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Miguel Zenón & The Rhythm Collective: Oye!!! Live In Puerto Rico

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The deeper alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón goes into Puerto Rico’s musical legacy, the better his own music gets. Zenón’s exploration of his Afro-Caribbean roots has been a staple of his solo career since it began in the early 2000s, though it kicked into high gear after his receipt of the MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship in 2008. He did his richest work yet on the two albums that followed the fellowship, 2009’s Esta Plena and 2011’s Alma Adentro, which fused jazz with Puerto Rico’s urban folk music and popular songbook respectively. What characterized these works was their increasing focus. The latter, in particular, concentrated on the songs, with arrangements that worked with the compositions and improvisations that used them as a distinct context-discipline that comes with artistic maturity.

In that sense, Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico-recorded at a now-defunct venue in San Juan-is something of a step backward. Actually, it’s a step off the path. Zenón is accompanied not by his regular quartet but by a chordless group: bassist Aldemar Valentin, drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reinaldo De Jesus. Nor does it focus on songs: The band is designed to accentuate rhythm, and they use the album’s five tunes (two Latin standards and three Zenón originals, none of them specifically drawn from or inspired by Puerto Rican traditions) as a launch pad for abstract rhythmic experiments. The resulting self-indulgence spills over into the arrangements, improvisations and overall structures of the pieces.

The album-opening cover of “Oye Como Va,” for example, is built on a tricky groove, morphing between jazz backbeat and Cuban changui rhythms that accent ahead of the beat. The arrangement builds from a repeated bass riff to which Escapa and De Jesus add spice, capped by Zenón playing the lick. He hits the final note (i.e., “Va”) on one of those offbeat accents, confounding the ear, but then doesn’t develop it. Instead, the song cycles back around to the bass riff, then again, and again, until it becomes unbearable. That’s unfortunate, since the riff-to-lick buildup recurs after Zenón’s solo-which, along with De Jesus’ conga solo, goes on long past the point where it loses interest.

Solos are a problem throughout Oye!!!, especially from the saxophonist. Zenón breezes past logical and satisfying stopping points on “El Necio” to arrive at an anticlimactic quote of the main theme (and all that’s sandwiched between two aimless rambles through Valentin’s mid-high register). His intro to “Hypnotized” is also overlong, taking up five of the track’s 14 minutes. “Double Edge,” another lengthy Zenón improv, mostly justifies its existence with a barrage of melodic-rhythmic ideas, yet ends up in a syncopated two-note vamp that feels like a nervous tic.

There are fine moments to be had in the songs themselves. “El Necio” features the best arrangement on the disc, and a harmonic tension that maintains suspense even at the solos’ lowest ebbs. “JOS Nigeria” has a surprisingly merry melody whose lilting rhythm could locate it in either West Africa or the Caribbean, with Zenón and Escapa solos to match. Even these can ramble, though; the endless drone that defines “Double Edge” quickly begins to grate, and the repetitions of “Hypnotized” are not hypnotic, they’re boring.

The troubles with Oye!!! are easily explained. Zenón isn’t in the settled environment of his regular quartet, and performers often stretch out in live contexts, based on audience energy that doesn’t necessarily translate to the home audience. It’s also an experiment, by definition a break from the norm. Only the musicians know if the experiment was a success-assuming a focused, cogent album wasn’t one of the parameters.

Originally Published