Yet Another Great Weekend of Chicago Jazz

Few jazz bands in Chicago have survived as long — or performed as sporadically — as Chevere.

Since 1978, this one-of-a-kind Afro-Latin-Caribbean jazz-funk-blues group has inspired audiences with the energy and virtuosity of its music. Yet in a single year, Chevere may work less than half a dozen times, as it did in 2009.

So why is a group with this much talent and originality so hard to find in Chicago’s clubs and concert halls?

“First of all, trying to pull these nine guys together isn’t easy,” laments Chevere manager Alfred Ticoalu, who has booked Chevere for a rare, two-night engagement this weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club, in Uptown. “Each guy is quite busy on his own.”

Indeed, any ensemble staffed by the likes of percussionist Alejo Poveda (who founded Chevere), multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy (who perpetually tours the world) and woodwinds virtuoso Steve Eisen (a saxophonist for all occasions) is going to face scheduling problems. Each of these artists — as well as guitarist Ernie Denov and percussionists Ruben Alvarez and Joe Rendon — finds himself in keen demand. Add to this mix keyboardist Chris Cameron, bassist Eric Hochberg and trumpeter Mark Ohlsen, and you have a Chicago all-star nonet if ever there were one.

Yet the members of Chevere (most of whom date to the early years of the organization) still carve out time to reconnect, and it’s not difficult to understand why. For while Chicago does not lack for fine Latin-jazz ensembles, none sounds remotely like Chevere. Together, these artists redefine Latin jazz on their own, somewhat idiosyncratic terms.

“I think there’s a Chicago sound to this group, but it’s hard to put into words what that is,” says Poveda.

We’ll try anyway: In essence, Chevere brings the hard-charging, rough-and-tumble spirit of Chicago jazz and blues to Latin jazz idioms. The sheer aggressiveness of its musicmaking, as well as its unpretentiousness and emotional ardor, makes this the sort of ultra-non-slick band you’d never encounter in New York, Los Angeles or any other major jazz center.

Not that Poveda ever intended to create such an entity. Born in Costa Rica 61 years ago, the percussionist visited the U.S. in 1965 and moved to Chicago in the early 1970s with his first wife. The marriage didn’t last, but a love affair with music in Chicago did.

“I had many offers to go to L.A.,” recalls Poveda. “But in Chicago there was so much music, and there also was this friendship among the musicians. There was the opportunity for me to play with so many kinds of musicians, different types of groups. I learned so much. And I liked the happiness that was in Chicago.”

Early on, Poveda worked with Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and Minnie Riperton, as well as an array of hard-core jazz players.

But he also felt he needed to re-examine the roots of his Latin heritage, and he did so by creating the five-man Chevere Percussion Ensemble. After its first performance, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the band quickly expanded to include a variety of instrumentalists.

From the outset, the music was buoyant, steeped in Latin rhythm and immense in scale, leading Poveda to choose the name Chevere.

“It’s an expression that’s used a lot in the Caribbean, and in Venezuela as well,” says Poveda. “It’s like saying, ‘Awesome.’

“You ask someone, ‘How was the party?’ They say, ‘Chevere.’ How are you feeling? ‘Chevere — I’m feeling great.'”

Not that Chevere’s 31-year odyssey has been easy. In all that time, the band has released one recording, “Secret Dream” (2005) and has never played outside the U.S.

But a follow-up CD is in the works, and dreams of taking the band offshore burn deeply.

“We’re beginning to see a lot of interest, especially in Europe,” says manager Ticoalu.

“We hope to do a series of shows there.”

If the players can find the time.

Originally published January 30, 2009 by Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune.

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