Jazz Album Review: Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo –“El Arte del Bolero, Volume Two”

By Michael Ullman

Listening to the superb El Arte del Bolero, Volume Two, I feel that these are two masters who, while recalling their various ancestries, are talking to me.

Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero, Volume Two (Miel Music)

The first volume of duets by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón (originally from Puerto Rico) and the Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo was an unexpected success, musically and commercially (Arts Fuse review). The saxophonist explained in his album notes that he and Perdomo recorded without an audience in the midst of the Covid epidemic, and also without a plan. Perhaps the isolation made them nostalgic, pulling them into the past: they were not thinking of issuing the performances to the public. So each would suggest a once famous love song to the other and then — without rehearsal or much forethought — they would play one classic popular song after another. When they heard what they had done with these compositions, many of which they knew from childhood, they decided to issue El Arte del Bolero. These were a set of intimate, deeply touching performances whose subdued zest reminded this listener of the best jazz balladeers.

When Zenón and Perdomo decided to record a second volume, they approached it differently. As the saxophonist put it, “We decided to put a little more thought into which songs would be recorded on Volume 2. This was a very fun process, one that was initiated pretty much the same way every single time with the following question: ‘Tu sabes que canción es bien buena?’ (You know which song is really good?). From there we would get into long discussions about who sang it best, which arrangement was hipper or what would be a good key to play it in. Once we settled on the songs, another big question arose: how much do we want to push this into the jazz world while still maintaining the original spirit of the song?” No matter how jazzy they might make one or another, it was determined that the songs themselves would be the main attraction.

Luis Perdomo grew up in Venezuela, we are told, listening to the luscious love song “Motivos.” (I am guessing motivos sounds more romantic than the English “motives.” ) The song begins (in an anonymous translation) by speculating about that most suggestive of flowers, the rose: “A rose/Painted in blue/Is a motive/A simple little starfish/ Is a motive/ to write a poem is easy if there is a motive/And one can even hope for solace from the fantasy.” Of course, the singer discloses that his main motive is the “you” he is singing to. Perdomo introduces the tune’s beautiful melody simply and Zenón follows with a sweet, deliberate style that sounds both intimate and virtuosic. This saxophonist is a master of dynamics, and with Perdomo he has found the perfect partner.

They handle “En la Soledad” differently, this time going out of tempo, even including some interludes of freeish improvisations that sound like excited conversations over a pedal point. Perdomo plays swirling clusters of notes that gradually rise in pitch as if to match his partner’s growing intensity. There’s nothing harsh here: Zenón returns to the melody, which he plays via a whisper that makes this listener wish he knew the words. The recording’s final number “Silencio,” contains a spiky first section and then moves on to a more lyrical episode before returning to the initial theme. According to Zenón, it offers “perhaps the most intricate arrangement of the songs on this album.” It is the liveliest entry in the lineup, the one that best shows off the impressive chops of both instrumentalists. In the more raucous nightclubs, excited jazz fans used to yell “talk to me” at soloists. Listening to El Arte del Bolero, Volume Two, I feel that these two masters, while recalling their various ancestries, are talking to me.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, 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.

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