Though Roy McGrath has been living, performing and serving in all sorts of behind-the-scenes capacities in Chicago for nearly a decade, his cultural musical heart will always be in his homeland of Puerto Rico. Menjunje, his long awaited follow-up to his 2017 Latin Grammy nominated album Remembranzas, brings the fiery, densely percussive magic – as well as the soulful, sensually lyrical sweetness – of the island to life in fascinating ways.
The versatile saxophonist’s multi-faceted, eminently danceable invite into an exploration of his Puerto Rican heritage starts with the album title. As he explains in his colorful liner notes, a menjunje is a homemade tonic, an improvised healing drink given to sickly folks from “whatever your grandmother has in her cupboard” – sugar cane juice, ginger, lemon, honey, garlic, cayenne pepper, etc. This is the perfect metaphor for the colorful hodgepodge of vibes on the eight song collection, ranging from the fast burning, freewheeling opening jams “Guamani” and “Loquito Por Ti” – composed by legendary P.R. born Nova Trova singer/songwriter Antonio Caban Vale (aka “El Topo” and dazzlingly arranged by McGrath – to the moody (low key, then simmering and spirited), impressionistic and richly improvisational McGrath original “Groove 4” and his sensual ballad “For Zee.”
The project’s uniquely organic origins are worth noting. In 2017, Chicago’s Segundo Ruiz Cultural Center hosted a tribute to “El Topo” and commissioned McGrath – leader of the center’s youth Afro-Caribbean jazz ensemble – to arrange and perform some of the composers work with his jazz sextet. The foundation of Menjunje is four of these pieces – also including the at first sexy and slow burning, then wildly rambunctious “Antonia” and the whimsically adventurous “Linda Morena,” the latter which features trumpeter Constantine Alexander’s most burning solo and the album’s only bona fide drum solo (by Efrain Martinez).
Fitting energetically amidst the classic pieces, McGrath’s originals also include the Bomba-flavored, brassy swing romp “Cuembe Na Ma” and the lyrical, heartfelt closer “Bolerito.” Aside from an exuberantly arranged repertoire, the most dynamic aspect of Menjunje is the ensemble, which features two of McGrath’s Puerto Rican based friends, Efrain Martinez and pianist Eduardo Zayas, working intuitively with some of Chicago’s top jazz and Latin music cats, including percussionists Victor Junito Gonzalez and Javier Quintana-Ocasio, playing exotic instruments you’ll love grooving to and will probably start Googling. Like the titular drink, surreal improvisations by McGrath and company abound, making this one of the year’s can’t miss Latin Jazz excursions.