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Before & After: Miguel Zenón

The esteemed saxophonist and composer takes his first B&A challenge

Miguel Zenon (photo: Noah Shaye)
Miguel Zenon (photo: Noah Shaye)

Over the course of his distinguished recording career, Miguel Zenón has frequently drawn inspiration from the folk traditions of his native Puerto Rico. On his new album, Sonero, out August 30 on the Miel Music label, he channels the late salsa pioneer Ismael Rivera—a little-known artist in the United States but revered elsewhere.

“He’s always been one of my heroes,” says the 42-year-old alto saxophonist, who grew up in San Juan. “He’s kind of like this mythical figure in Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America.”

On a muggy afternoon in mid-June, Zenón discussed some of the other musicians who have influenced him—including Wayne Shorter, Brad Mehldau, and Danilo Pérez—in his first Before & After at his apartment in the Hudson Heights section of Manhattan. Listen along with the Spotify playlist below.


1. Fabian Almazan Trio
“Benjamin” (This Land Abounds With Life, Biophilia). Almazan, piano; Linda May Han Oh, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: It sounds really familiar—the playing, the way it’s put together, the sound of it. A first guess would be Fabian Almazan and his trio—because of the sound of the trio, and because I can recognize the drummer. We use the same drummer. And also because of the tightness of the arrangement. Super-talented guy. I have to admire what he’s doing, not only musically, but the way he’s handling his label. He has this mission toward dealing with the environment and all that stuff.

He has a very specific way of playing, too. That’s why I said it’s familiar. I find a lot of younger pianists have a similar kind of approach to this, which is kind of coming from the jazz tradition but has some other stuff in it too. Other players that come to mind who are coming out of the same place would be Taylor Eigsti or Shai Maestro. For me, they all have a similar approach, a similar sound to improvising and dealing with the instrument: really precise, with a lot of dexterity, but modern. It’s very, very modern.

2. Brad Mehldau
“The Prophet Is a Fool” (Finding Gabriel, Nonesuch). Mehldau, Therevox and Oberheim OB-6 synthesizers, xylophone, piano; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Michael Thomas, flute, alto saxophone; Charles Pillow, soprano saxophone; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, baritone saxophone; Mark Guiliana, drums. Recorded in 2017 and 2018.


BEFORE: This reminds me of Jason Lindner’s project, Now Vs Now. I don’t think that’s what it is, but it reminds me of the same thing. I used to play in his big band when he used to have that going on at Smalls. That was a while back. Okay [refocuses]. Nice production. It reminds me of a lot of things, but I can’t really guess. The tenor player, if I had to take some guesses—there’s a lot of Brecker-ish things, but it doesn’t sound like it’s Donny [McCaslin]. And it’s not Chris Potter either. Chad Lefkowitz, maybe?

It’s Joel Frahm.

Oh! I know what this is. This is Brad’s record. I haven’t heard this yet. Brad is so amazing, man. Such a great musician. I’ve been looking forward to hearing this. I haven’t picked it up yet. This is similar to the kind of thing that he did with Mark Guiliana.


AFTER: Brad is really one of the great jazz musicians of the last 20, 30 years. He’s way up there. Definitely one of my favorites. And anything that he does is always worth checking out.

It seems as though he’s kind of taken for granted now.

That tends to happen. You can throw so many people in the mix who have been so influenced by Brad. You can just hear it. Robert Glasper and Aaron Parks and all the great pianists of today have all been influenced by him. And not only his playing, but his musical conception. But it’s easy to take for granted now. You hear it and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s Brad.”

3. Art Pepper
“Our Song” (Winter Moon, Galaxy). Pepper, alto saxophone; Stanley Cowell, piano; Howard Roberts, guitar; Cecil McBee, bass; Carl Burnett, drums; Nate Rubin, violin; Mary Ann Meredith, Sharon O’Connor, Terry Adams, cello; Audrey Desilva, Clifton Foster, Dan Smiley, Elizabeth Gibson, Emily Van Valkenburg, Greg Mazmanian, John Tenney, Patrice Anderson, Stephen Gehl, violin. Recorded in 1980.


BEFORE: It sounds like an older guy. The vibrato gives it away. Can’t tell who it is just yet. [Grunts approvingly] It’s funny, it has this European sound. It’s this very specific texture. The quality of the recording, the way it sounds, the way the strings are recorded, kind of up front. And the way the rhythm section sounds. It has this soundtrack quality to it. Like one of those movies set in Paris. It made me think of Paris and people walking down the street with a hat on a rainy day. I can’t tell what it is. It’s definitely an older song. I don’t recognize it. It’s like a Bird guy in his older days. [Sonny] Stitt, maybe?

