Spotlight: This Is The Life, Grupo Cha Cha

by chip on June 7, 2013

The Spotlight Series highlights upcoming Latin Jazz musicians that have yet to reach national recognition. Many of these musicians thrive in local scenes and some tour in support of releases. All these musicians contribute greatly to the overall Latin Jazz scene, and they deserve our “spotlighted” attention.

This Is the Life
Grupo Cha Cha

As Latin Jazz has spread across the country, its always interesting to hear what types of influences arise from the local scene, putting a unique spin on the tradition.  While we can certainly come to an agreement about the core elements that form the basis of the style, those pieces can be creatively manipulated into something distinct.  This doesn’t mean that artists have free reign to make arbitrary alterations to the style – the foundation of the genre always needs to be in tact, giving us a sense that the musicians in the area have done their homework.  Musicians need to make artistic choices about how they will frame the tradition though, telling us a little bit about how they see the world.  Since their perspective is largely based upon the people, places, and things in their immediate area, regional Latin Jazz sounds start to evolve.  While areas like New York or San Francisco with established Latin Jazz traditions already have specific elements associated with them, it’s always interesting to how the spread of Latin Jazz across the country spurns new regional sounds.  Chicago has certainly given the world some strong Latin Jazz releases over the past few years, and This Is the Life from Grupo Cha Cha is another outstanding example of the high level of musicianship and quality coming form the area.

Solid Compositions With An Interesting Combination Of Musical Elements
The distinct personality of the group is most apparent on a collection of original compositions from band members.  Flautist Lise Gilly and trumpet player Victor Garcia’s intertwining lines meld into beautiful harmonies on “This Is The Life,” matching the uptempo and easy going samba groove in the rhythm section.  As the melody comes to an abrupt break, Garcia dives into a bop edged improvisation, wrapping the mellow sound of his flugelhorn around the chord changes with a bright rhythmic vitality.  Adrian Ruiz constructs a lively solo, letting notes from his Fender Rhodes bounce around the rhythm, until he falls into a percussive vamp, opening the way for an energetic solo from Gilly.  The rhythm section plays with grace and strength, providing a driving danzon as Gilly and Garcia delicately combine harmonized and echoed melodies on “Danzon Para Pedro.”  Pianist Darwin Noguera and bassist Brett Benteler fall into a funky groove while conguero Alberto Arroyo riffs around the transition into mambo section, making way for Garcia’s bluesy statement full of screaming percussive notes.  A coro works as the bridge between solos, leading into Gilly’s improvisation, allowing her to nimbly send notes through the groove and sending the band to an inspired end.  Arroyo adds a distinctive Brazilian feel to “Minorian” with his driving pandeiro, while Gilly wraps an active melody around the deep, rich tone of clarinetist Phillipe Vieux’s supportive commentary.  Guitarist Rob Block takes over the rhythmic momentum on a spacious section with a three-way melodic conversation between Gilly, Vieux, and Ruiz, that provides a beautiful contrast.  After a return to the main idea, Block, Vieux, Gilly, and Ruiz each fly through short improvised bursts of energy, adding a brief bit of spontaneity into a composed and elegant song.  Vocalist Diana Mosquera reverently sings a santeria song over a strong layer of bata drums on “Elegua,” followed by a full chorus of voices that matches the solemn yet assertive drive of the bata.  A drum fill leads into a lively merengue groove, which sends the full band charging forward with rapid fire horn lines, a bubbly piano groove, and commanding vocals.  As Gilly flies through active sax riffs, Garcia opens into a lyrical solo that hits both the rhythmic and melodic simplicity of the style with both taste and creative musical interpretation.  The band members create some solid compositions, letting us see which musical elements they value enough to include in their writing.

A Wide Range Of Cover Songs
The group also makes some interesting choices about cover songs that they arrange into strong performances.  Gilly and Garcia place an understated melody with sharp rhythmic edges around a medium tempo son montuno groove on Charlie Otwell’s “Peruchin,” before falling into long notes which leave room for fills from Arroyo.  An assertive percussion break sends the band charging into a solo from Noguera, who creates a colorful statement full of harmonic alterations and forcefully syncopated figures.  The band reaches a ferocious momentum as Gilly hits her first improvised note, which she attacks with rhythmic ideas and repeated figures, leading into an aggressive solo from drummer Jean Leroy.  Benteler sets a plodding vamp as the foundation to Steve Grossman’s “Haresah,” leading into a dark and mysterious melody from Gilly and Garcia with lots of open space for coloristic percussion fills.  Gilly explores the full range of her instrument on an expansive solo that combines edgy note choices, brash rhythmic hits, and busy lines into an attention grabbing statement.  Garcia moves through the rich chord structure with quick runs and sequences, leading into a moody improvisation from Ruiz, whose Fender Rhodes sound adds to the brooding tone of the piece.  A memorable bass groove from Benteler and an addictively disjointed montuno from Noguera sets the tone for a spontaneous descarga on Aristides Soto’s “Pa Gozar.”  Gilly blazes through an energetic series of ideas, and after a quick mambo, the band comes down while Noguera lights the groove on fire with a ferocious solo full of virtuosity and syncopated rhythmic placement.  Garcia inspires rabid response from the rhythm section with rising melodic sequences, before the group comes back down for a percussive statement from Benteler and then back up for an explosive conga solo from Arroyo.  The group includes a range of interesting choices here, ranging from traditional descargas to open and fusionesqe songs that gives us a little bit deeper look at their musical backgrounds.

