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2019 Chicago Jazz Festival Preview: Latino-America Unida

By Monica Staton

Miguel Zenón, Antonio Sánchez, Melissa Aldana, Ricky Rodriguez, David Virelles

Music lovers in the United States often generalize the Afro-Latin component of jazz music into broad, sometimes nebulous, categories such as “Spanish-flavored” or as having a “Latin feel.” The terms are functionally obsolescent when describing the contributions to jazz music by each of the members of Latino-America Unida. They individually lead, follow, and provoke with their individual instrumental virtuosity.

On September 1 at Chicago’s 41st annual jazz festival, David Virelles, Ricky Rodriguez, Antonio Sánchez, Melissa Aldana, and Miguel Zenón will come together and collaborate for the first time as the quintet Latino-America Unida.

David Virelles is a Cuban jazz pianist and composer. Virelles studied with Henry Threadgill, an original member of the AACM, while in New York City. On his 2017 recording Gnosis he goes flawlessly from improvised soundscapes to Cuban folk music. He has also played with saxophonists Steve Coleman, Chris Potter, and Mark Turner. When playing with artists like Potter he is not a mere sideman; he brings his essence to each recording.

Of Puerto Rican descent, Ricky Rodriguez has proved himself a bassist of exceptional agility with musicians’ groups, notably in his work with vibraphonist Joe Locke and pianist Fabian Almazan, among others. Rodriguez changes with ease from electric to upright bass. Locke describes Rodriguez as having a “passionate love for music . . . a deep humility which makes him truly a servant of the music” (

Group cofounder Antonio Sánchez is a Mexican-American jazz drummer and composer. In 2014, his popularity increased when he composed an original film score for Birdman. His sound is distinct and so full that he can play an entire movie score solo drumming—and it is complete.

Melissa Aldana is a Chilean tenor saxophone player, who performs both as a soloist and with her band Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio. Her sound has been described as earthy. Aldana is a rising star in the world of saxophone and the first female instrumentalist to win the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. In her latest recording Visions, released in 2019, she was accompanied by Chicago’s own Joel Ross on vibraphone.

Puerto Rican alto saxophonist and Latino-America Unida cofounder Miguel Zenón is also a composer, music producer, bandleader, and educator. He is a multiple Grammy Award nominee, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. His style incorporates jazz and folk and also includes a blend of modern classical influences. Zenón has allowed us to hear him in many different contexts.

Latino-American Unida is a celebration of the Caribbean, Central America and South America. This multicultural combination, residing in the collective subconscious of Latin America, has been considered utopian. Listeners can expect a very powerful collaboration of influential voices in jazz and a vibrant blend of different cultures.

Latino-American Unida performs Sunday, September 1, at 6:25 p.m. at Pritzker Pavilion. Click here for more information.

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