MacArthur genius Zenón takes on jazz genius Parker

Publication: Chicago Tribune
Author: Howard Reich
Date: February 20, 2012

Outside of Louis Armstrong, perhaps no musician commands greater reverence among jazz devotees than Charlie Parker. His virtuosity as alto saxophonist, brilliance as improviser and genius as a creator of bebop place him in the pantheon of jazz originals — alongside icons such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Jelly Roll Morton.

Which makes Friday night’s concert by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble — “Ornithology: The Music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker” — a moment of both possibility and peril. No musician takes lightly the prospect of performing an evening of Bird’s music, due to its inherent technical and artistic hurdles. Yet the musicians who can hold their own in this repertoire emerge as victors, proving that they can address some of the most daunting work ever conceived in jazz.

For this program, CJE artistic director Dana Hall has engaged a singular alto saxophonist who, like Bird, also has looked relentlessly forward in every facet of his art: Miguel Zenón. Winner of a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” Zenón has been fearless in bringing his Puerto Rican heritage to bear on his jazz compositions and improvisations, particularly in albums such as “Alma Adentro” (the best jazz release of 2011) and “Esta Plena” (an important release in 2009).Yet even Zenón approaches Friday’s event with eyes (and ears) wide open.

Charlie Parker is my greatest inspiration as a saxophone player — anything that involves him entails a large amount of respect,” says Zenón, 35. “You’ve got to be careful how you approach it. … But I’m not going to try to emulate what he played. He’s Charlie Parker, and I’m me.” Read more »