Don’t let the name fool you: there’s plenty more than “cha-cha-cha” to the music that Lise Gilly and her band have crafted for this album. The rhythms stretch clear across the Latin Jazz landscape, from choro to son to mambo and rhumba and beyond, to form a scintillating fusion of jazz, Afro-Cuban traditions, and the dance sounds of salsa. This percussive foundation underlies the band’s eclectic collection of memorable melodies, arranged with bold craft to maximize the colors of the ensemble. And when you throw in brilliant solos from young jazz giants Darwin Noguera on piano and Victor Garcia on trumpet – not to mention the crystal-hued song of Gilly’s own flute – then yes, This Is [indeed] The Life.
But for all that – the neon tropical hues, the surprising range of compositions, the sudden blast of the occasional vocal – you can’t get away from the rhythms. And that’s how it should be; if you’re going to name a band after the cha cha, you’d better make sure that the music does indeed dance.
This Is The Life opens up with “Peruchin,” a Latin jazz classic written by the grand pianist Charlie Otwell (an often overlooked mainstay of the 1980s band led by Poncho Sanchez). Named for the famous Cuban pianist of the 1950s, an architect of the descarga style, the song features a respectful and typically full-blooded solo from pianist Darwin Noguera, plus contributions from Gilly and percussionists Alberto Arroyo and Jean Leroy.
“Bedroom Eyes” offers a unique meld of Latin rhythms and the blues, courtesy of “Canada’s Blues Ambassador to Chicago” (and Gilly’s husband) Nigel Mack, who wrote and recorded the song for his 1996 hit album High Price to Play. Mack plays the blues harp solo and handles the English vocals; for good measure, vocalist Nythia Martinez matches him line for line with a Spanish translation of the lyrics. Latin American diplomacy at its best.
On the title track, trumpeter Victor Garcia – one of Chicago’s most exciting young musicians, equally adept at Latin music and pure jazz improvisation – gets to strut his stuff, followed by Adrian Ruiz on electric piano. Gilly’s father hails from southern France, and she has family roots in Provence and along the Côte d’Azur; she wrote this samba in hopes of “transporting the listener” from her ancestral homeland to Rio de Janeiro, all in the blink of an eye.
Gilly has lovingly arranged the classic Cuban ballad “Que Te Pedi” to frame the equally lovely voice of Diana Mosquera: she expands the setting from simple piano and rhythm into a feast of technicolor rhythms evoking the guajira, a song form of rural Cuba. “What did I ask of you,” yearns the title, “other than realizing there’s no other love like mine”; Mosquera’s plaintive rendition suggests there’s no simple answer.
Chicago percussionist Janet Cramer comes to the fore on her own composition, “Vamos a la Playa” (“We Go to the Beach”), which she wrote during a period of study in Cuba in the 1990s. An original salsa tune, it also reflects Cramer’s extensive experience on the rock and blues scenes in Chicago, as well as her expertise with bata (the double-sided African drum that made its way to Cuba and has become an integral part of sacred and folkloric music).
On “Danzon Para Pedro” (“Dance For Peter”), Gilly brings another element into the mix: the classical music that occupied her earliest studies and which remains a continuing interest of hers. This composition was inspired by her performing Peter Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the melodic content of which moved her to write a song dedicated to the Russian Romantic “in the true Orquesta Aragon style,” she says, referring to the grand Cuban charanga band now in its eighth decade.
The band steps way off the beaten path with “Haresah,” written by saxophonist Steve Grossman in the mid-70s; Grossman originally recorded it as a member of drummer Elvin Jones’s band, and then with his own Brazilian-flavored jazz group Stone Alliance. Gilly first heard it as a student at the University of Miami and later decided to alloy its “New York fusion loft-jazz with our band’s tropical feel.”
On the Brazilian choro called “Minorian,” Grupo Cha Cha welcomes as guest artist the the multifaceted Rob Block. Block regularly dazzles Chicago audiences when, after a virtuosic piano solo, he gets up from the keyboard, picks up his guitar, and proceeds to equally shine on that instrument as well. For good measure, he also wrote the song.
The penultimate “Pa’ Gozar,” composed by the important and influential Cuban percussionist Aristides Soto, is a lively descarga (jam session vehicle). Over the years, it has emerged as “El Tema” – the theme song – of Grupo Cha Cha; every band member gets to solo on this track, in true descarga fashion.
The jam session leads to one more Janet Cramer composition, “Elegua,” named for a major deity in santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that merges aspects of African Yoruba worship with Roman Catholicism and Native American worship rituals. Elegua is a messenger of the gods but also the trickster; Cramer and Grupo Cha Cha attempt to convey both sides of his nature with this original meringue.
