Fresh off of garnering his mantelpiece-polishing Guggenheim and MacArthur awards, alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón gets back down to the business of making some serious music. No, what we hear on Zenón’s impressive new project isn’t steeped in the stuff of music of a capital “S”-serious nature, but music with integrity, energy, poise and a fresh vision of how the Afro-Caribbean jazz aesthetic can evolve without losing its deep roots.
More specifically, with Esta Plena, Zenón has construed a compelling merger of both his jazz persona with investigations into the folkloric plena music of his native Puerto Rico, both in composition and performance, via the blending of bands from each tradition. Zenón, the player, works in plenty of evidence for the defense of his status in the upper ranks of living alto saxophonists.
After “Villa Palmeras,” the album’s adrenaline-fueled opener, the conceptual stitching begins in earnest with the title track. Plena percussionist-vocalist Héctor “Tito” Matos lays out a simple minor melody, an island motif which then becomes the basis of more harmonically sophisticated variations and extensions in jazz mode. Other highlights include the brisk Cuban-bop melody of “Residencial Llorens Torres” and “Calle Calma,” on which the melody slithers loosely over a bass-drums pulse, to beguiling effect.
The commanding jewel of the album may well be “Qué Será de Puerto Rico?,” in which another simple, four-measure chant of a melody is spun and reconfigured in feisty, high-energy ensemble patterns and simmering vamping (with a vim-and-vigorous solo from drummer Henry Cole). Especially with this piece, Zenón achieves his ambitious intention, working a kind of folk-roots-meets-art-music gambit, with an intelligent and felt musicality coursing below.