, Remembranzas, which represents McGrath’s loyalty to the memory of his origins and the collective memory of this particular quartet. The result is a terrific stroll through this testimony of McGrath’s cultural lineage and jazz aplomb.

Of the four compositions that allude to the beloved de Burgos, one includes some poetic lines. “Cancion de la Verdad Sencila” (Song of Simple Truth) opens the album, an allusion both to McGrath’s heritage and to his cultural connections. Here we have a binary approach: actress Rosanna Rodriguez recites parts of de Burgos’ poem in Spanish, followed by Claritza Maldonado’s English reading of lines from her own poem, “Oceans Spelled M.a.m.i.” The theme involves generations and water, as the maternal figure embodies the ocean that separates and bridges the Puerto Rican and American shores. In the case of the music, McGrath bathes the song in bomba sica and yuba rhythms, bolstered by the dancing duo of Ivelisse Diaz’s percussion and Joseph Kitt Lyles’ bass.

For his part throughout, McGrath traverses his solos with mega-smooth dexterity and bright expression, somewhere between younger Wayne Shorter and Kenny Garrett, with, in his more straight-up moments, touches of Michael Brecker, Long Tall Dexter, and Trane. The best example perhaps resides in the album’s second cut, “Por ti Estoy.” (Because of you, I am) A softly loping, lyrical piece, McGrath pours his heart into this tribute to HIS mother. It also represents the binaural nature of this album, as McGrath mixes his Afro-Caribbean roots with his post bop expertise. McGrath’s band, including pianist Bill Cessna and drummer Jonathan Wenzel, shines as well, with Cessna and bassist Lyles contributing wonderful solos that lead into McGrath’s finishing solo that prances with Cessna to a satisfying conclusion.

The second song emerging from the suite, “Plena Julia,” seems to embody the spirit of de Burgos and of Puerto Rican elán. Fueled by conga master “Junito” Gonzalez and Wenzel’s rhythmic, marching propulsion, the group dances its way with McGrath as the pied saxer and Cessna as his capering mate.

The title cut serves as the fulcrum of the album. An Afro-Caribbean hybrid of Latino sensibility and mainland blues, “Remembranzas” is symbolic of the journey the quartet took from its origination to this studio moment. The beat fluctuates as if to incorporate the breadth of their experience. The Latin-tinged opening line, advanced by Lyles, is matched by McGrath, commented on, then niftily switched into a swing, before an abstract musing by Cessna leads to an interlude that feeds on the opening theme, embellished by the pianist’s most eloquent solo that connects all the elements of this enticing piece. McGrath’s long, insistent statement toward the end is another of his remarkable moments.

“5/4 Tune (Poema Para Las Lagrimas)” begins with a pensive Cessna intro that is quickly taken over by McGrath in that 5/4 beat. A Coltrane-ish declaration leads to the mid-tempo arrangement, with Cessna and McGrath trading off solos. This deceptively complex composition shows off the group’s synchronicity, allowing McGrath to perform a flowing, energetic solo.

“Mire Asi,” a bomba sica sans percussion, belies its sweet tone in terms of meaning. The phrase essentially means “I saw you this certain way,” and the music, for all its joyful mien, either celebrates a fortuitous re-discovery after a first impression or a self-satisfied view of another. Either way, the arrangement gives the quartet a chance to stretch out a little bit, suggesting this piece receives more exploration during a concert.

The next song, “KyKy,” a Ukrainian greeting of affection, was reportedly a ballad before it was changed to a rumba. This apparent remembranza changes an affectionate expression into something more celebratory that fits into the album’s overall ambiance. Some of McGrath’s best soloing is ably supported by Wenzel, who shines on percussion here.

The final cut, “Burgos en Vida,” began as support for a recitation on de Burgos’ life, then was refashioned for the album. The subtle Latin flavor of the opening theme (deftly pronounced by Lyles) becomes the bridge to a blues riff stated by McGrath. The synchronous playing of McGrath and Cessna in this case reminds this reviewer of the Metheny-Mays duo’s exotic moments that grace that Group’s oeuvre. Though not long, this composition encapsulates what this album represents.

The more one listens to Remembranzas, the more one is impressed with the depth and quality of Roy McGrath’s ability, not only to play but also to compose and arrange for a select band that has clearly embraced its leader’s vision, melding into a pleasing whole, a grand representation of jazz’s multicultural nature.

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