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Publication: The Revivalist
Author: Liam Bird
Date: August 23, 2011
“Latin jazz” is a term routinely used to index the music of Cuba and Brazil, but its existence in Latin America is more endemic than this might suggest–though its prevalence in the U.S. as in Europe remains as limited as it is eluding. Miguel Zenón, an alto saxophonist at the forefront of the Afro-Rican jazz movement, is one of a handful of artists who have been able to break through this paradigm by fusing Puerto Rican traditions, African Roots and modern jazz while garnering critical acclaim on an international stage. He has had multiple Grammy Nominations and is a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, but I didn’t have to tell you that as Zenón’s arrangements on his new release, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, speak for themselves. Zenón pays homage to five Puerto Rican composers, whose works represent popular song in Puerto Rico, with new interpretations led by his original voicing. Let’s take a listen.
The wait-for-nothing opener, “Juguete,” composed by Bobby Capó and made popular by Cheo Feliciano as a ballad, is dominated by up-tempo, staccato rhythms. The lyrics are a declaration of love in spite of being made into a juguete, a plaything, but Zenón’s howl is exigent rather than bemoaning. On “Incomprendido” the extensive personnel that Zenón collaborates with on Alma Adentro, which includes a ten-piece woodwind ensemble conducted by close friend Guillermo Klein, can be heard in full force. On Zenón’s spirited new arrangement of “Silencio,” originally composed by Rafael Hernandez, the woodwind ensemble led by Klein aggrandize Zenón’s horn lines, which underline the folkloric rhythms that Zenón hints at. The hauntingly expressional title track, “Alma Adentro,” is the song that Zenón’s working quartet, composed of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hanz Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole, has the most experience playing and according to Zenón, in reflecting on the song and the album, “There was a deeper, more emotional connection here. I grew up with these songs and they all had a very special and lasting effect on me.”
“Olas y Arenas,” one of the more complex arrangements on Alma Adentro features overlapping time signatures that progress into a harmonic haze under the ambiance of the woodwind ensemble. “Amor,” composed by Pedro Flores, is lyrically about rejoicing in the idea of love itself and it features Zenón effervescent signifying. “Perfume de Gardenias” is a tribute to Zenón’s first saxophone teacher, Angel Marrero, which he played in a wind ensemble with her in his youth. The last track, “Tiemblas” is constructed out of layers of harmonically intersecting textures/tempos and the ensemble brings clarity here. Overall, Alma Adentro showcases the infinite possibilities of Afro-Rican jazz in terms of fusion and demystifies latin jazz by bringing a new–non-Cuban/Brazilian–sound into the limelight. The album follows in stride from Zenón’s Jibaro and Esta Plena, which are other performances worth checking out.