Like the other songs originally composed for Julia al Son de Jazz, the form of Canción de la Verdad Sencilla does not follow the path of its original conception, but remains true to its intent. The title comes from a Burgos poem, and translates to Song of Simple Truth. It is cast in a folkloric bomba sicá rhythm played by Ivelisse Diaz on Barril Seguidor. It begins with McGrath’s solitary saxophone, but he soon yields to two voices as the rhythm section bubbles underneath. Puerto Rico-born actress Rosanna Sanchez reads excerpts of Burgos’ poem in Spanish. Claritza Maldonado, a U.S. poet of Puerto Rican descent, reads her own English poem about her mother and grandmother before her, ocean spelled m.a.m.i. The two feminine voices engage in a conversation that spans three quarters of a century and three thousand miles. McGrath re-enters to establish the melody which is then picked up by the rest of the band, alternating sicá and yubá rhythms.
Por Ti Estoy is dedicated to McGrath’s mother, written in gratitude for her never ending support of his music career. In English, it means “because of you, I am.” We all have people in our family that support us through thick and thin, and because of those people we are who we are. Musically, it is a gently swinging tune with alternating sections of uneven lengths followed by a twisting coda that builds toward a brief, but explosive saxophone solo.
Plena Julia is the second of four songs that emerged from the Julia project. It features conguero Victor “Junito” Gonzalez and drummer Jonathan Wenzel in its introduction as they engage in interlocking solos between bits of melody played by McGrath and pianist Bill Cessna. Kitt Lyles’ bass also carries the folkloric plena rhythm. After this opening statement, the band fully enters for the primary theme. A sparkling solo by Cessna is followed by some hard blowing from McGrath while Cessna drops in hints of montuno. It finally explodes into a classic salsa breakdown, setting the stage for a killer descarga by Gonzalez. The song then returns to plena only to shift back to a montuno in its final moments.
The centerpiece of the album is its thesis statement. Whereas the other tunes recorded here were informed over time, finally taking shape when these musicians came together, Remembranzas was written after they became a working band. The remembranzas of their collective memory include an extensive tour of China, Korea and Singapore, countless hours of woodshedding, and, finally, the studio time itself.
The third song to emerge from Julia al Son de Jazz was inspired by a Burgos poem that McGrath particularly liked. After a stately saxophone introduction, the song settles into a mid-tempo groove that carries the melody, flowing into a coda introduced by Cessna’s piano which later is taken up by the rest of the band.
The melody for Miré Asi came to McGrath during a practice session. On his mind were the ways we perceive people and correspondingly treat them. As our perceptions change, so do our behaviors. The title translates roughly to “I saw you this certain way.” This song is the story of how over time we change the way we look at people, to the point of seeing them in a completely different light. As that perspective changes, we must remove barriers and be open to receiving it. The rhythmic foundation of Miré Asi is a bomba sicá, but the arrangement presents the song entirely in a jazz context, without the addition of folkloric percussion, giving it a different, gently swinging, feel. There is plenty of room for all of the band members to embark on extended solos.
“KyKy” is a Ukrainian greeting of affection, a way of saying hello to someone special. Like the shifting perspective in Miré Asi, the form of KyKy changed as the relationship that inspired it did. Its first conception was a ballad, but as it followed the contours of its inspiration evolved into a Cuban rumba, becoming one of the liveliest songs on the album, marked by an explosive drum solo and some of McGrath’s brightest playing.
The fourth and final song from the Julia project originally served as its introduction, a musical bed for a brief biographical recitative about the poet’s life. Now arranged for jazz quartet, it’s built on a Yoruban bembé rhythm that is a building block of spiritual Afro-Caribbean music. The overall structure of the tune gives the rhythm a different feel that doesn’t sound at all unnatural when it shifts into a Bird blues, landing the song and album firmly in the jazz tradition before returning to the original theme.
Cancion de La Verdad Sencilla
written by Julia de Burgos, recited by Rossana Rodriguez.
Ocean Spelled M-A-M-I
written and recited by
Produced by Roy McGrath
All Compositions by Roy Mcgrath
Recorded on April 25th & 26th 2017 at Electrical Audio, Chicago
Mixed & mastered at GardenView Sound Studio, Evanston, IL
It can be argued that, while we go about life as an organic machine made of flesh and bone, our consciousness, what makes us human, is something else entirely. What is our consciousness if not a cumulative collection of constantly updated memories that have been organized in such a way as to advise us what to feel and do next?
Memory is subjective, and not necessarily entirely factual, a retelling of experience. While facts might be recalled incorrectly, memories are our truths, and ultimately the question becomes “What do I do with these things I know to be true?”
For Puerto Rico-born tenor saxophonist and composer Roy McGrath, the past is present in the form of these memories. This music honors that past, yet also provides a signpost for the future. The eight compositions that make up this album were written and arranged for this particular band of musicians, and they represent a very specific and personal truth that fully came into existence in the recording studio.
Remembranza is a Spanish word that can be used multiple ways. A remembranza can be a memory or even a flashback. It is a point in the past that is deeply rooted in one’s consciousness because of the powerful feelings that were evoked at the time of its creation.
And, of course, new remembranzas are being created all the time.
At the core of this album are four tunes written with a very specific purpose. McGrath was commissioned in 2015 by the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago to compose a Afro-Caribbean jazz suite honoring revered Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. What eventually emerged out of Julia al Son de Jazz, as the project was called, were four compositions. Two were loosely based on her poems and two sought to capture something about who Burgos was and how she lived her life.
As 2015 turned into ’16 & ’17, McGrath worked with several musicians, eventually finding the exact people to help him realize the form that the Julia songs would take. The remaining tracks each relate to a memory from McGrath’s life, both in Puerto Rico and the U.S., where he has resided since 2007. They have to do with the very stuff of life: family, relationships, creation, and identity. These may be specific memories from McGrath’s life, but their themes resonate with universal human experience.
They include the title track which, in a way, touches on all four. This quartet (bassist Kitt Lyles, drummer Jonathan Wenzel, and pianist Bill Cessna), in fact, inspired the idea of a remembranza as a theme to build the album around, up to and including the process of creating it.
Though a memory can be fleeting, there will always be this work that lights and keeps present this remembranza.
Taken together, they are a portrait not of the past, but of a very real present that each and every memory led to, and the creation of this album is the newest powerful Remembranza that McGrath and his quartet carry with them.
- Don Macica
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