49 Sounds of Home and Heroes – Miguel Zenón

Miguel Zenón

In the last hour, we heard from Rudresh Mahanthappa who, together with Miguel Zenón, has dominated the critics polls for alto players over the past decade.  Like Mahanthappa, Zenon brings his heritage into the mix featuring the music of Puerto Rico as not just an influence, but an inspiration. Also like Mahanthappa, he pays tribute to his alto hero in his most recent recording to honor Ornette Coleman. Recent music from Miguel Zenón in the next hour of Jazz at 100 Today!

As Will Layman writes on Pop Matters, “Saxophonist Miguel Zenón has been a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and he is known for innovative composition and fresh concepts in improvised music. But he is also the kind of creative big thinker who is always aware of the history that his work is built on. Perhaps that is why so many of his recent projects have been nods to artists and traditions that preceded him. ‘There is something to that,’ [says Zenón]. ‘It’s part of the tradition of creative music to build on what was laid out before you. I’ve always felt fortunate to be inspired by this history and tradition. And part of the tradition is tipping your hat.”

On AllAboutJazz, Dan Bilawsky writes, “While Zenón has put out a few albums that don’t touch on his heritage, [2011’s] Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook [promotes] a fusion of Puerto Rican traditions and modern jazz ideals. While those earlier efforts were original affairs which tied Puerto Rican folkloric traditions into Zenón’s compositional mindset, this album is about bringing Zenón’s voice and originality into new arrangements of classic songs from his native country… Miguel Zenón has become the de facto spokesman for the jazz possibilities inherent in the musical DNA of Puerto Rico…”

His 2014 release, Identities Are Changeable, uses a big band to supplement his long-time quartet of Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Henry Cole on drums. His compositions are mixed with clips of interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage to explore topics of identity and home; topics of personal interest to Zenón who moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1998.

Tiemblas. Miguel Zenón Quartet plus
(Jennifer Kessler, David Byrd-Marrow, Nathalie Joachim, Domenica Fossati, Julietta Curenton, Romie de Guise-langlois, Carol McGonnell, James Austin Smith, Brad Balliet, Keve Wilson, Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig, Henry Cole). From Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook. Marsalis Music. 2011
My Home. Miguel Zenón Identities Big Band
(Mat Jodrel, Michael Rodriguez, Alex Norris, Jonathan Powell, Ryan Keberle, Alan Ferber, Tim Albright, Will Vinson, Michael Thoman, Samir Zarif, John Ellis, Chris Cheek, Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig, Henry Cole). From Identities Are Changeable. Miel Music. 2014

Miguel Zenón’s quartet of Perdomo, Glawischnig and Cole had been together for over a decade when they recorded Tipico in 2017, as a spare vehicle for Zenón’s rich compositions. James Nadal wrote on AllAboutJazz, “In keeping with his exploration into Latin music’s folkloric origins… [the title track] delves deeper into the harmonic cadences which typically distinguishes the music of the Caribbean and Latin America [incorporating] a myriad of influences from the montuno on the piano, to danzas, sons and boleros, all presented with improvised bravado.”

In 2019, Mark Corroto wrote on AllAboutJazz, “It is not possible to listen to Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenónwithout triggering thoughts of another altoist, Charlie Parker. Like Parker, Zenón has that quicksilver processing of thought and expression, but more relevant is that both artists can render any style of music into the jazz idiom. Where Parker dealt with Latin music in a macro sense, Zenón gets down to a micro level… Sonero, dedicated to the legendary Puerto Rican singer Ismael Rivera, also conjures Charlie Parker in that Rivera was his vocal counterpart in the world of improvisatory salsa. His singing revolutionized folk music with a similar complexity and degree of innovation. This recording is the genius intersection of both men as illuminated by Zenón’s quartet, a working band for fifteen years and four previous albums.”

Típico. Miguel Zenón Quartet
(Miguel Zenón-as, Luis Perdomo-p, Hans Glawischnig-b, Henry Cole-d). From Tipico. Miel Music. 2017
La Tumbas. Miguel Zenón Quartet
(Miguel Zenón-as, Luis Perdomo-p, Hans Glawischnig-b, Henry Cole-d). From Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera. Miel Music. 2019

Zenón has recorded recently in settings independent of his quartet, blending with a string quartet (the Spektral Quartet) on the 2018 release Yo Soy La Tradicion, and on two live recordings released in 2021, El Arte Del Bolero in duet with Luis Perdomo and Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman with a European-based international quartet.

