As a rule, it is best to encounter a piece of music with an appreciation of its provenance. For jazz listeners, even though the act of listening is an exercise in discovery, roots are rarely an issue. That is, until an artist delivers something novel. Such is the case with Yo Soy La Tradicion by saxophonist Miguel Zenon. The Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundation Fellowships recipient was commissioned in 2016 by the Hyde Park Jazz Festival to compose a suite for saxophone and string ensemble Spektral Quartet. This recording melds modern music with the folk traditions of Puerto Rico, reaching far into the island to mine its cultural, musical, and religious traditions.
Is the music classical? Yes. But it is also jazz, and folk. Zenón, born in Puerto Rico, was first trained in classical music before entering Boston's Berklee College Of Music. His jazz career has always incorporated the Latin sounds of his birthplace, but Zenón has continually dug deeper into his native culture for inspiration and novel approaches to composition. With the Spektral Quartet, he reveals the gentle side of his kinsmen from a religious and mostly rural perspective. The disc opens with "Rosario," or the ritual recitation of the rosary in the Catholic church. Spoken, it is almost a mantra, but in music the sounds animate the sequence of prayer. Zenón holds these folk traditions in the highest regard by framing them into this classical chamber presentation. "Cadenas" (or "chains") works around the concept of the tug, with a back-and-forth dance of strings against Spanish and African music. Like most Caribbean cultures, Puerto Rico has endured invasions and colonization, with its people adapting and incorporating influences from the Netherlands, France, Spain, Africa, and Britain. What we discover of the rural culture is the true gift here. Much is centered around the church as in "Milagrosa," or a prayer to the Virgin Mary, and "Promesa," a celebration of the Three Kings, or wise men. Zenón maintains a rhythm and buoyancy in these compositions that is infectious and welcoming. The musicians set aside their instruments midway on "Cadenza" to handclap a Flamenco pulse before returning to plucked strings and melody. Yo Soy La Tradicion is a gift and discovery of a people and a sacred folklore.
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