Club Seen: Chévere

Words fail one when attempting to describe the amazing phenomenon that is a “Chevere” concert. Like the return of a comet, the gathering together of the incredibly talented musicians that form “Chevere de Chicago” is a rare and highly anticipated event. Saturday night at the Green Mill Lounge saw these old compatriots back together and playing as if they were never apart. The band’s fiery, joyous, energy-filled playing combined the technical precision of the concert hall with the loose, relaxed feel of a neighborhood jam session, and the musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience.

Mixing a Latin feel with jazz, rock, and blues – Chevere utterly deconstructs the Latin genre and molds it into something entirely new and exciting – something that draws on the talents of the individual contributors to create a fascinating whole. Despite the prodigious skills of each player, it is a tribute to the sensitivity and respect for one another by the group members, in that no one musician dominates. All are given equal space to add their own element and there is no egotistical overplaying. Many of the songs played, such as “El Cojo,” “Maria Cristina,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” were from their CD “Secret Dream” and many were written by members of the group. Throughout the songs there exists a tangible joy of life and music that the band members must share.

The component members of this great ensemble are true masters of their own craft. Powerhouse drummer Alejo Poveda plays with controlled mayhem. His sense of timing is impeccable and he can unleash the beast when called upon. Conga titan Joe Rendon is strength and joyful exuberance personified, while guest artist Jean Leroy on the timbales and assorted percussion showed his talent and precision. Nor were they alone in creating an addictive rhythmic atmosphere, as everyone was willing to pick up a cowbell or shaker when they weren’t playing their main instrument.

The Chevere horn section is ably handled by the multi-talented and sweet-toned Steve Eisen on saxes and flute, and the energetic and imaginative Mark Ohlsen on trumpet and flugelhorn. One can hardly imagine a duo that work better together, as the two compliment each other so well -combining to give the impression of a much larger horn section between them. Both players are capable of being supportive, or burning it up as a soloist, but it is clear that they take harmony quite seriously and respect the music by never taking their riffing to excess.

Ernie Denov is one of the most respected guitarists in Chicago, and his tasteful solos are a study in how to play Music with a capital “M” on the guitar. He is one of the most “listenable” guitar players I’ve heard in recent memory. Meanwhile, Eric Hochberg’s 5-string bass work was superb as always. The talented Mr. Hochberg also showed his vocal chops – singing the blues with gusto on “Telegram of Love,” and providing admirable low-end support throughout. But it was his solo “duel” with keyboardist Chris “Hambone” Cameron (on Mini-Moog) that left one gasping at the breadth of his abilities. The aforementioned “Hambone” was a whirligig on Hammond B-3 and a multitude of vintage synths and keyboards. The array of sounds this creative musician devised added a surprisingly wicked and contemporary element to the overall sound.

Perhaps the most well known musician in the band is harmonica-master and pianist, Howard Levy; but Levy was quite content to play as an equal team-member. Known as perhaps the finest harmonica player in the world, the artist spent most of his time at the piano – where his smiling countenance could be seen enjoying the efforts of his bandmates. The humble musician did rip it up a couple times on his mouth harp, but he also shone quite brightly on the keyboard – where his romantic and lucid lines astonished with their clarity.

The music of Chevere seems to exist in a world of the combined musicians’ own making – combustive rhythmically, melodically interwoven with shimmering harmonies, and fitted with layers of interesting and integral pieces that interlock and work together to complete the whole. To describe the music simply as Latin Jazz does it a disservice because the description is so incomplete. To best understand is to encounter the music yourself – either by picking up a copy of “Secret Dream,” or taking in a live show at a venue like the Green Mill when the opportunity arises.

Story by: Brad Walseth (

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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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