9:49 AM CDT, August 21, 2012
For anyone intrigued by Chicago jazz, Thursday night's concert at Millennium Park stands as one of the most intensely anticipated event of the summer.
But for the widely admired Chicago drummer-composer Frank Rosaly, who will lead the performance, it's something more – a rare opportunity to make contact with his past. For though Rosaly was born and raised in Arizona, he lived every summer from ages 11 to 19 in Puerto Rico, where he had been conceived.
On the island, Rosaly spent uncounted hours with his grandfather, who spoke hardly any English, the two communicating largely via gesture and by sharing photographs. Rosaly's grandfather would read his Spanish poems to the boy, the music of his grandfather's voice and of the language itself making a deep but then-unnoticed impression on him.
Until a few years ago, Rosaly – one of this city's most innovative young jazz musicians – paid scant attention to his Puerto Rican roots. He has been more concerned with the future of jazz than its past. But a few years ago he discovered the boxed set "Lamento Borincano – Early Puerto Rican Music: 1916-1939" (Arhoolie Records) and became entranced with this majestic music.
In effect, it awakened in him a profound connection to Puerto Rico that he didn't realize was there all along. Inexorably, he felt that he had to study and absorb historic Puerto Rican idioms, and he'll bring the results of his exploration to the public for the first time when he unveils "Todos de Pie!" ("Everybody Stand Up!") at Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion.
"I think it happened because it had to happen," says Rosaly, speaking of his journey into his cultural heritage.
"This Puerto Rican music that I've kind of grown up with … it's always been playing in the back of my mind. But because I grew up with it, it was music that was sort of subconscious, versus music that I discovered on my own, like jazz and electronic and punk.
"Only within the last few years have I kind of slowed down my mind enough to hear all of those songs and all that music that have been a part of me all my life. And it's now time to pursue those things, because they're really important. It colors the way I play as a jazz musician, and I feel I should pursue them just to get to know that part of me.
Yet it's clear by looking at the personnel list for the concert that this evening will not be a nostalgia bath. One wouldn't expect that from an iconoclast like Rosaly in any event.
But with a cast that includes such creative improvisers as Dutch vocalist Jaap Blonk, trombonist Jep Bishop and bassist Nathan McBride, this music surely will project a 21st century sensibility. At the same time, Rosaly's inclusion of percussionist Don Francisco Rosaly (his father) and players from Las BomPleneras – an ensemble that nurtures Puerto Rican bomba and plena music – ensures that traditional sounds will be a part of the mix. In effect, this could be an explosive merger of vintage Puerto Rican sounds and cutting-edge Chicago jazz, an unlikely mix at best.
"It's really quite wild what's happened to the music over the last three weeks" of rehearsals, says Rosaly. "First, we played a bomba or plena, sometimes a mambo or salsa kind of vibe. Then I said to Nate (McBride), 'What if you played some double-timey punk-rock thing?' And that changed everything.
"So we did that over the course of these 11 tunes that we are probably going to be playing. The tunes are basically covers, I guess you could call them. Half of them are really out there, and the other half are like, 'Oh, yeah, those are kind of like a (classic) bomba.' "
If anyone can pull off such a cross-genre feat, it's Rosaly, whose work in a couple dozen Chicago bands has attested to his stylistic versatility, technical aplomb and improvisational creativity. It's difficult to overstate how highly his peers value his work.
"I can be an exaggerator, but I think he is one of the greatest drummers working today anywhere," says Chicago cornetist Josh Berman. "I almost hesitate to say this, because I would hate for some famous guy in New York to take him away from us.
"He's one of the best timekeepers, creative, great composer, incredible ears. … He's got supersonic ears."
After Thursday's concert, with Rosaly leading an ensemble of 13 musicians convened for the occasion, he'll record this music with hopes of releasing it soon. But he's the first to concede that he doesn't yet fully realize how this process has affected him as man and musician.
"It's really fresh – I don't know what it is yet," says Rosaly. "I don't know what it means for me. … I'm in it. I'm neck deep."
Frank Rosaly's "Todos de Pie!" ("Everybody Stand Up!") will begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue; free; 312-742-1168 or millenniumpark.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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