Miguel Zenon: Jazz Sherpa

Lawrence Peryer By

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The SFJAZZ Collective

AAJ: As the sole founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective, could you tell us a little bit about what you get from your involvement there that keeps you engaged over such a long period of time?

SFJAZZ Collective, from left: Robin Eubanks, Avishai Cohen, Eric Harland
Mark Turner, Miguel Zenón, Edward Simon, Stefon Harris, Matt Penman

MZ: Yes. Like you said, I'm the sole founding member, sort of by default just because I'm still there. Everybody's got their reason why they come in and out; it's all personal, I think. For me, when I came into the band the first year [2004], I remember talking to [Collective co-founders] Joshua Redman and Randall [Kline] and they invited me. They told me who was going to be there: Bob and Nicholas and Brian all came over there [vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Brian Blade were all founding members with Zenón]. I mean, it was almost like a joke that they were talking to me!

For the longest time, me being the youngest guy there, I just took it as, "I've got to take advantage of this as long as it lasts because this is a great opportunity." And it was that kind of thing where I just wanted to be around these people for as long as I could. And, I think, as things progressed and as people started coming into the band, and because I was there for a long time, I started getting a little more seniority and all that. The whole dynamic of the band changed a little bit through the years, and I think it's progressed [musically].

It's interesting because with being the Jazz Collective, this band where everybody is represented equally, it's become more like that through the years. The band is more of a collective now than what it was when it started because it's developed a character and people are coming to the band; they understand the way this band works. It's different; it's very different. So in that sense, it's something that I really enjoy—just seeing that development in the band and being part of that, and doing what I can to keep that the way it is. I enjoy being there, and I enjoy the fact that we get a platform to write music, and we have a lot of time rehearse. I really like the guys in the band, and I expect to be there for as long as I can. I know things change, but I enjoy the space where I am now in terms of that band.

AAJ: Is there a notion that no one's a sideman, so everybody will either be expected to write and arrange and influence repertoire? Does everybody come in engaged?

MZ: Yes. I think everybody comes in already knowing that. And also—not only in the sense that there are certain things that are expected from you—at some point, somebody's got to be the leader. At some point, you're going to lead the ensemble, be it [in] a rehearsal or a gig; you've got to make some decisions.

A lot of the people in the band are leaders too, and have been for a long time. It could also be a challenge for them to have to step down from that platform of the leader and have to say, "I'm just part of the band." That could be a challenge, and I know that it has been at some point for some of the people that have come to the band.

The more that we, as the members of the Collective, can learn and understand, and are comfortable with that notion of you have to be a leader at some point, but also it's really about the Collective—it's not about the individual, it's about what we can do together— and the more we understand that, the better the music we play becomes, and the better the chemistry is.

AAJ: Is it easy for you to switch modes like that, to give yourself over to the other composers and their arrangements, or take direction? Can you do that with relative ease and comfort?

MZ: Yes, actually it's pretty easy for me. I have to say it's not something that I feel uncomfortable with at all. In a way, that's kind of the default mode for me, because when I got into music, I didn't do it to have my own band and play my own music and all that. It's more like I just want to play with people. And I enjoy it. I enjoy hearing what people have to say and not having to give directions and lead the whole time. I think it's great. We all want to have the opportunity to do that at some point, but I definitely don't feel like I need to be doing that all the time.

AAJ: Is it more challenging to write and arrange for the Collective versus your own group, given that there's so much less experience with the members of the Collective than with your own band?

MZ: No, I don't think so. I think it's about the same. It was challenging for me at first just because of the instrumentation, and you have to learn how to deal with that. At the time, I wasn't experienced: I'd never written for vibes or four-horn arrangements, and trying to come up with the right thing, and learning the range of all the instruments, and learning the players and what they could do, and all that.

But the good point of the band and the organization is: they've done a really good job out of choosing who they bring into the band. And the way that usually works is they have suggestions, and we have suggestions, and we basically choose as a band who we want to come in. And it's usually people that we know well and we play with, and we know what they can do, as in the case of [saxophonist] Mark Turner and [pianist] Edward Simon and [trumpeter] Avishai Cohen, who came in a couple of years in. We all knew them real well and knew the way they played and how good they played their instruments.

So even though they're coming into a band, it basically becomes a new band. I don't think it really affects the way I write, just because you know that you're not going to have to think about, "Oh, are they going to be able to play this?" You know that the people you're bringing in are going to be at the level that they're going to be able to play anything, and you're not going to have to change.

Leading a Band

AAJ: Branford Marsalis called your group "a band's band." How important is it to you and your music to have had such stability in the lineup?

MZ: It's very important, I think, just in the sense [of] what I want to do as a leader and the kind of music I want to play in my own groups. One thing that I've learned by playing in other bands and interacting with other people is that chemistry is very important to me. And being around people that you like and you can actually hang out with and be friends with, and all that, is important—it's kind of crucial for me in terms of making music and just being together for a long time.

I think, in a way, I got lucky too, because I've found players that I like who also like me and like my music and enjoy it and enjoy playing together. But also, I think I've found a way to keep a personality as a leader and a composer, pinpointing the strength of these players and making them sound good while playing my music.

