The evolution of Miguel Zenón has been unpredictable and intriguing. Along with being the lone remaining charter member in the SFJazz Collective octet and the longtime leader of a whirlwind postbop quartet, the altoist has developed a fertile catalog of work blending jazz with the folkloric roots of his native Puerto Rico. Originally goosed along by funding from the Guggenheim and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship, he’s targeted specific genres, composers, and themes related to the island, variously utilizing a large woodwind and brass ensemble, a big band, and spoken-word interviews to help mine this vein over the course of a half-dozen discs.
Now comes Yo Soy La Tradición (I Am the Tradition), comprising eight Zenón originals for alto saxophone and string quartet, both creatively and structurally inspired by the mores and rhythms of Puerto Rico’s religious, cultural, and musical traditions. The relative absence of improvisation makes it an acquired taste for jazz fans, but Zenón’s frequently beautiful scores, woven through Chicago’s Spektral Quartet, are an arresting, increasingly accessible blend of simplicity and sophistication.
The eight pieces clock in at just over an hour and most of them contain memorable highlights worth revisiting. Inspired by the jibaro music tradition as pioneered by mid-20th-century singer German Rosario, “Yumac” features multiple pizzicato strings gamboling in a dart-and-parry fashion, then extending into long unison lines that course alongside Zenón’s alto until he departs on a glorious solo. The celebration of Three Kings Day provokes Zenón’s finest writing on “Promesa,” a gorgeous, cello-laden swirl of bucolic buoyance reminiscent of Maria Schneider’s work for larger ensembles. “Viejo,” based on the oldest example of the jibaro tradition, is a perfectly timed, sparse, and somber change of pace at the album’s midpoint. “Rosario” (based on the Catholic rosary) seems to quote Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and “Cadenza” moves from a stately intro to some of Zenón’s most clarion, birdlike passages before closing with handclaps and a dollop of pizzicato.
Yo Soy La Tradición is another gemstone in the ever-evolving mosaic of Miguel Zenón’s musical and cultural identity—better appreciated in context than standing alone, but possessing enough daring and insight to demonstrate how his inner diversity is a tonic for his artistry.