Neil Tesser,

“This Is The Life”

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 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 merengue.

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 Musica 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 music teacher of French heritage, who happens to have married a blues musician from western Canada. Cha-cha-cha.

- Neil Tesser,; author, “The Playboy Guide to Jazz”.

William Tilford,

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.

- William Tilford,

Chip Boaz: Latin Jazz Corner

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.

Ali Ryerson, National Jazz Flute Orchestra

From the opening track, Peruchin, with it’s deep Afro-Cuban dance groove; to the title track, This Is The Life, a beautifully written, infectious melody, underscored by the instinctive interplay between flute and trumpet, often heard throughout the album; to the hip, contemporary sound of Haresah; to the upbeat and offbeat Pa Gozar; this band had me at “..and one”. Listening to Grupo Cha Cha, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to jump up and play with them, or dance to them!

It’s not often that a recording so genuinely reflects the spirit of a band, as it’s not something that’s always easy to achieve in the studio. This album, however, has captured the very essence of Grupo Cha Cha, a group of incredible musicians who evidently love playing together, as every track mirrors the joy they experience in doing so.

All of these musicians, vocalists included, are first-rate, at the top of their game, and team players in the truest sense. This Is The Life is the result of true musical synergy, a blending of multi-cultural musical backgrounds, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and American jazz; together, Grupo Cha Cha has created a distinctive and cohesive musical concept. Every aspect of their new album, down to the sequencing of tunes, is well balanced, like a good jazz or dance set. Between the absolutely killin’ grooves and amazing soloists, this band hits a home run.

As a jazz flutist, my attention was often drawn to Lise Gilly’s inspired flute playing. Gilly plays with confidence, so obviously ‘at home’ stylistically throughout the album. She has a beautiful, full tone, with impeccable intonation; her improvisations are inventive, well constructed and always musical, demonstrating years of experience as both a jazz and Latin player. A consummate team player, Lise generously shares the spotlight with her talented band-mates.

If ever I have the opportunity to hear Grupo Cha Cha live, I won’t miss it.

Ali Ryerson, Jazz Flutist, Conductor of the National Jazz Flute Orchestra – April 21, 2013

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