Lise Gilly has been worshiping at the altar of Latin jazz for more than 15 years, ever since she started Grupo Cha Cha back in 1998. But the Washington, D.C. native’s musical activities stretch far and wide, from classical music – she founded the Chicago chamber ensemble Music Pacem in 1996, and still plays in the Kenosha (WI) Symphony – to her ongoing work in music education. She currently chairs the Performing Arts Department at Chicago’s prestigious Lincoln Park High School.
In Grupo Cha Cha, she works with some of Chicago’s most skilled “bilingual” musicians, in the sense that they excel at not only jazz and but also the various Latin idioms; indeed, it is this broad range of experiences and interpretive abilities that enables the band to purvey such a wide swath of the musical spectrum.
Darwin Noguera and Victor Garcia have achieved notice separately but especially as co-leaders and arrangers for their Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble (CALJE), one of the country’s most exciting and innovative Latin-jazz big bands. Classically trained bassist Brent Benteler has music in his DNA: he is the son of the legendary Chicago bandleader Franz Benteler, renowned for having provided light classical music to the city’s most prestigious events for more than a quarter-century. The band’s regular keyboardist, 25-year-old Adrian Joel Ruiz, studied with the noted Chicago pianist Willie Pickens and started playing professionally while attending premed classes in college.
Nythia Martinez directs the high-school choral and musical theatre programs at Northside College Prep in Chicago, and also created and directs the Chicago Puerto Rican Community Chorus. Her fellow cantante de salsa, Diana Mosquera, was born in Colombia, moved to Chicago at 13, and studied classical music until discovering salsa and Latin jazz under the tutelage of Chicago pianist Samuel del Real.
They’re all buoyed by the superlative rhythm section comprising Cramer, conga wizard Alberto Arroyo, and Jean Leroy, a master of pan-American and Afro-Latin drumming. And, of course, those audience members who can’t help but clap or stomp or beat their hands against the table when Grupo Cha Cha moves them to do so.
So buckle up and prepare for an ear-grabbing journey of Latin Jazz – but Latin Jazz Chicago style, all the way down to its multi-culti roots. In this case, that translates into Caribbean rhythms recorded in a city nowhere near the sea, led by a Jewish high-school teacher of French heritage, who happens to have married a blues musician from western Canada. Cha-cha-cha.
--Neil Tesser, The Examiner.com; author of "The Playboy Guide to Jazz"
This Is The Life is the second CD by Chicago-based Grupo Cha Cha, an eclectic group that plays Latin Jazz as well as Salsa and Brasilian dance music. The band was named after the nickname of one of the original (and since-departed) co-leaders of the group, which is now led by Lise Gilly. The project was locally recorded in Chicago and Evanston and features many of the city's best Latin jazz musicians. The songs are a combination of covers and originals.
The opening track, Peruchin, is a Mambo Jazz number that features the percussion towards the end of the piece. Bedroom Eyes is a 60s/70s-style Latin Soul - Cha Cha number with English and Spanish lyrics. The title track, This Is The Life, is a Samba jazz composition by Lise, and it features some of the highlights of the recording with nice solos by Victor Garcia (trumpet), Adrian Ruiz (keyboards) and Lise (flute). Que Te Pedi opens as a beautiful, old-school bolero and later segues into a cha cha. Vamos a la Playa is the album's Salsa track and features some beautiful vocal harmonies. Danzon Para Pedro, another original, is a danzón dedicated to Tchaikovsky and is another of the recording's highlights with some excellent trumpet and flute work in the later movements. Haresah is a laid-back 6/8 Jazz piece that is one of our favorite tracks on the recording. Minorian features cameo appearances by Phillipe Vieux on clarinet and Rob Block (who also wrote the piece) on guitar. Pa' Gozar is an Afrocuban descarga by Aristides Soto that evokes the Cuban Jam Session recordings from decades ago with Walfredo de los Reyes, Fajardo, Cachao etc. The closing track, Elegua, begins with a standard Afrocuban percussion/vocal pattern and segues into an uptempo merengue.
Overall, when this recording settles into a groove, it does it really well, and a lot of the solo work is beautiful as are the solos and harmonies in the vocal tracks. It's laid-back without becoming boring, and I would especially recommend it to fans of groups like Bongo Logic or some of Art Webb's other projects as well as people who enjoy Mongo's or Poncho Sanchez's more eclectic, laid-back and less conga-focused projects (there is no Mongo or Poncho equivalent here, but the rhythm section still puts out in spite of that). I would also call this a must-buy for flautists and listeners who are really into flutes in this music (such as fans of charangas for example), because it's a great example of how to use that instrument effectively in front of this type of ensemble.
For details about purchasing the CD and more information about the band, see its website.
--William Tilford, reporter, Timba.com