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Miguel Zenon Quartet at the Jazz Showcase

Paul Olson By

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Miguel Zenón Quartet
Jazz Showcase, Chicago
September 6, 2005
Altoist Miguel Zenón's recordings do a pretty good job of demonstating his fusion of Latin music—especially the rural música jibara of his native Puerto Rico—with the instrumentation and harmonic language of jazz. Looking Forward (2001, Fresh Sound New Talent), Ceremonial (2004, Marsalis Music) and the new Jibaro (also on the Marsalis label) are all winning, memorable CDs with compositions and a group sound that are immediately recognizable.

That said, Zenón's quartet is a group that reaches a greater height in performance. If anything, the band's opening night of their six-day run at Chicago's Jazz Showcase was evidence that this is one of the premier live groups in contemporary jazz. Bassist Hans Glawischnig and pianist Luis Perdomo have played with the leader for years (they appear on all Zenón's albums), and it shows. Perdomo's unison work with Zenón on "Jibaro and his understated but somehow essential comping alongside the leader's solo work on "Fajardeño felt like the fruits of years of collaboration. Glawischnig seemed like the fulcrum of the group, anchoring knotty, metrically complex pieces like "Ceremonial and "Seis Cinco with his thick, rich tone and a masterly grasp of the material: he knows these tunes. Glawischnig's not a showy bassist, but when Zenón left the bandstand during Perdomo's solos, the group became a perfectly fantastic piano trio—one where Glawischnig's bass playing always had enough musical content to serve as a simultaneous alternate solo to Perdomo's lines.

Drummer Henry Cole's hasn't played with Zenón as long, and it doesn't show; his drumming was propulsive, deftly precise yet muscular, and vastly polyrhythmic. One was struck by the sight of Cole hunched over his kit, the very model of tense concentration, his face alternatingly anxious and transported—but one was struck considerably more by his ability to negotiate the metric shifts of Zenón's compositions. No matter how engaging the others' playing was—and it was engaging—Cole stayed noticeable. There were his precise snare tattoos during Zenón's somber solo work on "Aguinaldo and his deadly kick-drum accents over Zenón's rapidfire alto on "Llanera. There may be an enormous Latin flavor to this music, but there's no need for a second percussionist with this drummer.

Of course, this is Miguel Zenón's band, and there's no other altoist around nowadays that plays so lyrically or melodically. But there's plenty of bite and harmonic meat in his attack, so his gift of melody is never cloying. His technical acumen, his grasp of harmony and his trademark round, bell-like tone are undeniable—but no matter how thematically impeccable his improvisations are, he's tapping into some profound emotional reservoir: it was evident in the sight of him swaying in place, eyes closed, alternating ecstatic torrents with quieter, repeating phrases on "Punto Cubano. Zenón's been criticized by some for writing pieces that are overcomposed, and this is complex music; no one's playing free here. But there is ample room in this music for every member of the group to improvise.

It should be noted that Zenón's quartet played at this level at a very sparsely attended gig (this is what happens when you play jazz music the Tuesday after the long weekend of the Chicago Jazz Festival). If they're playing like this without any real crowd to spur them on, what will they be like with a real roomful of listeners? If you're in Chicago, you might want to go to the Jazz Showcase and find out.

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