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Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Miguel Zenon

The Triple Door in downtown Seattle is one of the most attractive new clubs on the West Coast. The staff, the décor, the sound system, the sight lines, and the food all exceed expectations. The Triple Door’s programming is eclectic, but typically includes several nationally touring jazz acts each month. They are usually interesting-like Miguel Zenón.

Never before in history has jazz been so influenced by players and musical sources from outside the United States. Twenty-eight-year-old alto saxophonist/composer Zenón, born in Puerto Rico, began to get noticed five years ago, for his work with another Puerto Rican reed player, David Sánchez. Zenón’s first two recordings as a leader (Looking Forward on Fresh Sound New Talent in 2002 and Ceremonial on Marsalis Music in 2004) received strong reviews. But what has started a genuine buzz over Zenón is his new album on Marsalis Music, Jíbaro.

In terms of external cultural tributaries flowing into the jazz mainstream, Latin influences are the oldest. But Miguel Zenón does not play “Latin jazz” in any sense in which that phrase has traditionally been understood. Zenón belongs to a new generation of players from the Caribbean and from Central and South America, the best of whom (like Danilo Perez, Manuel Valera, and Diego Urcola, to name only three) are world-class jazz improvisers. But while they are fluent in the melodic/harmonic language of jazz, they also, collectively, have access to a vast range of Pan-American rhythmic and formal idioms.

For example, Jíbaro draws upon a tradition that has rarely, if ever, been brought into jazz: the popular music (“La Musica Jíbara”) of rural Puerto Rico. On June 13, Zenón’s 90-minute set comprised six original pieces, all from his new album. The evening began with “Fajardeño,” and a long a capella prologue from Zenón, whose single most striking virtue (his compositional gifts and innovative ideas notwithstanding) is the gleaming, pure, wake-the-dead penetration of his alto saxophone sound. Anyone in the Triple Door whose mind was wandering was snapped to attention by sudden shrieking cries that split the night air.

When “Fajardeño” coalesced into form, it became a complex, fidgeting set of cyclic rhythmic variations generated by the piano of Luis Perdomo, the bass of Hans Glawischnig, and the drums of Henry Cole, over which Zenón’s alto streamed a graceful, convoluted melody. Zenón’s solo, as it evolved, contained startling flashes of ideas and swooping lines, all of which related to the established patterns of the song. “Fajardeño” was in fact a thoroughly crafted structure, the band gathering for predetermined riffs and thematic reiterations along the way.

The entire concert was characterized by this sense of discipline and focus. Zenón, unlike many young players with his chops, is uninterested in wailing simply because he can. He wails with purpose. He is all about his songs, and their fervent delineations and logical elaborations.

His dedication to the cause of exposing an important musical form of his native country is both admirable and limiting. On the one hand, Zenón is after a spiritual, not literal, tribute to traditional jíbaro music, with its very different instrumentation from his jazz quartet. It is the melodic content that is most directly transposed. The themes of pieces like “Villaran” and “Aguinaldo” are like lilting chants, but quicker. Zenón turns them into elegant, fresh jazz, and his creativity in working within his self-imposed constraints is impressive. On the other hand, his choice to stay within melodic and rhythmic structures so meticulous as to sometimes sound mathematical makes this music a highly specific project, necessarily narrow in scope.

Zenón’s three recordings to date are unusual for a new artist in that they sustain identical personnel. The group at the Triple Door was the quartet on those albums, with the important exception of Henry Cole instead of Antonio Sánchez. Cole, in only his fifth appearance with Zenón, faced the daunting task of replacing a drummer who was the primary source of the band’s energy and also its precision. (Sánchez is now drawing raves with Pat Metheny.) Cole handled the challenge extremely well. He took charge of the band’s intricate rhythms and offered a cleverly clattering, off-kilter, eventually self-correcting solo on the concluding “Chorreao.” Typically for Zenón’s Jíbaro music, not even a drum solo was allowed to venture off on its own, but was anchored within “Chorreao” by insistent figures from Perdomo and Glawischnig that repeated throughout.

In person, bassist Glawischnig was more of a presence than on the album, and Perdomo was less. The piano solos were intense rhythmic outbursts, but pursued no development.

Miguel Zenón’s Jíbaro project provided a unique evening of passionate, purposeful energy and vivid primary colors, all through the revelation of previously untapped musical sources. Hopefully it is one successful exploration among many that he will pursue in the expression of his promising talent.

Originally Published