Sometimes, the Latin music scene can feel like a man’s world. This hasn’t stymied Grupo Cha Cha, led by classically trained, jazz-loving flute and saxophonist Lise Gilly
. Uniting a diverse crew from all different musical backgrounds, Gilly and her group have defined their own sound by celebrating their own, wide-ranging approach to Latin roots and jazz.
“Our sound is a bit different from your typical Latin band. There’s definitely a female touch, as half the band are female musicians and four out of ten songs on the album are written by women” Gilly reflects. “The scene that gave birth to the New York sound, say, is almost all men, with the exception being a handful of truly inspirational female flutists who’ve played with bandleaders like Eddie Palmieri
With Grupo Cha Cha, Gilly has carried on the great tradition of Latin flute, bringing together a wonderfully diverse, elegantly tight band and proving that, indeed, This is the Life
. Numbers move from flute-driven forms like Cu ban charanga to Brazilian samba (“This is the Life”) and choro (“Minorian”) to hot salsa (“Vamos a la playa”), with thoughtfully chosen standards (“Haresah,” “Peruchin”) and lively originals (“Danzon para Pedro,” inspired by Tchaikovsky), all ending with an energetic merengue (“Elegua”). Regardless of the form, Grupo Cha Cha knows how to sink their teeth into Latin music’s pensive and hip-swaying sides with equal energy.
A French dual citizen, Gilly has made a name for herself as a classical player, founding her own chamber ensembles and playing with regional symphonies. She has also dedicated herself to musical education as the Performing Arts Department Chair of one of the most highly ranked music programs in Illinois at Lincoln Park High School. But she wasn’t content to just play the usual classical repertoire. As a music student in Miami, Gilly dove into Latin music as a listener. “I was a classical major, but hung around with the jazz students, because they were more fun,” recalls Gilly. “I didn’t realize that I could use the flute in this cool different way. I fell in love instantly.”
Gilly moved to Chicago, determined to find work as a music teacher in the public schools. A stint as a stand-in player (that turned into a steady gig) in several popular Chicago salsa bands got Gilly playing the music she came to love. She received the honor of being selected to the National Flute Association’s Jazz Flute Big Band and will be playing along with her idols Hubert Laws
, Nestor Torres
, and Orlando Valle
August 2013 in New Orleans and the National Flute Convention. “I am so thrilled to be a part of this orchestra!” Gilly enthuses.
Grupo Cha Cha sprang from the lively Chicago conjunto scene Gilly joined, regular jams that have been happening like clockwork for years at different venues around the city. There, Gilly pushed the boundaries of her conservatory flute training, picking up the sax and sitting in with players from all different backgrounds.
“A good jam session leader will see that there’s a group there, and make quartets or quintets of random people. Or some people always play together,” explains Gilly. “Sometimes you play the classics, the standards. Sometimes you just do a descarga, on one chord, when you play a riff in one key.”
From this open forum, Gilly found friendships as well as a string of gigs, and from this community a free-spirited ensemble emerged, with Latin jazz mainstay Victor Garcia
; percussionist and composer Janet Cramer
; singers from Colombia (Diana Mosquera
) and Puerto Rico (Nythia Martinez
); Chicago percussion legend, Alberto Arroyo
, a veteran of the New York Jazz scene now in Chicago; Rob Block
; and master bassist Brett Benteler
, whose family has a long history of entertaining Chicagoans and getting them to dance (his father headed one of the city’s best-loved light classical orchestras).
“We can play straight up dance music as well as introspective stuff for listening,” notes Gilly. “After a bunch of public and private gigs, we noticed that the crowds really liked our unique choice of tunes. Then the group really came together, and we m oved from covers to originals.”
Several of the originals flowed naturally from another project Gilly was involved in, a just-for-fun all-female Latin group where she met and played with drummer and percussionist Janet Cramer
. Cramer brought some of her own compositions — many inspired by her trips to Cuba and engagement with Cuban music — to the light-hearted group. Gilly found them seriously intriguing. As Grupo Cha Cha coalesced, Gilly and Cramer put their heads together and started working on some charts for Cramer’s tunes, like “Vamos a la playa” and the Cuban bata drumming ode to the Afro-Cuban messenger spirit, “Elegua.” (Both Cramer and fellow Grupo Cha Cha percussionist Jean LeRoy
are followers of bata, with its powerful, entwined Afro-Cuban musical and spiritual elements.)
“Lise and I share a lot of the same perspectives of being women musicians in a machismo music scene. Women have to work 110% to get hired and play a gig. This is why I admire women like Lise who are band leaders,” Cramer reflects. “You do meet a lot of men who are very supportive of women, and most of them are some of the best musicians.”
Latin aces like Garcia (who helped arrange many of the album’s horn parts) and pianist Darwin Noguera from the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, as well as classically trained musicians with serious jazz chops like Benteler, have proven supportive. On tracks like the upbeat original samba, “This is the Life,” and Cuban descarga standard, “Pa’ Gozar,” the ensemble’s pleasure at playing together shines through.
“I have always felt a strong musical chemistry since the beginning,” enthuses Benteler. “We have all become great friends over the years, and this you can hear in the music. Besides always bringing the highest standard of professionalism to work, when we get together, somehow it always ends up a party.”
“Grupo Cha Cha has not only let me be a sideman, but given me the flexibility of being able to have creative input,” Garcia says. “A situation like this is not that common; most bandleaders are firm in their vision and are not easily swayed to see things in a different light. This sense of significance really brings the camaraderie, and, indubitably, music making to a whole new level."