by Giovanni Russonello
Puerto Rico native Miguel Zenón, whose quartet plays this Wednesday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, is a seeker. Enamored with John Coltrane since high school, the alto saxophonist has spent his entire adult life chasing after a wide array of musical impulses – from his early days in Boston’s quirky Either/Orchestra to his mid-2000′s tenure in the SF Jazz Collective, one of the country’s most formidable experimental jazz institutions, to his recent, full-circle return to the songs of his homeland. Through it all, Zenón has maintained a dogged commitment to doing things on his own terms, and has invested greatly in his own recordings, producing six albums of gaping variety over 10 years. What holds them all together is Zenón’s searing alto attack – which he wields like a hot blade administered in deep, irrefutable cuts, rather than bewildering slices at lightning speed – and his fastidious ear toward group dynamics.
The albums Jíbaro (2005) and Esta Plena (2009) consisted entirely of his original compositions and were performed with his jazz quartet, but their inspiration came directly from folkloric Puerto Rican song forms and styles. Before recording Esta Plena, Zenón spent an extended period of time doing field research in his homeland with traditional plena musicians. His most recent record, Alma Adentro, released this year, was the first for which he didn’t write any tunes. Instead, Zenón worked with famed Argentinian arranger Guillermo Klein to craft contemporary, jazz-tinged interpretations of Puerto Rican popular songs from the mid-20th century.
With these three albums, Zenón has illuminated a brand of Latin American improvised music that typically flies under the radar in the North American jazz world, which has hitherto focused on Latin jazz based on the syncopated, Afro-Cuban clave rhythm. The music on Alma Adentro exhibits specifically Puerto Rican styles of syncopation, and it prizes harmonic textures at least as much as rhythmic ones. In its sense of constant swelling and folding, it is not unlike Klein’s work from the late 1990s and early 2000s with his New York orchestra, Los Guachos.
Zenón took a moment last week to discuss Esta Plena, Alma Adentro and the quartet that will be onstage at Atlas tomorrow.
CapitalBop: Before you released Esta Plena, you went down to Puerto Rico to do research. What kind of study did you do before recording Alma Adentro?
Miguel Zenón: I did a little research, but it was a different kind…. I just listened to records, and transcribed different versions of the tunes. These were tunes that I knew pretty well from before, but I wanted to get more into them. I read a little bit into the history of all the composers, including a couple biographies…. The main difference is that Esta Plena was all original compositions, but [on Alma Adentro] I was working with music that was already written and just rearranging it. So I wasn’t necessarily studying a style as much as getting to the inside of each composition and trying to see what I could use in the arrangement.
CB: When you did travel to Puerto Rico for Esta Plena, was there something in particular during your research that struck you, surprised you or inspired you?
MZ: In Puerto Rico everybody knows what plena is. I grew up around it, and I heard and played it. For me, it was more about getting inside the development of that music and how it started and developed into what it is today.
“I was very serious about respecting what had already been done, and just adding another chapter.”
Something that I wasn’t expecting was that a lot of the people that I talked to – street musicians, people that just play for fun – were surprised at my interest, since I was a jazz musician. I don’t want to say they were suspicious, but at first some of the information was kind of hard to crack, because they didn’t really know where I was coming from. They didn’t really see it as something that could be approached [academically]. For them, the music is something they do for fun in the streets; this whole investigation and research and trying to put it into the world of jazz, they had no idea who I was. I was really coming to them as a “Mr. X.” It was actually a great surprise in that sense, and it made me approach things a little differently.
CB: How did that change your approach to playing, appreciating or reinterpreting the music on Esta Plena?
MZ: It made me go deeper into the music, for sure – which was the whole idea. When I delved into the project, my idea was actually similar to what it was for this project [Alma Adentro]. It was trying to do something with a tradition that was already established – kind of putting my own stamp on certain things but respecting the tradition that was already there. The more I went into it, the more solidified this idea got in my head about the tradition being at the center of it. Everything I was going to do ended up having to be implanted in that tradition. I was very serious about respecting what had already been done, and just adding another chapter.
CB: On Alma Adentro, you worked with Guillermo Klein, one of today’s greatest arrangers. He’s got a technique that’s very personal but also versatile; what was it like to work with him on a project that has so much of your own concept behind it, and so much of a personal connection for you? How did it feel to put so much in his hands?
MZ: My connection with Guillermo comes from a lot of years of playing together. I’ve played in his bands for 10 or 11 years, and we’re really close friends. When I was exploring the possibility of expanding some of these arrangements for a larger ensemble, I thought of him first of all because I’ve always wanted to do something with him within my own projects, and also because he’s really one of the top guys out there.
In my opinion, he’s [as good as] any other composer-arranger today. Not only because he can deal with the whole language of the arranger-composer – voicings and orchestration and all that stuff – but also because he’s a songwriter. And I think the fact that he’s a songwriter puts him over the top of what other people are doing. He has a certain sensibility of what a song is: He thinks song first, and then he kind of expands. That was exactly what I wanted to do with this recording. I was starting with the original songs and arranging those songs for quartet, and then expanding them even further. I just thought he was the perfect choice.
When we talked about it, I played him a lot of the originals and showed him the arrangements that I had done, and it all kind of worked out very naturally. Because even though he didn’t know the music or the originals, he’s from Argentina, another Latin American country, and a lot of those traditions interact. He saw a lot of similarities to the music from his country – tango, all the folkloric music – and sort of found a space for himself within the music, so he could work with what I had already done but still put his stamp on it.
CB: You’ll be playing in D.C. with your regular quartet of pianist Luís Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole. You’ve been playing with that group for a long time. What’s the dimension of this combo? How do you guys interact, and where does the emphasis lie?
I’ve been working with Hans and Luís for more than 10 years, and Henry’s been in the band for about six years.… I think the things that we do specifically revolve around how I put together certain ideas. I’m pretty specific about the way I write music and the way I want to convey it. Whenever I want to hear something, I won’t just leave it to randomness, I’ll write specific bass lines, specific chords, specific drum parts. When I write, I’m trusting that they’re going to be able to play what I wrote, but then when there is space for randomness and being creative in their own way, they’re going to be able to make it even better. I think the key to the relationship as a band is specifically that: them understanding me after so many years and the way that I try to put music together.