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Miguel Zenón: What it means to be Nuyorican
Author: Tad Hendrickson
Date: February 3, 2012
Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s six albums balance jazz and Puerto Rican folk traditions with modern innovation in imaginative ways that have been universally acclaimed. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008, and “Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook” (2011) earned him his most recent Grammy nomination.
This Saturday, he marks another milestone with the world premiere of “Puerto Rico Nació en Mi: Tales from the Diaspora” at Montclair State University. Whereas his last album was a large ensemble tribute to five great Puerto Rican composers, the Puerto Rico-born, New York-based Zenón uses another large ensemble to explore how Puerto Ricans and their children define themselves.
“The project was born out of the idea of digging deeper into the concept of Puerto Ricans (coming) to New York City; some people call them Nuyoricans,” says Zenón, 35, who released his first album as a leader in 2002. “It started with me reading about it in a couple of books and personal experiences I’ve had in New York. The idea was to see how they felt about their identity, whether they felt like Puerto Ricans or like a New Yorker.”
Zenón culled specific themes from the video and audio clips he recorded during interviews, and these will be part of the multifaceted performance thanks to video artist David Dempewolf, who also will add his impressionistic imagery.alma
Zenón’s music always blends jazz with Latin music, but it appears that this show’s music will be closer to the orchestral-jazz work of Gil Evans than the Puerto Rican composers — such as Rafael Hernández — who were honored on his last album. Zenón developed the music during performances with his quartet, then expanded and rearranged the songs for a 12-piece ensemble. He hopes to record the 75-minute piece for a CD and/or DVD sometime this year.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón moved to the United States in 1996 to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. Eighteen months later, he moved to New York to work on a master’s degree in jazz performance from Manhattan School of Music. Since graduation, he’s been active as a sideman in a wide variety of jazz groups and as a leader. He is also a founding member and now a musical director for the all-star SFJAZZ collective.
He grew up playing Puerto Rican music and heard it in his day-to-day life, but didn’t have an interest in studying the music on a deeper level until he had lived outside Puerto Rico for a few years.
“Once I tried to find myself as a musician and a composer, I went back and saw that there was something special about Puerto Rican music,” he says. “I knew that before, but had never sat down and thought about it. The more I learned about it, the more it found its way into the music I was writing.”
This project reflects his experience of moving north, but also deals with the broader topic of ethnicity. Is it tied to where you are born or the food you eat? Can you change from one group to another?
“There are all these different opinions about what it is to be Puerto Rican,” Zenón says. “It will be interesting to see what the different reactions will be. Everybody has their own identity and that can change over the years.”