Miguel Zenón: A jazz genius takes on Puerto Rico

Date: 10.09.2009
Publication: Chicago Tribune
Author: Howard Reich


The music of Puerto Rico has played in Miguel Zenón’s imagination since his childhood in San Juan, where he was born.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that he began to examine his musical heritage in depth, with remarkable results (and we refer not only to the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” he was awarded in 2008).

Zenón’s 2005 brilliant recording “Jibaro” (Marsalis Music) turned up on many best-of-the-year lists, including the Tribune’s. And his newest release, “Esta Plena” (Marsalis Music), plunges still more deeply into Puerto Rican idioms, though this time in another direction.

For if “Jibaro” explored the Spanish roots of centuries-old musical traditions, “Esta Plena” tilts its ear toward the more recent, and more African, plena music. Emerging in Puerto Rico at the turn of the previous century — just when jazz was taking shape in the United States — plena bristles with percussive backbeats, chanted vocal lines and an oft-political message.

“The thing that really drew me to this music initially was that it was so embedded in the culture of Puerto Rico,” says Zenón, who plays through Sunday at the Jazz Showcase. “It’s a kind of music that is fairly simple to play — not complicated music. It’s music created by regular people, not really trained musicians, even though it has been taken to a very high level by a lot of great players.”

Therein lay the challenge for Zenón: incorporating the straightforward and somewhat repetitive tropes of plena into the intricate rhythmic and harmonic vocabularies of 21st century jazz. He has gone a long way toward addressing this issue with “Esta Plena,” which translates to “This Is Plena.” As a trio of Puerto Rican musicians cries out vocal lines and telegraphs plena rhythms on panderos (traditional handheld drums), Zenón’s quartet spins the complex jazz improvisations for which it’s widely admired.

Yet the two musical languages cohere, in part because African culture stands at the root of both plena and jazz (and much more, as well).

Equally important, however, Zenón did not undertake this cross-cultural mission lightly. Backed by a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation (which Zenón received a few months before winning the MacArthur), the alto saxophonist was able to travel to Puerto Rico and research the subject. Interviewing elder musicians, listening to plena sessions and often partaking in them, Zenón immersed himself in a musical culture for which he, in effect, has become a leading spokesman, at least in jazz circles.

For Zenón, the search for his musical DNA was as unexpected as it was meaningful.

“When I moved to the States about 13 years ago to go to school,” at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, says Zenón, “I was focusing on jazz … that was the only thing I listened to. I was trying to learn the jazz language from the bottom up.

“Once I started to write my own music, and looked for what I could offer in terms of my own personality and my own voice, I realized that I needed to know more about the music of my own country.”

That journey has captured the interest of uncounted listeners, as well as the MacArthur Foundation, which succinctly analyzed his achievement:

“As both a saxophonist and a composer, Zenón demonstrates an astonishing mastery of old and new jazz idioms, from Afro-Caribbean and Latin American rhythmical concepts to free and avant-garde jazz,” noted the foundation, in announcing the grant of $500,000, given over a five-year period.

“His third album, ‘Jibaro’ (2005), illuminates his intense engagement with the indigenous music of his native Puerto Rico. … Unlike other attempts to fuse jazz and jibaro, which have retained the traditional instrumentation with little harmonic variation, in Zenón’s hands the essential elements of jibaro serve as the compositional and rhythmic underpinning of his contemporary jazz arrangements. The result is a complex yet accessible sound that is overflowing with feeling and passion and maintains the integrity of the island’s music.”

As for the effect of the MacArthur grant, Zenón feels it has changed nothing — and everything.

“In terms of what I do every day — practicing and trying to be creative — I wouldn’t say that it’s changed that much,” says Zenón, 32.

“What it has definitely done, it’s opened a lot of doors for me and for the band.”

Submitted by Ben on October 8th, 2009 — 11:00pm

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