Saxophonist Miguel Zenon mines the Puerto Rican songbook
If there's any way jazz can be compared to a fairground's bumper cars, it's that the excitement is in the collisions, those necessary (if far less violent) meetings between the music and an individual's history, imagination and culture that create something new. This year jazz has been enjoying a particularly rewarding run of global collisions that have included the Middle Eastern explorations of trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, the Southern Asian influence in recent albums by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi and fresh twists on Brazilian jazz in records by Anthony Wilson and Rob Mazurek's Sao Paolo Underground.
An acclaimed saxophonist who has played with a variety of ensembles through the years as well as ongoing work as co-founder of the SFJAZZ Collective, Miguel Zenón has dedicated much of his career as a bandleader to exploring the intersection of jazz and the music of his native Puerto Rico. In 2009 Zenón earned critical raves and two Grammy nominations for "Esta Plena," an album exploring a percussive side of Afro-Carribean folkloric tradition. For Zenon's latest turn at musical cross-pollination, this year's "Alma Adentro" turns its ear toward the Puerto Rican songwriters from Zenón's childhood. (Zenón and his quartet perform at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Saturday.)
"I started thinking about the connection between the Great American Songbook and jazz music, how that basically fed the jazz repertoire for so long," he said, speaking by phone before a performance in Oakland earlier this week. "I started thinking that maybe I could do the same thing and explore the Puerto Rican songbook and bring it into the jazz world, and at the same time introduce people to Puerto Rican composers who’ve meant so much to the development of music and culture there."
After the jump, a Q&A with Zenón where he discusses his inspiration, his adventurous approach on the album and his time on the West Coast with the ongoing SFJAZZ Collective.
Listening to your albums, you have this ongoing effort to merge Puerto Rican music with jazz. What inspired you to bring the two together?
Well you know, I think the main thing for me was to learn more about my culture and myself. When I started music, I started out in Puerto Rico with classical music. But what really made me want to be a musician was jazz, and because I didn’t grow up with jazz I had to learn it from a very basic level. I had to go into the history and learn everything about the development of the music, all the players and all that stuff. And to the point when I started to write my music I found myself trying to emulate a lot of the jazz legends who I admired. But then I realized . . . I didn’t really understand Puerto Rican music at that level. I knew what it sounded like, and I could sing the songs and play them, but I wanted to get deeper into it and learn more about the traditions of my country. And once I started getting into that I started finding little niches of information that were so interesting to me, and it started finding its way into my own music, and I just saw it as a way of being something that represented me honestly.
For someone who’s not all that familiar with Puerto Rican music, it can be surprising how diverse these songs sound. Did you rearrange them to try and turn the songs on their head or was that eclecticism already in place?
My approach for the arrangements was basically to do two songs by each composer. One of the arrangements were going to be closer to the original in terms of form, harmonic content and that kind of thing, and the other one was going to be more deconstructed. In terms of Sylvia Rexach for example, the arrangement of the title track, even though it is a jazz arrangement, everything we do with the melody and the harmony is very close to the original. Whereas the other arrangement, "Olas y Arenas," is more deconstructed, the song’s still there but I took a lot more liberties. I approached each composer the same way in recording, one of the arrangements is more conservative and the other is more risky.
But if you listen to the originals of the song -- you can probably just Google them or find them on YouTube -- you can find each one of these composers had their own voice. Even though they’re all Puerto Rican and I’m putting them all in the same batch saying this is the Puerto Rican songbook, they were all different. It’s like when we talk about bebop and we talk about Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, even though people talk about them in the same group, their music was different, you know?
How’s the response to the album been as you’ve taken it out on the road? I imagine you’re playing to some people who recognize these songs from their youth as well.
The response has been good, usually when we do stuff like this the response is pretty consistently the same. You get people to the shows who wouldn’t ordinarily come out to a jazz show, and they come out because they recognize the kind of music you’re dealing with. In this case . . . there’s people from Latin America who know the composers, they come out to the shows and they may not even be jazz fans but they just want to hear the songs.
Then you get people from the jazz world who are discovering these things, after playing them they’ll say ‘When I saw you were playing Puerto Rican songs I was expecting something else, something that sounded different.” They just see it as an extension of what people have done with the Great American Songbook, but these composers happen to be from Puerto Rico.
You received the MacArthur "genius grant" back in 2008. What effect has that had on you since then?
It’s a big deal. It kind of implants this label of responsibility -- like, OK, you got this big help now and this big push, let’s see what you can do with it. For me it was all about giving me more freedom with what I usually do with my time, and what I want to do as a musician. As artists we try and be creative and try and do stuff that we like to do, but also we make a living off this and do stuff we wouldn’t necessarily do to pay the rent or survive, if you will.
So it was really liberating in terms of my own time in giving me total control over what I wanted to do. But also it’s given me the opportunity to support certain things — including this recording, which probably wouldn’t have happened without the financial help that MacArthur has given me and a lot of other free concerts I’ve put together in Puerto Rico, trying to expose people to jazz. It’s given me the opportunity to delve into longtime dream projects.
What impact has your time in the SFJAZZ Collective had on you as an artist?
It’s had an incredible, immense impact. It’s not only given me the chance to play with some of my favorite musicians — talk about dreams, for me it’s literally been a dream, the people I’ve been able to play with and just getting a chance to write and arrange music with them. It’s really truly a collective, we make decisions as a group, everything is about the bigger picture. It’s special, I feel lucky that I even got the opportunity to be in the band in the first place.
Video: Miguel Zenón Quartet, "Olas y Arena" (written by Sylvia Rexach) from "Alma Adentro" (Live in Spain)
Video: Syvia Rexach's "Olas y Arenas"
-- Chris Barton
Photo Credit: Mariah Wilkins Artist Management