AFTER: Art Pepper. I wouldn’t have guessed that. I haven’t checked him out as much. I’ve checked out a couple of his records, but I’ve never really gravitated towards his playing as much as other guys. I guess it’s a personal thing. Maybe it has something to do with the sound, or the way he was assimilating that bebop language. I just found other guys more interesting. He’s also one of those guys who didn’t play with a lot of people as a sideman, so it’s hard to get to hear him outside of his own projects. The one record that I checked out a bit was the one that he made with Miles Davis’ rhythm section [Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, featuring Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones, Contemporary, 1957].

4. Guillermo Klein
“Piernas” (Una Nave, Sunnyside). Klein, piano, Fender Rhodes, guitar, vocals; Daniel Piazzolla, drums; Alvaro Torres, Fender Rhodes; Silvia Aramayo, Matias Conte, Javier Calequi, vocals. Recorded in 2002.


BEFORE: This is Guillermo. This is probably one of my favorite records of his, and out of this record, this is my favorite song. So you were never going to get me with this one. I’ve known Guillermo for a very long time. He’s a genius composer. He’s just one of those guys that’s able to materialize ideas in a really clear way. He’s so detailed about what he does. And a lot of that gets overlooked because he’s such an amazing songwriter. And I think that puts him on his own plane, sets him apart from other great composers in the jazz or creative world. He can write an amazing song like this, which is just a song with lyrics, but then you hear what he does around it, with the harmony, and the way he puts rhythm in counterpoint. It’s just, man, it’s really unique and brilliant. I remember asking him for the chart to this tune. He does things that are unusual, but they don’t strike you like, Oh, that’s atonal. It’s just like, Wow, that’s such a beautiful color.

What do you think of his voice?

He’s also one of my favorite singers! [Laughs] I know he’s really over-conscious about his singing. He’s like, “I don’t feel like singing today, blah blah blah,” but he’s just one of those guys, man, when he sings, it’s just so pure and real. He might not have the greatest voice but he’s so amazing when he does it.


5. Sonny Stitt and Jack McDuff
“Pam Ain’t Blue” (Stitt Meets Brother Jack, Prestige). Stitt, tenor saxophone; McDuff, organ; Eddie Diehl, guitar; Art Taylor, drums; Ray Barretto, congas. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: Organ and percussion. This is Sunday music. [Taps feet] I’m trying to pick the tenor player, who’s not giving it away. At some point he played this line, but now he’s just cruisin’. Well, I’m gonna give up on him. Now I’m kind of wondering who the percussionist is, because it could be a few different guys. It could be Ray Barretto.

It is.

Ahhh. He made some records with Gene Ammons and Lockjaw, but it’s not one of those guys.


AFTER: Sonny Stitt! I was gonna say Sonny Stitt when he played that bebop line, but then I was like, I’m not gonna say anything, because I said Sonny Stitt before. He liked to play around with the harmony—a lot of substitutions and diminished scales—but he wasn’t doing that, so I was like, maybe I’ll wait a little bit to see if he does it.

Tell me about Ray Barretto. You played with him.

He was a jazz head like you couldn’t believe. And it’s funny because, in Puerto Rico, most people who think about Ray Barretto think about his salsa records because they were so groundbreaking and so great. But when I played with him and when you talked to him, all he listened to was jazz. He was like, “I don’t want to play that salsa stuff anymore.” I was playing in his jazz group, and all he did was talk about all those guys and sing tunes and sing solos and talk about how he got into it and how he played with Bird. He kind of fell into this salsa world and he couldn’t get out of it. I remember going to concerts with him to play with his quintet, and people would show up just to see if he played one salsa tune. [Laughs] So it’s great to hear him on this.


6. Wayne Shorter Quartet
“Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean” (Emanon, Blue Note). Shorter, soprano saxophone; Danilo Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: This is Wayne. Yeah. He has such a personal sound on the soprano. I’ve seen this band a few times. I wanna say probably six or seven times. And every time it’s different. Obviously that’s what they’re trying to do, but you know, sometimes I feel like I’m really connected and other times I’m less connected. It depends on the night. It depends on what they do. It’s a brave thing just to jump out there and see what happens. But I have to say, every time I’ve seen the band, even the last time I saw them play—which was recently, I wanna say a year and a half ago—Wayne sounded amazing. Like mind-blowing good. And his thing has always been so organic and so of the moment, even from the get-go. He’s one of the great composers in the history of American music, but as a player he’s always been such a fresh improviser.

You’re close with the pianist in this group, Danilo Pérez, right?

