Leader of his own quartet and a member of the SFJazz Collective since its inception seven years ago, he also is on a mission to incorporate elements of Puerto Rican folkloric and popular music into jazz and to introduce American jazz to young people in his Caribbean homeland.
The recipient three years ago of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship from which he receives allotments of $25,000 every three months, Zenón used the proceeds to launch Caravana Cultural. Since February, working in cooperation with the Puerto Rican nonprofit organization Revive la Música, he has performed three free jazz concerts in remote regions of the island using as sidemen top New York players such as trumpeter Avishi Cohen and pianist Gerald Clayton. The first featured the music of Miles Davis. Parker and Ornette Coleman were the focus of the second and last month’s third.
“As soon as I got the fellowship,” Zenón says by phone from New York, “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. We took a couple years putting it together. It’s a lot of hard work because it’s very grassroots in the way we’re trying to do it. It’s a lot of small towns in a small country. We have students from one of the schools join us in one of the songs. There’s a lot of obstacles, but it’s very, very fulfilling.”
Zenón has recorded five CDs for saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ Marsalis Music label since 2004. Three have featured Zenón’s jazz interpretations of styles of Puerto Rican music that he’s been hearing since childhood. His longtime sidemen - pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole - play on all three.
The first of the triumvirate, 2005’s “Jibaro,” features Zenón compositions based on musica jibara, a genre of Puerto Rican mountain music that utilizes string instruments and a style of 10-line poetry from Spain known as décima. “This music,” the saxophonist says, “is more connected to European music. It’s not as percussive as other styles that we have in Puerto Rico.”
Highly percussive plena music, the focus of 2009’s “Esta Plena,” Zenón explains, “would be kind of the opposite. It’s from the coast. It’s kind of a carnival music, like if you think about second-line in the States or samba in Brazil or soca in some places in the Caribbean.”
Unlike its folkloric predecessors, the current “Alma Adentro” CD presents the Zenón quartet, plus an ensemble of 10 horns, playing jazz arrangements of popular songs from the 1920s through the ‘60s by prominent Puerto Rican composers Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, Bobby Capó, Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernández and Sylvia Rexach.
“The idea for the CD,” Zenón says of “Alma Adentro,” “was not to change the songs too much but trying to capture that certain time in Puerto Rico where these great songwriters were writing all this great music and trying to make a connection between the Puerto Rican Songbook and the Great American Songbook. I wanted to give those great composers a little exposure in the jazz world and maintain the connection that jazz has always had with songbooks.”
“People like George Gershwin and Cole Porter were songwriters and they were famous people,” he adds. “The same can be said for Rafael Hernández. He was not only regarded as musical hero but as a national treasure in Puerto Rico.”