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Publication: All About Jazz
Author: Dan McClenaghan
Date: August 24, 2011
The cover photo on alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook is of two people dancing in the middle of a boulevard. They are nicely dressed. The man’s coat tail flies and their dance clasp is a passionate embrace, suggestive of a romantic yearning hitched to the side of a good time, a posture suggesting a sense of pride and dignity. And that’s what the music on this release is, in large part, all about.
On Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005) Zenón explored his Puerto Rican heritage in a quartet setting. On Awake (Marsalis Music, 2008), he employed a string section and added horns. For Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook Zenón uses a regular jazz quartet augmented by a ten piece wind ensemble to explore a group of ten popular Puerto Rican tunes.
From the first alto notes of “Jugete,” a good time tune, Zenón’s sound is unmistakable, his dry, keening tone as distinctive as any alto saxophonist working today. The opener is fiery, up-tempo, with the woodwinds blowing cool and lush, the rhythm section crisp and tight. “Incomprehendo” is a wistful ballad, a soft huff of the woodwinds emerging like a cottony fog from Luis Perdomo’s spare, pensive piano work, behind Zenón’s yearning alto.
“Silencio” runs hot, giving those dancers on the cover shot a workout, perhaps, and “Temes” showcases Zenón’s remarkably tenderhearted virtuosity inside a fragile woodwind wash. “Perdon” steps lightly, with a hint of melancholy stirred into the mix.
Zenón’s tone and his virtuosity on the alto saxophone—and the format of the CD in its entirety—bring alto saxophonist Charlie Parker to mind, especially Charlie Parker South of the Border (Verve Records, 1995) and Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (Verve Records, 1995). The woodwind ensemble plays the role of the strings, but is lusher and more ethereal, more hauntingly beautiful, masterfully arranged by Zenón and orchestrated by Guillermo Klein.
There is perhaps no alto saxophonist working today, with the exception of Ornette Coleman, who has a more voice-like, human sound on his horn. It is the sound of the trials and exaltation of our temporal condition: happiness and sorrow, verve and sadness, and dignity, expressed though beautiful music.