By Michael Ullman
Miguel Zenón, who on saxophone has the facility of a bebopper, which he uses discreetly, is here a singer as well as an instrumentalist.
Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero (Miel Music)
As I write, it is alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón’s 44th birthday. He’s a MacArthur Fellow, has won a Guggenheim and, more important, has earned the admiration of his peers and a wide listening audience. Often drawn from his Puerto Rican heritage, his repertoire is unique, his writing wide-ranging. He has arranged Puerto Rican songs for orchestra, (on Alma Adentro) and written for alto saxophone and string quartet (on Sonero). He’s a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective and is currently working on a disc dedicated to the music of Ornette Coleman (Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman). I think that El Arte del Bolero — its bare-faced duets featuring the saxophonist with his longtime colleague, pianist Luis Perdomo — is in its way just as ambitious as the Coleman homage. When the touching title melody on Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook is played, it seems to be reaching for something just out of reach, surrounded by a large orchestra punctuated by drums and cymbals. The large ensemble approach drives Zenón toward ever more effectively impassioned statements. On his new collection, which was recorded as a concert on September 28, Zenón begins “Alma Adentro” on his own and at a slightly slower tempo. He sounds exposed, even when Perdomo comes in quietly behind him.
In his notes to El Arte del Bolero, Zenón explains his affection for “Alma Adentro”: “Sylvia Rexach, the composer of this piece, is a favorite of my mother’s, and I was exposed to her music as a young child. This is a song that always brings back feelings of longing and deep nostalgia, a yearning for things no longer there.” It seems that Puerto Rican songs, recorded by singers like Rexach, Benny Moré, and Cheo Feliciano, have a special meaning to Zenón and perhaps to his generation. About this recording, he says “we chose compositions from the Bolero era that we could just play right away, without giving it a second thought: songs from the times of our parents and grandparents…. When we play these songs, we can hear the lyrics in the back of our minds — something that provides a very deep connection, one that is hard to replicate in any other situation. It really is almost beyond familiar. These songs are part of us.”
So Zenón, who on saxophone has the facility of a bebopper, which he uses discreetly, is here a singer as well as an instrumentalist. His repertoire pushes him and Perdomo in similar directions. The love songs are mostly tragic, the performances impassioned, tender, and virtuosic. “What did I ask of you,” one translation runs, “but loyal understanding,” and in another song a woman wonders how she fell in love with her less loyal mate. “Life is a dream” insists Arsenio Rodriguez’s “La Vida Es un Sueño.” The composer, blinded as a child, dramatizes life as a journey of suffering.
Throughout the album, Zenón shows himself to be the master of his instrument. On “Que Te Pedi” (and elsewhere) Zenón begins with an unaccompanied introduction — it comes off as an indirect display piece. There is a pause after the solo opening, And then, accompanied by Perdomo, there is a surprise: the saxophonist almost sings the lyrics of “Que Te Pedi,” He hesitates and uses an occasional line-ending vibrato to suggest the vocalist he must be hearing in his head. This is not to say that Zenón is sentimental: he plays with a tart charm, and improvises boldly and zestfully on many of the selections. Perdomo plays with a comparable poeticism and sensitivity to both the song’s words and the possibilities of the chords.
According to Zenón, the session was unrehearsed but the two musicians seem to know exactly what the other is up to. The opening number on Alma Adentro, “Juguete,” is the last one on this album, and it is the most playful performance in the lineup. To my ears it is as much as kind of game as it is a dance, with quotes from such songs as “Broadway,” and a chorus in which the pair trade fours and Zenón plays a little of “In Walked Bud.” If you are like me, you’ll leave listening to this album with a song in your head and, if you’re Puerto Rican, perhaps in your heart as well.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.