Miguel Zenon: Celebrating the Music of La Isla

Steve Bryant By

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MZ: I discovered jazz music through friends while in high school. Although I had already been studying music for a few years and was already working professionally playing dance music, I hadn't really considered becoming a musician for life until I discovered jazz. I was really drawn in to the idea of improvisation within an established language. A language that also presented a great balance between the brain and the heart, something that was both analytical and heartfelt. The first saxophonist that attracted me was Charlie Parker, but I later discovered other favorites such as Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

AAJ: Rayuela was a definite change of direction from your musical path; What was it about Julio Cortazar's novel that inspired you to make a recording based on the subject matter? What is it about Argentinian music that intrigues you?

MZ: I have been a fan of Cortazar's work for a very long time and Rayuela is probably of my favorite books, one that I've read many times. The book presents a visionary take on form plus a very modern and risk-taking definition of what literature really is. But what really sparked the recording (of the same name) was my interest on a collaboration with French pianist and longtime friend, Laurent Coq. Because the main plot of the book takes place both in Paris and Buenos Aires, I thought that it presented the perfect platform for Laurent (and I to work together. We both wrote music for the project (he concentrated on the Buenos Aires section, I did the same with the section that takes place in Paris), but the music has really nothing to do with Argentinean music per se (or French music, for that matter). Instead, we wrote compositions inspired by our impressions of some of the characters and episodes from the book, which we then translated into the music that was captured on the recording.

AAJ: You are probably one of the youngest MacArthur Fellows in the history of the program. How has that distinction affected you, besides getting that tax free money. What did it allow you to do that you couldn't have done otherwise?

MZ: Receiving the MacArthur Fellowship is an amazing honor, one that affected my life in many positive ways. The main thing that the Fellowship did for me was to give me more freedom in terms of what I wanted to do with my time, gave me more space to focus on the things that I really wanted to do. It also gave me the means to finance certain projects that I was interested on, like a project I started called Caravana Cultural (which organizes free-of-charge jazz concerts in the rural areas of Puerto Rico), plus it helped cover the full or partial budgets of my last five recordings.

AAJ: How does working with the SFJAZZ Collective affect you artistically? How do you feel about working with the likes of Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, and John Santos.

MZ: I joined the SFJAZZ Collective on its inaugural season [2004]. I would not hesitate to say that it has been the most important musical experience of my life. Not only has it given me the opportunity to play with some of my musical heroes, like Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Brian Blade, Joe Lovano and Eric Harland, I've also gotten the chance to be part of a group that is unlike any other I've ever worked with. We are all commissioned to write music for the group every year, so it functions as a composers' workshop. Then we have a residency period of about two weeks, where we get to rehearse the music before we go on tour.

Being part of the band has been amazing and I'm looking forward to many more years with the ensemble. I've developed a very good relationship with SFJAZZ. For the seasons of 2012-13 and 2013-14, I'm serving as one of the Resident Artistic Directors for the organization along with Regina [Carter], Bill [Frisell], John [Santos] and Jason Moran. Our main responsibility is for each of us to organize a four-night residency each season, where we serve as curators. My first residency just took place at the end of May and it went very well.

AAJ: Are you aware that the Bay Area has a rich Latin Jazz Heritage? Cal Tjader, Pete and Sheila Escovedo and John Santos have been playing Latin jazz out there for a long time

MZ: Sure, I'm aware of people like John, Santos, Karl Perrazo, Orestes Vilató and other greats who've kept the Latin American music scene alive in the Bay Area for many years. I'm also very aware of the long history of jazz music in the area, with legendary venues such as The Jazz Workshop, The Blackhawk, Keystone Korner, and Yoshi's, in Oakland. Now that The SFJAZZ Center is operating, I'm sure things will just keep getting better and better. The San Francisco Bay area is a great place for music.

AAJ: Have you ever played in Detroit?

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