For his second Marsalis Music release and third overall, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón returns with the same crew from Ceremonial (2004) to celebrate the rural music of his Puerto Rican homeland. Jibaro refers to this creole musical culture, which has a lot of folk elements and tends to revolve around guitars and vocalsnone of which appear here. Zenón's interpretations, therefore, are more figurative than literal. (He acknowledges this in the liner notes.) The overall flavor of the record is much more centered around the jazz tradition than anything else, but the extra colors definitely enrich the experience.
In addition to its unusual theme, Jibaro has another distinguishing feature: Zenón's saxophone playing, which tends to be very clear, lyrical, flowing, and intelligent. His solos are marked with insight and maturity, looking forward during development but always celebrating the moment, in the moment.
Unfortunately those strengths are cramped by a couple of major weaknesses. Zenón's ten compositions, at least the up-tempo ones, tend to be constrictive and limit group interplay. The question of where composition ends and arrangement begins is somewhat moot here, given the obvious interrelationship between the two. But lockstep formation tends not to foster much free exploration, and you need listen no further than the first minute or so to understand how limiting the ensemble work can be. The problem is exacerbated by drummer Antonio Sánchez, who consistently overplays, weighing down the music to the point where it just can't fly. Listen to the bombast of "Chorreao," a vehicle for mad skin-smashing, to appreciate this fully.
Miguel Zenón is obviously a talented player with originality and vision, but this effort falls short. I look forward to future projects that reveal a better appreciation of implication, subtlety, and understatement, not to mention a little more open-endedness.
(Note: for a great introduction to Jibaro music in its original form, including a 32-page bilingual booklet, check out this recent, highly recommended Smithsonian Folkways collection.)
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