I’m very close with Danilo. I remember growing up in Puerto Rico and gravitating toward his music immediately. He was balancing things out the way I wanted to hear them, in terms of the jazz world and the Latin-American stuff. So I sought him out when I moved to the States. I remember he was playing a concert, and as soon as the concert was over, I jumped onstage, and I was like, “Hey, my name is such and such, I’m such a big fan,” and he was so welcoming. He was like, “Man, you know, here’s my number, call me, you can come over any time.” And he became my mentor.


7. Kamasi Washington
“Hub-Tones” (Heaven and Earth, Young Turks). Washington, tenor saxophone; Dontae Winslow, trumpet; Ryan Porter, trombone; Cameron Graves, piano; Brandon Coleman, keyboards, organ, vocoder; Miles Mosely, bass; Ronald Bruner, Jr., Tony Austin, drums; Allakoi Peete, Kahlil Cummings, percussion. Recorded in 2017.

BEFORE: [Piano comes in] This is kind of what I was talking about before when I was talking about Fabian—it’s the same conception. Ahhh. [Mouths melody as horns enter] It’s Freddie [Hubbard, the tune’s composer]. This is definitely younger guys. Might be a Latin-American musician. Maybe this is his conception. It’s funny, the way it’s recorded there’s all this reverb on the mix. And on the trumpet, too, now. It’s kind of like electric Miles. My guess is that this is the piano player’s record, just by listening to it.

AFTER: I’m not familiar with his playing at all. I’ve heard things here and there, but I wouldn’t have been able to guess. At first I was like, okay, so maybe, he’s playing some Coltrane things and some little runs that were similar to this thing, or this Michael Brecker lick he’s playing there. But the stuff that I’ve heard is kind of like this. It’s cool, it’s very vampy, and has a vibe. It’s a cyclical thing where the same thing repeats over and over and you build on it in layers. But it’s not really the kind of thing that I would listen to.


8. Eric Dolphy
“Fire Waltz” (At the Five Spot, New Jazz). Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone; Booker Little, trumpet; Mal Waldron, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: [Immediately, whistles along with melody] This is Eric Dolphy. Is it “Fire Waltz”? This is one of those groups, especially of late—I would say in the last 20 years or so—that a lot of musicians have started jumping on. A lot of people gravitate to the sound, especially Eric Dolphy and Booker Little together. Eric Dolphy is definitely one of those guys who is an acquired taste, I have to say. And the combination of stuff that he was doing was so specific. It was very Bird-like, the little nuances, the way he would attack the phrases. But his sound was so avant-garde. It was just so non-bebop. And his approach to melody and the way he played the altissimo was unique. Even when he played with Trane, it was almost like Dolphy was taking him even more left.

9. Pat Metheny
“Day Trip” (Day Trip, Nonesuch). Metheny, guitar; Christian McBride, bass; Antonio Sánchez, drums. Recorded in 2005.

BEFORE: It reminds me so much of Pat Metheny, but it’s not him.


It is Pat Metheny.

Is it? No! I thought it was something else. It took me back to [Metheny’s 1976 debut] Bright Size Life. It almost sounded like a young person super-influenced by Bright Size Life. Is this with Christian McBride and Antonio Sánchez? If I was paying more attention to the drums, I would have picked it up immediately. Antonio’s one of those virtuoso guys. We used to play together a bunch. For my first couple of records, he was the drummer. I remember when he started playing with Pat, and I was like, “If you’re gonna be busy all the time, I gotta find somebody else. I can’t compete with that.” But Antonio was always one of those guys who knew what he wanted. He was an eye-on-the-prize kind of guy. And he shot for that. He was really, really clear about what he wanted to do and where he wanted his career to go. Really focused.

10. Roy Hargrove
“Strasbourg/St. Denis” (Earfood, EmArcy). Hargrove, trumpet; Justin Robinson, alto saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: [Immediately] When Roy passed, I was on tour with a bunch of friends, and someone mentioned it, and we were all blown away, because some people knew him really well in the band, and all of us greatly admired him. I remember coming up as a jazz player, I would hear him play, and you’d think, “This guy can’t be this young.” He was good, obviously, but the way he played, he was like an old soul. You’d hear him play just a note, a ballad, and he had such a grasp of the tradition and the idea of what American music is in general, from the blues to jazz to R&B to hip-hop. He embodied it all. And did it in such a natural way. The impression that I got was he didn’t have to think about anything. He just played. So when he passed, I started going back to a lot of those records that I used to listen to as a young guy, and just shaking my head, like, man, this is still blowing my mind away.




Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.