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Miguel Zenon: Identities Are Changeable

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Alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón is one of the most decorated jazz musicians of his generation, as measured by Grammy nominations, poll placements and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. He is important as a conceptualist. His eight recordings as a leader have created diverse, revelatory interactions between jazz and the musical culture of Puerto Rico.

His new album concentrates on one idea: national identity as experienced by the 1.2 million New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. It is Zenón’s first venture into composing and arranging for a large ensemble. His working quartet (Luis Perdomo/Hans Glawischnig/Henry Cole) is expanded by five saxophones, four trumpets and three trombones.

The material is dynamic, challenging and intensely polyrhythmic. It is neither Latin nor jazz as those categories have traditionally been defined, but a third synthesis. The six movements, plus an overture and an epilogue, are symphonic in scope. Contrasting rhythmic structures coexist: five against seven, three against two, five against three. The result is seething music that sounds driven by multiple high-revving internal engines. Whenever Zenón flings himself out of this organized turbulence, his solos are incandescent. On “Same Fight” and “First Language,” respectively, tenor saxophonist John Ellis and trombonist Tim Albright provide lyrical outside perspectives on Zenón’s greater narrative.

But there is a problem with this album. Zenón recorded interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent, and he blended their voices into the music. The idea is that the spoken words and the music will reinforce and enlighten one another. It doesn’t work. Each of the six movements begins with, and is later interrupted by, voices. Often they are strident, in poor-quality recordings. Sometimes they are not entirely intelligible because they are masked by the music. The effect is disruptive, even grating. Identities Are Changeable is a bold, interesting, admirable failure.

Originally Published