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Publication: Ottawa Citizen
Author: Peter Hum
Date: August 31, 2011
Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music)
Sitting behind me at the Newport Jazz Festival almost a month ago, a man was singing along with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón as the alto saxophonist offered his lush and thrilling renditions of pieces by Puerto Rican composers.
I knew none of the tunes played by Zenón, his quartet, and an accompanying woodwind ensemble, but the music nonetheless worked its magic on me. Although the Newport Jazz Festival is packed two days straight, with pretty fantastic sounds, nothing I heard topped the set by Zenón saluting the music of his homeland.
I took home a copy of Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, which was available at Newport’s disc tent but has only been officially released this week. I’m happy to say that Zenón’s latest disc is much more than a souvenir. Coursing with rich, powerful music, it’s a definite contender for the best Latin jazz disc of 2011, and perhaps for the year’s best jazz disc, period.
Alma Adentro mixes old-fashioned, sultry romance and contemporary, rhythmically charged exhilaration, often in the course of the same track. Every piece benefits from sumptuous arrangements by Zenón for his quartet and deft orchestrations for the woodwind ensemble by Guillermo Klein, the outstanding Argentinian composer and arranger. The Zenón/Klein collaboration is Miles Davis/Gil Evans good, resulting in a sharply drawn and glowing fusion of tradition and innovation.
The disc’s jaunty opener Juguete is above all a showcase for the passion and eloquence of Zenón and pianist Luis Perdomo. On this track, and on the entire disc, the drive and fluency that these principal soloists display make all the attendant musical complexities an afterthought.
Do you like music that makes you swoon? The slow, stately ballads Incomprehendido and Amor qualify. The beseeching quality to Zenón’s sound is at the forefront as renders plaintive melodies, sliding into notes and make them sway.
The mood-shifting breadth of other tunes is striking — but pleasantly so, never jarring. Temes begins with a virtuosic duet for Zenón and bassist Hans Glawischnig that gives way to a hovering, heartfelt bolero that’s pretty and profound. From its gentle beginnings, Perfume de Gardenias evolves into something more rousing and even becomes rowdy, with Zenón uncorking long, lyrical lines and meaningful cries over percolating and then popping accompaniment. The disc’s title track is a big, emotional ballad. Introduced by gusts of woodwind, the piece features Zenón singing through his horn, shadowed by Perdomo and backed by fluttering reeds and flutes. But it erupts at its mid-point into wide, rangy swinging, and Zenón scales the emotional heights, spurred by Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole. Olas y Adentras is a marvelous creation that moves from mystery to high-stepping giddiness, as Zenón and the piece’s entrancing, insistent ensemble material mingle, jostle and finally unite.
Over repeated listens, it’s hard to pick favourite moments from the CD, given the continual new revelations. But the tunes that grow in a clear arc from a sprightly, edgy dance filled with anticipation into a drum-fueled, roaring payoff definitely make me think, “I have to hear that again. Now.” So, I come back to Silencio, which at Newport, culminated with this intoxicating coda driven by Cole’s sparkling drumming:
The disc’s closer Tiemblas is a similar kind of highlight. Before I offer a clip of Zenón’s quartet playing the tune, sans woodwinds unfortunately, at a Spanish club in July, I’ll suggest that you check out this vocal version of the piece so that you can hear what Zenón’s interpreting and making his own.
Now dig the Zenónification, with its hypnotic layering of driving bass, syncopated piano and drums, over which beguiling saxophone flutes. The tune swells and surges for seven minutes until at last the dam breaks, and Zenón unleashes a torrent of notes, with his rhythm section in hot pursuit. Then drummer Eric Doob goes on a tear.
Jump-out-of-your-skin exciting, don’t you think? The set-closer version at Newport was just as powerful, with exhortations from the woodwinds for good measure. On Alma Adentro, the tune is a bit truncated in comparison, but the intention is more than clear.
Zenón’s far from the first jazz musician from Latin America to winningly unite jazz and the folkloric and popular musics of his homeland. From his generation alone, there’s pianist Ed Simon from Venezuela, pianist Danilo Pérez from Panama, Zenón’s fellow countryman, the saxophonist David Sanchez, and any number of accomplished Cuban musicians. They’re formidable musicians all, celebrating a treasure trove of indigenous sounds and sharing it with an appreciative global audience through the forum of jazz. But with Alma Adentro, Zenón has set a superb standard for this kind of endeavour, and fashioned something beautiful, important and lasting.