Saxophonist Roy McGrath is proud of his Puerto Rican heritage and is one of the leaders in blending aspects of Puerto Rican music with jazz. Born and raised in San Juan, he moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola University. McGrath became an important part of the local jazz scene, appearing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival three times. He moved to Chicago to pursue his Master’s degree in Music from Northwestern University in 2014 and has been part of the Chicago jazz scene ever since. McGrath has certainly not forgotten his roots in Puerto Rico as he has shown by heading the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble, performing with altoist Miguel Zenón, and on his first two CDs as a leader: Martha and Remembranzas.

On his latest recording, Menjunie, he heads an octet that performs four traditional pieces by the innovative Puerto Rican composer “El Topo” (Antonio Cabán Vale) that he had been commissioned to arrange a few years ago plus four of his originals. He utilizes a group of skilled jazz and Latin players based in Chicago (trumpeter Constantine Alexander, José A. Carrasquillo on the cuatro (a guitar with five double strings), bassist Kitt Lyles, and percussionists Victor Junito Gonzalez and Javier Quintanta-Oscasio) plus two friends from Puerto Rico (pianist Eduardo Zayaz and drummer Efrain Martinez).

The music utilizes Puerto Rican folkloric rhythms (including the Bomba and the Plena) and has plenty of stirring work from the percussionists. McGrath and Alexander contribute many lively solos and the ensembles are consistently exciting. While there are several melodic ballads (including the romantic original “Bolerito”), it is the more heated pieces that are most memorable, particularly “Guamani,” “Loquito Por Ti,” “Cuembé Na’ Má,” and “Antonia.”

Throughout Menjunje, Roy McGrath does just to both the legacy of Puerto Rican music and creative jazz. It is easily recommended and, due to its infectious rhythms, is quite accessible even to those who are not necessarily into jazz.

Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian