Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon has undertaken several projects over the years exploring the folk music traditions of Puerto Rico, but he takes that to a new level with this work featuring the string playing of Chicago's Spektral Quartet. The interplay of saxophone and strings here sometimes recalls the lush conversations of the classic Stan Getz / Eddie Sauter project, Focus (Verve, 1961) or Charlie Parker's recordings with strings, but this feels more like an equal musical partnership. The quartet interacts more closely with Zenon than an entire string orchestra would and never overwhelms him.
Zenon works feelings of romance, emotion and danger into his writing and these are wonderfully realized in the playing. On some pieces the quartet sets the tone. The mournful "Promesa" and the suspenseful "Cadenza" start out with ominous settings of bowed clockwork rhythms and low melodies which Zenon sweeps into with supple, seductive playing that uplifts and brightens the mood. On "Yumac" the quartet puts on an impressive display of whirling dance rhythms while Zenon carefully bobs in and out of their interplay with bubbly, soaring lines.
In other places Zenon takes more of a lead role. On "Rosario" he plays a folkish melody with stately gravity that's wrapped in warm bowed strokes and plucked accents by the quartet. Alto and thick, stabbing strings dance together from the beginning on the wriggling "Milagrosa." On "Viejo" the saxophonist starts out in the foreground sounding long, low notes against string plucks before the quartet swells dramatically and he settles into blowing a lovely ballad melody. "Villalbeno" begins with tense hovering by the quartet but is quickly dominated by Zenon swooping in with silvery flash, blowing romantically as the strings chug beneath him.
Zenon's writing is exceptional here. The quartet sketches out gorgeous musical landscapes brought into robust life by the creamy alto sound. Jazz musicians playing with string ensembles are not that rare anymore, but the sheer spellbinding beauty of this jazz-folk-classical hybrid is something special.
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