Latin Jazz Spotlight: An Interview With Lise Gilly From Grupo Cha Cha

by chip on June 19, 2013

Working as a modern musician requires an individual to wear many different hats, ranging from a mastery over several styles to an involvement in various employment opportunities.  A performer that hopes to make a living from music needs to be able to seamlessly switch between any different type of music that the gig demands.  This might mean reading a piece of classical music flawlessly, improvising through a set of traditional jazz changes, or grooving hard around the clave.  They need to work compatibly with any number of different musicians, navigating diverse stylistic and cultural aesthetics with sensitivity and finesse.  While handling each of these demands, a musician needs to cover ever changing roles.  One night they might be a bandleader, while working as a sideman the next evening, and then waking up to serve as an educator.   There’s no doubt that a musician needs to be comfortable with any task, setting, or collaborator; the more easily they stretch their comfort zone, the more successful they will be.

Flautist Lise Gilly has certainly become accustomed to wearing multiple hats, balancing her chores as bandleader of Grupo Cha Cha with symphonic work, teaching, and more.  Originally trained as a classical flautist, Gilly brought a strong set of technical skills as well as a solid theoretical foundation to the table when she first experimented with jazz.  Her steps into the jazz world quickly exposed her to Latin Jazz, where she found the flute being applied both liberally and very musically.  As she dug deeper into Latin Jazz, she started to see vivid correlations between symphonic music and traditions from Cuba, Brazil, and more.  Back in Chicago, she also found an active community of strong musicians passionately dedicated to both jazz and Latin music.  She found work as an educator at Lincoln Park High School, where she shared her vast knowledge and experience with a younger generation while honing her own craft at night.  As she began to play with the area’s Latin Jazz musicians regularly, they formed Grupo Cha Cha, first as an outlet for their common interests and later as a professional outlet for their original ideas.  They recorded their debut release, Direcciones in 2005, which they followed with This Is the Life in 2012.  Today Gilly continues to wear several different hats, moving between work as a bandleader, symphonic musician, educator, and more.

Grupo Cha Cha has currently been at the forefront of Gilly’s attention,  with the recent release of their album This Is the Life.  Their album is an outstanding combination of tradition and creativity, balancing a jazz edge with a smart dance and commercial sensibility.  It’s a rich tapestry of music that reflects Gilly’s diverse background, as well as the influence of the collaborators around her.  I dug into Gilly’s background and her work with Grupo Cha Cha in this interview, taking a look at the line between classical music and Latin Jazz, the Chicago music scene, the development of Grupo Cha Cha, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You have a background as a classical flautist – how did you make the leap into jazz and Latin music?

LISE GILLY: While I was at the University of Miami, I was always hanging with the jazz musicians. My sax player friends turned me on to these really hip recordings of Hermeto Pascoal and Chick Corea that featured flute solos over these great Latin tunes. I had never heard the flute used this way musically.  It gave me such a great feeling – different than the classical world that I was immersed in at the time so I was instantly lured to it. 

LJC: Now that you’ve spent quite a bit of time in jazz and Latin music, do you see a musical connection between them or do they feel like two distinct worlds to you?

LG: There is a distinct connection between Classical music and Latin music as far as the flute goes.  The Cuban danzón utilizes many classical themes from the 19th Century with flute and violin as the lead instruments, Brazilian choro music is basically the Sousa march and ragtime form with flute and guitar as the lead instruments.  These styles are all hybrids of the traditional European conservatory music school and the cultures of the people transported from their native habitat.  All of these styles require many hours of practice for technique, feel and improvisation, whether it be in school or a passed down as a tradition from the elders.   When I play De Falla, Rodrigo, Bernstein, and more on my symphony gigs, I think of charanga, danzón, choro and salsa!  My friends in the orchestra notice it and always ask me where I get my inspiration……

LJC: When did Grupo Cha Cha come together and evolve into the group that we hear on This Is The Life? 