I've been lucky and blessed that I've been able to play with the same people for so long. And I don't have any plans of changing anything. I'm not one of those guys that go through projects and goes through, "OK, I'm just going to bond with this guy and this guy now and do this record, and then I'm going to do another band with so-and-so." For me, it's about just keeping the guys and adding layers, that kind of thing.

I'm always thinking about what's going to happen when we go play. When we go play, we go play as a quartet, as a band. You know, the music is developed within us, and then, when we go play, it's played by us. So that's kind of my priority: what's going to happen when we get to the stage and play. And I want to be around the people that I like when that happens.

AAJ: How have you been able to keep the group together, especially given that you have a lot of projects and work in situations outside of just your band.

MZ: Yes, it's a good question. Everybody's real busy, and I'm not one of those guys that's going to be playing with my band all the time, because I'm playing with other bands and doing other things. And I enjoy doing that, too. But I think I've also surrounded myself with guys who, even though they are pretty faithful and they give priority to what we do as a band, they actually play with other people, too. So, you know, I don't have to worry about, "Oh man, I'm not working, so this guy's not going to be able to pay his rent."

It's similar, actually, to how the Collective works, in a way. People commit to specific periods, and then the rest of the time, you do your own playing. You play with other people, you play with your own bands, you do other things, but I think it's about commitment. And I've just been lucky that I've got guys who are committed.

AAJ: And those other experiences that you all have individually must come back and feed the group's vocabulary.

MZ: Yes, of course. Of course. The more we play with other people, the better we get when we play together. We get different experiences, and we play music again and we sound different. Yes, exactly.

The Music of Puerto Rico

AAJ: Was there a particular purpose or plan in how you approached the order of your recordings of the music of Puerto Rico, first with Jibaro music on Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005), and then the Plena music on Esta Plena (Marsalis Music, 2009), and now the Puerto Rican songbook on Alma Adentro?

MZ: There wasn't really a long-term plan like that. I like to think long term, but in this case there wasn't a plan like that. They all happened individually for specific reasons. In the case of the Jibaro and the Plena projects, they happened because I was interested in learning more about this music, the traditional music. And I started studying and researching and talking to musicians and listening to records and buying books, and all that.

While I was doing that, I was able to get support from, in the case of the Jibaro record, the New York Council for the Arts, and for the Plena project, it was the Guggenheim Fellowship. That kind of pushed me over the edge to say, "OK, now I'm going to do something, and I can expand the research, and I can learn more, and I can make a record, and all that; you know, I can write some music. So in those cases, that was the approach. And both of those styles are folklore music, traditional music.

There's a bunch of other stuff—the traditional music that I haven't even gone into that deeply because I feel that it's kind of like a process. I like to go through it slow and get into one thing and do that thing for a little while, and then document it and then move on into the next. That was the process for those things.

For Alma Adentro, it was a little similar, in the sense that it was Puerto Rican music. But it wasn't my own music; I was dealing with music that was already there. I was basically arranging songs. The approach was different, in that this was not traditional music but popular music, music that was very well known. I took it with the approach of saying, "OK, I want to represent my music, and I want to learn more about where this music came from and what it represents to me and my culture and the people of Puerto Rico and Latin America." It was a little different because I was going through a filter of something that was already there, whereas in the other two records, I took a mold and grew original music based on that mold.

AAJ: So for the first two projects you wrote within a style. You said, "I want to contribute to this canon of music."

MZ: Exactly, exactly. Whereas, in this record it's really a tribute in a way, where it's basically my version of all these classics.

AAJ: How did the songbook music of Puerto Rico spread? In America, radio played a big role as well as film and theater. Broadway helped popularize the material. How did the music become popular in Puerto Rico?

MZ: It's actually pretty easy to explain. A lot of these composers—at least the composers that I focus on on this recording, these five composers—at some point in their life, they spent a lot of time outside of Puerto Rico, specifically in New York City, which was, at the time, a center for Latin American music for a very long time. You could say something like the '20s to '70s; most Latin American artists were based in New York City, no matter where they were from.

So somebody like [the composers] Rafael Hernandez or Pedro Flores, even though they were Puerto Rican, they created most of their music outside of Puerto Rico. And their music became known in Puerto Rico basically because they were able to be with such good recording companies and were able to put their music down and document it. And their music was passed around; as you say, it got to the radio. This is something that probably wouldn't have happened if they were to stay in Puerto Rico.

The same thing with [composers] Bobby Capo and Tite Curet Alonso—they all at some point lived outside of Puerto Rico and developed outside of the island. You know, in the case of Rafael Hernandez, he lived in Cuba also, he lived in Mexico, so he was almost like an international star in a way: he got to the point where a lot of people think he's Cuban and a lot of people think he's Mexican.

So it had to do with the usual things, the radio and the records, and all that. But I also think it has to do with the fact that these people, they were part of a movement that was taking place in New York at a certain point of the last century: like a Latin American movement that involved Puerto Rican musicians, Cuban musicians, American musicians and people from all over the place—the whole thing with the Mambo and the Tango and Latin American song, and all the stuff that was happening. They were involved in that, and they were major players. So I think that's kind of how this music got exposed.

