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Miguel Zenon: Celebrating the Music of La Isla

Steve Bryant By

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For the last decade, saxophonist Miguel Zenón has distinguished himself as one of the most innovative and creative musicians in the modern jazz idiom. The Puerto Rican-born altoist accomplished this feat by reaching back to the musical and cultural traditions of his island. On groundbreaking recordings such as Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005) and Esta Plena (Marsalis Music, 2009), Zenón paid musical homage to the rich rhythms of Bomba and Plena. Alma Adentro (Marsalis Music, 2011) was a heartfelt tribute to great Puerto Rico composers such as Tite Curet Alonso, Bobby Capo and Rafael Hernandez. The music world was also paying close attention to Zenón,as he garnered several Grammy Award nominations as a result of his visionary work.

In 2008, Zenón received what is perhaps the highest honor an artist can be accorded in this country. He became one of the youngest awardees of The MacArthur Fellowship. In choosing Zenón for this prestigious accolade, The MacArthur Foundation wrote: "This young musician and composer is at once reestablishing the artistic, cultural, and social tradition of jazz while creating an entirely new jazz language for the 21st century."

Not content to rest on his laurels, the ever-prolific Zenón has engaged in several notable projects. He was a founding member of the groundbreaking SFJAZZ Collective, a group whose past and current members include Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman. In 2012, Zenón's association with SFJAZZ expanded to include his new role as resident artistic director, along with Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Regina Carter and John Santos.

Zenón also chose another musical path with the release of Rayuela (Sunnyside Records, 2012), which is based on a novel by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar and which focuses on the music of Argentina instead of his homeland. Zenón recorded OYE!!! Live in Puerto Rico (Miel Music, 2013) with a group of his old comrades in a packed joint in the saxophonist's hometown of San Juan. The music is a portent of what Zenón is currently up to.

All About Jazz: In following your career, you really have an affinity for the musical heritage of your island. What were you listening to on the radio when you were growing up?

Miguel Zenón: Like most people in Puerto Rico, I grew up with a lot of music around me. In my country, music is very embedded on everyday life experiences and most things that are considered "traditional" are connected to music or to some kind of musical expression. So plena, Bomba música and jíbara as well as salsa and merengue are things that everyone is exposed to in one way or another throughout their lives. I happened to become a big radio listener at an early age. I started with rock music in my early teens. When I was older I went through a big salsa phase, where I was listening to mostly music from Fania Records, as well as Maelo (aka Ishmael Rivera) and Rafael Cortijo. I also listened to Cuban groups like Irakere, Los Van Van, and NG La Banda.

I discovered jazz music when I finished high school, and that was all I listened to for awhile. Some of the recent attempts that I have made of filtering Puerto Rican and Caribbean music through jazz, such as Jibaro, Esta Plena and Alma Adentro, come directly from my experiences growing up in the island. After living in the States for awhile, I was able to relate to these experiences from a different perspective and find an organic and personal way to connect to them through my music.

AAJ: Listening to Alma Adentro, it"s clear that Tite Curet Alonso doesn't get enough credit as salsa's most prolific composer.

Miguel Zenón— Oye!!! Live in Pusrto Rico width= MZ: Actually, in Puerto Rico and most of Latin America, Tite is widely considered to be the most important salsa composer of all time. What he really doesn't get enough credit for is as a bolero composer. When looking for songs of his to cover on the Alma Adentro recording, I realized that so many of his best known compositions were actually slow songs: "Franquesa Cruel," "Mi Triste Problema," "La Tirana," "Puro Teatro" and so many others. I ended up choosing "Tiemblas" and "Temes" for the recording; both were huge hits by Tito Rodriguez and Vitin Aviles, respectively.

AAJ: You work with the Plena Group Viento De Agua and I am also intrigued by with your work with the great sonero (singer) Andy Montanez, who was the lead singer with El Gran Combo.

MZ: I'm very close to the guys from Viento De Agua, and have a lot of respect for what they do. The use bomba and plena music within a modern perspective. I actually played as a guest on a track from their latest release Fruta Madura (Self Produced, 2010) and I'm currently working on an arrangement for their next one. Tito Matos, one of the leaders of the group, is a good friend of mine and was the lead vocalist and percussionist on a recording I did called Esta Plena,. I met Montañez a few years back and have developed a really nice relationship with him and his family. I also played as a guest on his latest release, Sueño (Bis, 2008).

AAJ: You could have taken the easy route of your musical peers and played salsa. What lead you to study and play American jazz? Which altoists do you listen to?

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