Through the musical practice of exploring the multiple melodic, harmonic and rhythmic developments of a particular tune, the Jazz tradition values heterogeneity, liberty, improvisation and surprise. It establishes that there isn’t just one (best) way of interpreting a composition, but multiple possibilities for open-ended musical dialogues between a composer’s idea and a musician’s virtuosity and creativity. Jazz breaks with the Western god-like notion of a composer’s art as an individual act of expression, and instead privileges the collective developments of esthetic communication. One could even argue that some Jazz masters are known more for the ways in which they re-interpreted famous songs or “standards” than for their own original compositions.
In the hands of artists like Miguel Zenón, the fusion of Latin American Music and Jazz has been injected with a new energy and creative vitality. Throughout his body of work, Zenón has developed new esthetic elaboration practices by re-interpreting national genres and regional musical traditions. Examples of this include his fascinating jazz-dialogues with Puerto Rico’s popular traditions of jíbaro music (Jíbaro – 2004) and plena (Esta Plena – 2009). With Alma Adentro, Zenón continues his musical journey, but this time he explores the jazz infused possibilities of the Puerto Rican Songbook; a rich and storied genre that lends itself (much like Jazz music) to the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of improvisation. Zenón skillfully re-imagines ten very well known songs, while at the same time retaining and celebrating each composer’s unique voice.
The composers in question are five of the most important Puerto Rican songwriters in history: Rafael Hernández (1892-1965), one of the founders of the bolero genre in the 1920s and 30s; Pedro Flores (1894-1979) who, among many achievements, composed in the 40s for one of the first bolero stars, Daniel Santos; Sylvia Rexach (1921-1961) the most important female composer of the feeling movement in the early 50s; Bobby Capó (1922-1989), a much celebrated crooner in the 50s and also one of the most important composers of salsa in the 1970s; and Tite Curet Alonso (1926-2003) who revived boleros in 1970s, imprinting the genre with the defiant character of salsa.
The song sequence of Alma Adentro is anything but arbitrary. Zenón organizes its flow around the multiple subtleties of the Afro-Americas’ esthetic principle of alternation of contrasts: hot and cool, ¡salsa y control! (in salsa terminology). “Their tunes for dancing are usually… vivace and larghetto, gay and grave, pursued alternately”, read a 1774 description of slave dances in Jamaica (Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Black Folk Music… 1977). This feeling is very much alive in Zenón’s approach to arranging all these legendary compositions.
Unlike his previous recordings, Zenón incorporates another voice into the musical conversation: the composer and arranger Guillermo Klein. The wonderful woodwind ensemble, masterfully orchestrated by Klein, greatly contributes to the lush quality of each track. Through his sensitive and creative orchestrations, Klein creates unexpected sonorous textures; textures which could be more associated with Classical Impressionism, than with the sounds of a traditional Jazz quartet.
As a conscientious Puerto Rican living in New York and participating in the international Jazz scene, Miguel Zenón envisioned this project as a Jazz homage to the Puerto Rican Songbook, in the same manner that other Jazz musicians have explored the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irvin Berlin and other legendary composers associated with the Great American Songbook. But he ended up doing something much more revolutionary and profound. Through his reinterpretation of Puerto Rican songs, Zenón was able to explore the multiple subtleties of the genre and, above all, show how these subtleties contribute to the open-ended creative possibilities of Jazz aesthetics; an aesthetic where expression always comes through communication. Zenón’s Alma Adentro is, thus, simultaneously a tribute to the Puerto Rican Songbook, a creative elaboration on the Latin American bolero, an innovative contribution to the texture and practices of the Jazz tradition, and an aesthetic defense of the democratic values of collaboration and dialogue.
A.G. Quintero-Rivera is the author of Salsa, sabor y control! Sociología de la música “tropical” (Casa de las Américas prize 1998, and LASA Book award 2000) and Cuerpo y cultura, las músicas “mulatas” y la subversion del baile (Frantz Fanon Book Award 2009, among others).