And, you know, I'm putting all this music in the same pocket and saying, "OK, we're talking about the Puerto Rican songbook." But these players were all independent entities. They weren't thinking about writing Puerto Rican songs, they were thinking about writing a song for this or a song about this, a song for themselves, a song for a commercial. They were just writing music. And now we think about that music as Puerto Rican songs because those people were all Puerto Rican, and they were put into the same bag, but they were all doing things independently, and they found a way to march at some point.

AAJ: You mentioned as an aside that there's other music in Puerto Rico for you to explore and to look at. Have you started that process yet? Are you going to take another look at the island as a source for projects? What might that look like?

MZ: Yes, there's a lot more stuff to learn. There are other styles of music, of course, that I would like to go a little deeper into. There's a style of music in Puerto Rico called Bomba, like "bomb." And Bomba is basically the biggest representative of African culture in Puerto Rico. And it's very present and very thriving, in a way. I have this idea of, this very general idea, of making a connection between what Bomba is in Puerto Rico and how you can find similar things all over Latin America and the Caribbean and South America—similar styles to Bomba—and seeing how that traces back to Africa and the roots there. So that's something that's been kind of harboring in my mind for a little while, and at some point I'm going to tackle that.

I'm actually working on a project now that doesn't necessarily deal with Puerto Rican music, per se, but it deals with the Puerto Rican identities, especially Puerto Ricans in the United States and specifically in New York, and how these Puerto Ricans see themselves as Puerto Ricans or Americans or Nuyoricans, and how that affects their life and how has it affected the development of the City and what Latin America culture is in this country.

I've conducted a few interviews of some people from Puerto Rican descent who were born in the United States or New York, and I'm using these interviews to create pieces of music, basically. And it's something that we're going to be doing in February at Montclair [State University in New Jersey]. I've got a commission from the University there, so we're working on that pretty intensely.

AAJ: Many of the Afro-Caribbean locales—you mentioned Cuba and Puerto Rico, but add to that, maybe, Trinidad and Jamaica—are really small geographic spaces with relatively small populations, yet have an outrageous output of music per capita. What factors do you think account for that?

MZ: I have a little bit of an idea. I think from visiting places, like being from Puerto Rico and visiting Cuba and some of the Latin America countries where I think what you're talking about applies, I think there's a very central place for music within everyday life that you don't find everywhere. It might have something to do with the very strong presence of African traditions and certain things that kind of stay within culture.

In terms of my own experience, I feel that in places like Cuba and Puerto Rico and other places that have the similar qualities, I feel music within everyday life and with the general public, music is present everywhere, more than in other places and countries. And everybody plays a little bit, everybody sings a little bit, so it's that kind of thing where it's like an actual connection in everyday life.

AAJ: Much more integrated into life, it's more about folk art as opposed to high art or it's not separate from people's experience.

MZ: Exactly. Yes. There are certain elements of folklore music that I've always felt that when you hear them—even when you don't understand it, especially if it's folklore music that's come from the earth—even if you've never heard that music before, there's something about that music that kind of draws you in just because it's so human. And it's like you're saying it is music from the people—it's not something that's high art. It's really just there. And anybody can grab it; you don't even need to play an instrument. It's almost like you can just kind of walk in.

AAJ: Is there anything else that you feel it's important we cover?

MZ: We're excited to have this new recording out and to be playing the music. I'm hoping that things like this will draw people into checking the album out, to kind of expose Puerto Rican music—in this case, all these composers—to a jazz public or to people who might not know who these people are and might not have had the chance to be exposed to the music. So I'm hoping to plant a seed into exposing people to all this great stuff that's coming out of Puerto Rico and these great composers.

Selected Discography

Miguel Zenón, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music, 2011)
SFJAZZ Collective, Live in New York Season 8—Music of Stevie Wonder (SFJAZZ, 2011)
Antonio Sanchez, Live In New York At The Jazz Standard (CAM Jazz, 2010)
Miguel Zenón, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music, 2009)
Guillermo Klein, Filtros (Sunnyside Records, 2008)
SFJAZZ Collective, Live 2007 4th Annual Concert Tour (SFJAZZ Records, 2007)
Miles Okazaki, Mirror (Miles Okazaki, 2006)
Miguel Zenón, Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005)
Charlie Haden, The Land of the Sun (Verve, 2004)
Kendrick Oliver & The New Life Jazz Orchestra, Welcome To New Life (Sphere, 2003)
Quite Sane, The Child of Troubled Times (Rykodisc, 2002)
Miguel Zenón, Looking Forward (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2001)
Either/Orchestra, More Beautiful Than Death (Accurate, 2000)

Photo Credits
Page 1, Middle: Daniel Sheehan
Page 2, SFJAZZ Collective: Courtesy of SFJAZZ
Page 3, Top: Ben Johnson
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Miguel Zenón
About Miguel Zenon
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