Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Miguel Zenón: An American Music Master

Alto saxophonist/composer/educator Miguel Zenón, 38, is a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. His ninth and latest album as a leader, Identities Are Changeable, was released this week, and the handsome, serious Zenón has become increasingly known to a wider audience as the NPR crowd begins to pay more attention. The album took three years, from when the concept was first planted in his head when a New Jersey university asked for a new creation, and further inspired by writer Juan Flores’ book The Diaspora Strikes Back, about the cross-cultural exchanges between the people of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as they journey to and from the United States.

Grammy nominee Zenón interviewed numerous other Puerto Ricans and American-bred Puerto Rican offspring about their shared heritage and turned pieces of those interviews into audio clips peppered throughout his new compositions. “Tell me your name, where you were born and raised, and where your family is from,” he’s heard asking after his sax kicks off “De Donde Vienes,” (“Where Are You From?”) that also features percussive piano and drums suggesting a hectic island life.

For his quartet’s upcoming show at the Clifton Center, the live production is augmented by video projections of the people and the places documented on the album by Zenón. The subjects discuss issues of identity familiar to anyone whose family came to the United States from somewhere else, especially fairly recently: self-definitions, language issues, assimilation, etc. Then there’s the music; Zenón says he doesn’t define himself as a Puerto Rican musician first, and notes that when someone talks about “Latin Jazz” they are using one term to discuss many different cultures, from Cuban to Brazilian to Venezuelan and Puerto Rican and on and on. Those genres are really only united by not having begun in the U.S., but that’s true of most music.

In 2004, after six years living in New York, Zenón became a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective in San Francisco, and today is the last original member left. In 2008, he won not just a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship but also a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (better known as “The Genius Grant”). The latter award him and other recipients a half-million dollars to do with as they so desired. The idea is that it will free them from the usual challenges of having to do this or that to make money, because their art or creative skill doesn’t otherwise pay those bills, not enough. And no one’s accused jazz musicians of being rich … well, hardly ever.

Zenón first came north to study sax at prestigious the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He then followed that up at the Manhattan School of Music, and has played with the Mingus Big Band, Charlie Haden, Ray Barretto, Guillermo Klein, Kenny Werner and many more on almost 60 other albums since 1998. He’s reached a level now where a New York Times new release round-up can bear a headline such as “Albums by Neil Young, Bette Midler and Miguel Zenón,” as though anyone on the street would know who he is. Times critic Nate Chinen called Identities Are Changeable “steeply ambitious,” adding “The writing is potent and self-assured, girded with polyrhythmic cross talk — multiple meters churning in irregular union — and given to steadily mounting drama.”

The complex big band arrangements, Zenón says, were inspired by what he’s learned from Klein, the Mingus band and John Hollenbeck, as well as his SFJazz collaborators. “All those sounds put a lot of ideas into my head,” he told Downbeat magazine in his current cover feature. The album is the second released by his own label, Miel Music (after several albums released by the Marsalis Music label; the first, Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico, was released in 2013), and Zenon also continues to leads Caravana Cultural, a program that has presented nine series of free concerts across Puerto Rico. As he told Downbeat, “I’ve been very, very lucky. It’s been a lot of work, but I love to work.”

“This young musician and composer is at once reestablishing the artistic, cultural, and social tradition of jazz while creating an entirely new jazz language for the 21st century.” – MacArthur Foundation, 2008.

The Miguel Zenón Quartet
Friday, Nov. 7
Clifton Center
2117 Payne St.
$18; 8 p.m.

c. 2014 Clifton Center

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