Yo Soy La Tradicion is reminiscent of Focus, the great tenor and string orchestra collaboration by Stan Getz in the 60s. As Dan McClenaghan wrote, “Focus features Getz with the larger canvas of an orchestra, but the approach—that of full integration of string arrangements with the horn voicings rather than the sax blowing over a subtle backdrop—is the same… Zenón’s take on the folkloric Puerto Rican sound, a mix of African, native and Spanish influences, is mixed with his own ideas and musical history and comes up with a work of superb beauty—sometimes emotional and urgent, other times solemn and reverent.”

A one-off live date in Switzerland with Cuban tenor saxophonist Ariel Bringuez, Argentine bassist Demian Cabaud and Catalan drummer Jorge Rossy resulted in Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman. In an excellent review John Chacona wrote, “How do you hear Ornette Coleman’s music? As an unlikely but logical extension of bebop vocabulary? As “free” chaos untethered from harmony? As a tributary of the great stream of Texas saxophonists? As jazz’s purest melodism? The music of Coleman, who would have turned 91 years on March 9, 2021, was all of those things and many more. Why shouldn’t a body of work that presents so many points of entry be as ubiquitous on record as that of Thelonious Monk, who was as iconoclastic and inscrutable a figure at the beginning of the 1950s as Coleman was at the decade’s end? The jazz world, it seems, hasn’t quite caught up with the change of the (last) century. Thankfully, Miguel Zenón has, and Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman is proof. After a recent string of releases which deeply examined Zenón’s Puerto Rican heritage, it is an abrupt departure. But Law Years forcefully argues for Coleman as an equally vital part of Zenón’s musical heritage and for Coleman’s position as a jazz composer.”

Milagrosa. Miguel Zenón Featuring Spektral Quartet
(Miguel Zenón-as, Clara Lyon-vln, Maeve Feinberg-vln, Doyle Armbrust-vla, Russell Rolen-cel). From Yo Soy la Tradición. Miel Music. 2017
Dee Dee. Miguel Zenón Quartet
(Miguel Zenón-as, Ariel Bringuez-ts, Demian Cabaud-b, Jordi Rossy-d). From Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman. Mile Music. 2021

In the two decades that Miguel Zenón has been an active recording musician, he has immeasurably raised the profile of Puerto Rican music in the jazz world, adding it to the other Latin American powerhouse sources of Cuba, Brazil and Argentina. Combining folkloric routes and bebop chops has resulted in one of the most important discographies of recent years.

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Resources

Bilawsky, Dan. (2011, August 21). AllAboutJazz. Miguel Zenon: Alma Adentro – The Puerto Rican Songbook. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/miguel-zenon-alma-adentro-the-puerto-rican-songbook-by-dan-bilawsky.php

Turner, Mark F. (2014, November 4). AllAboutJazz. Miguel Zenon: Identities Are Changeable. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/identities-are-changeable-miguel-zenon-miel-music-review-by-mark-f-turner.php

Nadal, James. (2017, January 12). AllAboutJazz. Miguel Zenon: Tipico. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/tipico-miguel-zenon-miel-music-review-by-james-nadal.php

Corroto, Mark. (2019, September 1). AllAboutJazz. Miguel Zenon: Sonero: The Music Of Ismael Rivera. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/sonero-the-music-of-ismael-rivera-miguel-zenon-miel-music-review-by-mark-corroto.php

McClenaghan, Dan. (2018, September 11). AllAboutJazz. Miguel Zenon: Yo Soy La Tradicion. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/yo-soy-la-tradicion-miguel-zenon-miel-music-review-by-dan-mcclenaghan.php

Chacona, John. (2021, March 23). AllAboutJazz. Miguel Zenón: Law Years: The Music Of Ornette Coleman. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/law-years-the-music-of-ornette-coleman-miguel-zenon-miel-music

Layman, Will. (2021, May 10). PopMatters. “Part of the Tradition is Tipping Your Hat”: An Interview with Jazz Saxophonist Miguel Zenon. https://www.popmatters.com/miguel-zenon-2021-interview

For other programs in Jazz at 100 Today! visit: Jazz at 100 Today!

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