LG: I played for many years in local salsa and merengue bands such as Merenguito and Carpacho.  It was such fun but those club gigs died out due to a variety of reasons.  Then I met a group of local musicians from Pilsen, a south side Chicago neighborhood famous for great Latino culture, and we formed the first version of Grupo Cha Cha in 1998.  We started out playing local clubs and small private parties.   A few years later in 2000 we all decided to go our separate ways amicably, and I hooked up with some heavy jazz cats in Chicago that happened to be the top Latin cats as well. 

We started playing higher end restaurants, clubs and private events.  We enjoyed it so much that we decided to record our first CD, Direcciones in 2005.   Our collaborations with jazz composer and arranger Steve Million were very fruitful and propelled us into playing the major Latin clubs and restaurants around Chicago.

LJC: How much has the group’s personnel changed over the years or has it remained fairly consistent? 

LG: The personnel has changed slightly since 2000 but has remained constant since 2006.  Our great bass player friend, Thomas Kini, was taken from us far too soon.  Other band members had commitments that conflicted with some of our projects so once again we had an amicable change of personnel.  There was a great Sunday night Latin Jazz jam session hosted by Joe Rendon, conguero, in the mid to late 2000′s that spawned the most recent version of Grupo Cha Cha.  I met our bassist Brett Benteler and Canadian drummer/percussionist Jean Leroy there.  I met drummer Janet Cramer through an all female big band that I was playing Tenor Sax in at the time and she asked me to be in her Latin Jazz quartet: Chi Chi’s Cha Cha.  Then the up an coming stars, pianist Darwin Noguera from Miami and trumpeter Victor Garcia added the finishing touches.  As you know they formed Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble and have had much success with their group!  We were all playing gigs together and we really enjoy each other’s company so we decided to lay down our tracks in the studio!

LJC: Part of Grupo Cha Cha’s personality lies in the fact that the band is balanced between men and women – what has your experience been like as a female bandleader and how do you think that the gender balance effects the band?

LG: Being a female bandleader in a man’s world has been tough at times, usually when trying to book gigs.  It’s a very male dominated world; it seems that you have to be a great player and look like a supermodel at the same time.  But when you have a group of pro musicians all working towards the same goal, it all becomes much easier.  The era of the female businesswoman has come and it has expanded to the music industry.

I am a big fan of collaboration and incorporating everyone’s musical ideas into the project.  It’s definitely not the “Lise Gilly” show.  It’s so beautiful that everyone has been receptive to my tunes and Janet’s tunes as well as killing it on the Latin Jazz standards of course.  I am encouraging other band members to bring their originals to rehearsal.  Our lead singer, Diana Mosquera and pianist, Adrian Ruiz, each have some originals that we will be playing at our upcoming shows. The girls in the band love to play together; we are also open and welcoming to other female musicians who’d like to play Latin Jazz.  The audience loves it too!

LJC: Your flute is certainly another major piece of Grupo Cha Cha’s sound; the flute has a big history in Latin music – how do you see that tradition and how do you see it fitting into Grupo Cha Cha?   

LG: The flute and it’s many forms was one of the first instruments played on Earth.  Made out of hollowed out wood or bone, the flute was right along side the drums in antiquity.  Throughout the ages, the flute has taken many shapes and forms, and I have to give props to Theobald Boehme for giving the world the modern silver flute as we know it.  The sound is pleasing to the hear and beckons the listener.  Of course, I feel this way because I was drawn to this instrument as a young 10 year old prospective music student!  You might laugh, but the first time I really fell in love with the flute was when I heard the theme to “Mission Impossible” on a record – my elementary music school teacher, Ms. Viola (yes that was her real name!), played it for us as a fun listening song.  The driving beat, the bongos, and the mysterious flute sound really got me excited!  Well gosh, “the rest is history” as they say; I continued on and went to music school as a classical flute major.  I did learn that the traditional Cuban orchestras used the flute pre-Boehme – it only had five keys and they could hit much higher notes than a modern flute . . . so we all have to practice our third octave! 

Since my heritage is strongly European, I still didn’t really know how the flute was used in Latin cultures until I moved to Miami and hung out with my jazzer friends.  From the traditional Cuban orchestras of the 20′s and 30′s up to Dave Valentin and Maraca, we can all agree that at least 90% of the major Latin Jazz recordings have prominent flute parts.