A Fun And Accessible Side Of The Band
The band reveals a different side to their musical personality with three vocal tracks that contain a more accessible sound.  A driving cha cha cha groove pushes a rock influenced horn line towards Nigel Mack’s bluesy vocal on “Bedroom Eyes,” which gets some soulful interaction from Garcia’s funky fills.  Nythia Martinez heats up the lyric through a call and response with Mack, speaking to him to Spanish, creating a playful exchange that adds some lively spice to the recording.  This track has a decidedly commercial appeal, but its certainly balanced with a healthy dose of jazz influence, supported by an assertive improvisation full of rhythmic edge from Noguera and a bluesy harmonica solo from Mack.  There’s a refined sense of elegance in the rhythm section’s approach to the bolero foundation of “Que Te Pedi,” which Mosquera matches with a pure vocal tone that rings with an operatic influence.  Ruiz moves the group into a downtempo cha cha cha with a montuno that sets the stage for a solo from Gilly, who tempers a strong collection of tipico lines with creative energy.  Mosquera returns with a bit more rhythmic and embellished approach to the melody over the cha cha cha, flying over the band until a strong horn line ends the tune.  The rhythm section lays down an understated yet strong son montuno groove beneath a short flute solo from Gilly on “Vamos A La Playa,” leading into an impassioned vocal from Martinez.  As the band moves through a verse-chorus structure framed by a mambo and coro, a distinctly modern salsa edge emerges, making this an appealing  dance track.  When the band moves past the vocal though, there’s a driving descarga aesthetic, leaving plenty of space for Garcia to roar over the vamp, sending the band charging back towards the vocal.  These songs include elements of dance music, jazz, and blues, providing a side to the band that’s both fun and artistic.

An Authentic Connection To The Music With A Local Twist
Grupo Cha Cha delivers a strong collection of Latin Jazz on This Is the Life, filled with a tipico foundation, a danceable salsa flavoring, a solid connection to jazz, and a bluesy flair, reflective of their Chicago experience.  There’s no doubt that the musicians have a good deal of experience with Cuban and Brazilian styles, as reflected in everything from their driving rhythmic feel to their improvisational comfort over different rhythmic backgrounds.  Even the repertoire selection shows a diverse connection to the music, ranging from Otwell’s west coast cool to the definitively Cuban sound of Soto’s “Pa Gozar.”  The ensemble brings a bit of Chicago flavor into the music with their solid approach to jazz, dance music, and blues.  They bring jazz elements into their music with a hard bop to modern leaning, with thick harmonies and improvisations tightly connected to the chord changes.  There’s a fun and accessible vibe in the music too, ranging from the greasy blues that seeps into the music as well as the liberal use of vocals and salsa aesthetics.  This Is the Life contains a wealth of strong performances, with Gilly standing out as a musician with a strong connection to Afro-Cuban styles.  Garcia and Noguera have been important advocates for Latin Jazz in Chicago, and their powerful musical personalities make a big difference here.  There’s a potent mixture of musical elements on This Is the Life, that resonates with an authentic connection to the music with a local twist that makes the album a fun listen with a focused artistic vision.

Track Listing:
1. Peruchin (Charlie Otwell)
2. Bedroom Eyes (Nigel Mack)
3. This Is The Life (Lise Gilly)
4. Que Te Pedi (Gabriel Luna De La Fuente & Fernando Lopez Mulens)
5. Vamos A La Playa (Janet Cramer)
6. Danzon Para Pedro (Lise Gilly)
7. Haresah (Steve Grossman)
8. Minorian (Rob Block)
9. Pa Gozar (Aristides Soto)
10. Elegua (Janet Cramer)
Nythia Martinez – vocals (1, 2, 5, 6, 9); Diana Mosquera – vocals (3, 4, 7, 8, 10); Nigel Mack – vocals, harmonica (2); Lise Gilly – flute, sax; Phillipe Vieux – clarinet (8); Victor Garcia – trumpet, flugelhorn (3, 7); Darwin Noguera – piano (1, 2, 5, 6, 9); Adrian Ruiz – piano (3, 4, 7, 8, 10); Rob Block – guitar (8); Brett Benteler – bass; Janet Cramer – campana, bongos, congas (2, 5), tambourin (3), shaker (3), bata drums (10); Alberto Arroyo – congas (1, 6, 9), campana (9); Jean Leroy – drumset, triangle (3), pandeiro (8), bata drums (10), congas (10); 

Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Album Of The Week: Blueprints, Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble
Latin Jazz Conversations: Victor Garcia (Part 3)
Spotlight: The Gardener, Darwin Noguera’s Evolution Quintet
Spotlight: My Very Life, Paulinho Garcia


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