Linking Jazz to Boleros and Ballads

Publication: New York Times
Author: Ben Ratliff
Date: August 29, 2011

Miguel Zenón
“Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook”
(Marsalis Music)

The alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón is identifiable by his tone, which is floaty and bright and ornate; sometimes he sounds as if he’s playing a ballad even when the tempo races. But he’s also become identifiable by the quality of ideas, his particular kind of intellectual ambition.

Since his first album 10 years ago he’s become something like a perfect student, the perpetually self-challenging kind. Mr. Zenón, born and raised in Puerto Rico and living in New York — and a 2008 MacArthur Foundation award winner — could make an endless stream of contemporary jazz if he wanted to, rhythmically complicated, perfectly new, perfectly cloistered. And a certain segment of the jazz audience might think that effort enough. But his deepest work has considered the opposite: culture that’s old and widely shared.

“Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook” is the third record he’s made that analyzes Puerto Rican music from the ground up and connects it, with great originality, to new jazz practice. First came “Jibaro” (2005), dealing with the song form of the island’s rural troubadours going back to the 1800s; then “Esta Plena,” (2009) about the voice-and-percussion plena tradition of the early 20th century. Now he’s onto pop standards from the 1920s to the ’70s: mostly the boleros, ballads and filin-style music that might represent the Puerto Rican equivalent of Gershwin and Kern songs.

Working against him slightly this time is that over the past decade or so music like this has been revisited a lot, and really well. Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo sang Rafael Hernández’s “Silencio” in the film “Buena Vista Social Club”; Charlie Haden recorded two albums of Mexican and Cuban boleros, “Nocturne” and “Land of the Sun”; the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and the Spanish singer Diego el Cigala turned their record of the jazz-bolero connection, “Lágrimas Negras,” into unexpected international success.

So this album isn’t the fresh move that its predecessors were. But Mr. Zenón, remaking these songs with his usual quartet, a woodwind ensemble and no singer, isn’t trying to preserve their natural dramatic mood. If you know them, he’s not scoring points with you by evoking the first time you heard them.

He keeps the core melody and remakes all the rest. Bobby Capó’s “Incomprendido,” which the salsa singer Ismael Rivera recorded in 1975, is categorically transformed: slowed way, way down and begun with overlapping updrifts of woodwinds. (The woodwind arrangements are by Guillermo Klein, whose own teasing sense of song comes through; what he’s written here is much more than an accessory.) Hernández’s “Silencio” differs greatly from the “Buena Vista” version: it bobs and weaves, changing its rhythmic background against static cycles of melody.

This is a sumptuous record that isn’t particularly relaxing to hear; its dead seriousness is hard to miss. It connotes modern mainstream jazz more than Mr. Zenón’s others, and yet it’s harder to define. It contains sequences that sound admirable but ordinary — an able, flexible new jazz quartet, doing things we’ve possibly heard before — and then pockets of real brilliance.

The best arrives in the middle, with two songs united by a cross-fade; they’re both written by the composer Sylvia Rexach, who died in 1961 and whose body of work Mr. Zenón has been especially eager to promote. The first is the title track; the second is “Olas y Arenas,” originally a song of frustrated love from the sand to the sea, begging to be swept away. It seems to mirror the action of tides, with accelerating tempos, crescendos, choppy tone rows, superimpositions of fast over slow and vice versa, fluent and fantastically elegant improvising. It’s better than any concept-record premise could describe; it’s got grace and mystery and obsession, and encapsulates the record’s entire argument in seven minutes.
  

Submitted by Courtney on August 30th, 2011 — 04:14pm

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