Since that’s my instrument, I naturally wanted to express myself within this context.  I’m so happy to be with a group of players that support each other and value what each member brings to the gig.  I am also very thankful to have been chosen to be in the National Flute Association Jazz Flute Big Band.  This is a special group of flutists led by jazz flute extraordinaire, Ali Ryerson, and her San Francisco rhythm section, that is performing this August in New Orleans.  We will be backing up Jazz Flute greats Hubert Laws, Nestor Torres and Maraca!  This is definitely a highlight of my Summer besides our CD release party! 

LJC: This Is the Life flows pretty easily between improvisation heavy Latin Jazz and vocal driven Latin dance music – do you see a difference between these two parts of the repertoire and how do they fit into Grupo Cha Cha’s live performances? 

LG: There’s certainly a difference in the repertoire because some tunes you can dance to and some are just for listening and chilling out.  Grupo Cha Cha has many types of shows and we are happy to have originals and standards in our repertoire to fit any bill.  All musicians are aware of which gigs you can stretch out for a 20 minute tune as opposed to playing a succession of shorter tunes where you need to keep the crowd dancing!  Grupo Cha Cha is made up of seasoned musicians that have been in many different gigging situations and we know how to play the room.  We are 100% collaborative and each band member has an equal share of the spotlight and contributes to the direction of our shows.  Sometimes the venue tells us straight up what the scene is going to be, and then of course we will lean towards those type of tunes.  Sometimes the agent or venue just says, “Do your thing guys!” and we decide what our vibe will be for that night.  We have lots of tunes to choose from, so it’s always difficult to just pick a few for the night! 

LJC: Chicago isn’t generally the first city that folks think of as a center for Latin Jazz, but it certainly has a scene – how would you characterize the Latin music scene in Chicago? 

LG: Chicago is an extremely diverse city and more people are migrating here each year.  All Latin American countries are represented and people have carved out their niche here.  The musicians in the Latin scene here are very supportive of one another–and you will find many of them playing with 4 or 5 different Latin bands a month!  On any given night you can go out to hear live salsa, cumbia, flamenco, Brazilian, Argentinian guitar duos, banda and more. I am amazed that every month I meet new musicians of all styles that have been living here for years doing their thing!

We all want to get the Chicago scene into the National spotlight up with New York and LA–people such as you Chip are helping us spread the message. 

LJC: You also work as an educator, have you had the opportunity to integrate Latin Jazz into your curriculum? 

LG: Yes!  Lincoln Park High School is currently ranked #2 in Illinois for music–we have a very high powered program with serious music students.  My favorite thing is to share my club and performance experiences with my students.  I have been fortunate to play in shows ranging from Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall to neighborhood late night jam sessions while collaborating with all sorts of players.  I have what my kids call, “Ms. Gilly’s special instrument chest” full of Latin percussion instruments.  Every concert I choose a different Latin influenced work for them and teach them how the parts fit together.  Grupo Cha Cha’s rhythm section have been so gracious over time to help my classical self learn how all the parts fit together.  The most fun part of my day is to pass along this knowledge to my students!

A new development this year is that Grupo Cha Cha has been performing special educational shows in Chicago and Milwaukee just for teenagers. It’s called “Latin Voyage.”  You can see the trailer for this program above.

LJC: At this point, Grupo Cha Cha has two albums released, and you’ve performed throughout the Chicago area – why are your plans for the future? 

LG: Ultimately we would like to go on tour so we can play big international and national music festivals.  We would like to also go on tour to schools and universities with our “Latin Voyage” educational project.

We will always keep writing and incorporating original Latin Jazz into our repertoire, unearthing hidden gems from the classic latin repertoire and bringing unique, beautiful and exciting music to our audiences.  Of course we LOVE to play for our fans that helped us get to where we are today and will continue to perform locally! Thanks so much Chip for this interview and opportunity to be in the Latin Jazz Corner!

Check Out These Related Posts:
Spotlight: This Is The Life, Grupo Cha Cha
Latin Jazz Conversations: Victor Garcia (Part 3)
Album Of The Week: Blueprints, Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble
Spotlight: My Very Life, Paulinho Garcia


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