By Michael Ullman
The saxophonist has the slithery facility of a bebopper, but I also hear something of the forthright stance of Coltrane in his playing, despite the rhythmic complexity of his writing — and his distinctively varied use of his Puerto Rican background.
Miguel Zenón, Música de las Américas. (Miel Music)
Of his new disc, Música de las Américas, recorded in March, 2022, alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón writes, “This project is born out of a personal curiosity for information, built piece by piece through the process of translating this information into a musical platform.” Música de las Américas was “inspired by the history of the American continent. In this case, my main focus was on re- and post-colonized America, asking myself questions like: What was this part of the world like before 1491?” Zenón’s questions continue, ending in a tantalizingly unanswerable one. He wonders, “What would this part of the world (or the world as a whole) be like if this encounter had never taken place?” This is not the type of concern we hear from many jazz musicians. Made with his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Henry Cole) and with certain key guests, the tracks on Zenón’s album embody possible answers. Of course, a further question is suggested: what if the music of indigenous cultures, or what Zenón imagines that music would be, met modern jazz? And not just Charlie Parker, but John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Zenón has made a disc, Law Years, dedicated to the music of Coleman. (Arts Fuse review) The saxophonist has the slithery facility of a bebopper, but I also hear something of the forthright stance of Coltrane in his playing, despite the rhythmic complexity of his writing — and his distinctively varied use of his Puerto Rican background.
Música de las Américas is a kind of history lesson that takes the form of a buoyant musical adventure. It opens with “Taínos y Caribes,” which evokes the peaceful culture of the Taíno people and their rivals, the more warlike Caribe. Both tribes were wiped out after colonization. The piece begins with an agitated repeated figure accompanied with strong, sometimes off-beat, accents. Zenón and Cole enter, determined to fill out the gloriously boppish statements laid down by the chord sequences. Perdomo takes the first, exciting solo, and plays wild accompanying figures when Zenón returns with the melody.
The slow, dignified, marchlike “Imperious” is designed to evoke the empires of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas and their “achievements in astronomy, mathematics, agriculture,” as well as other arts. Empires should not be taken lightly, the music implies. When Zenón solos, the rhythm section becomes more expansive, but remains precise, even as the saxophonist alternates rapid-fire lines with stabbing notes and phrases that seem to cut between the beats. “Bámboula” kicks off with guest Viktor Emmanuelli on a drum (formerly made from barrels) called the barril. It’s a joyous piece whose highlights are, after the solo introduction by Emmanuelli, the traded phrases by the saxophonist and pianist. About six minutes in, the piece slows suddenly and then stops briefly. Zenón reenters as a soloist (Perdomo plays a few spare chords) and then the other band members return as if seeing the music in a new light. “Navegando” pays tribute to indigenous navigators who used to guide themselves using the stars. The tune features the vocals of Los Pleneros de La Cresta, which Zenón describes as “one of the great plena groups of our time.”
I first heard Zenón soloing in 1998 on the Either/Orchestra’s More Beautiful Than Death. Recorded when Zenón was in Boston at Berklee, his solo on “Number Three” is what bandleader Russ Gershon called “burning.” Zenón was already burning, but that is not all. There is a clarity of purpose in his every phrase, a confidence that comes from his secure technique and agile inventiveness. However rhythmically subtle his music becomes, Zenón is always at the right place at the right time.
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.