Miguel Zenón - Jíbaro

May 2005
  1. Seis Cinco
  2. Fajardeño
  3. Punto Cubano
  4. Aguinaldo
  5. Chorreao
  6. Enramada
  7. Villarán
  8. Llanera
  9. Mariandá
  10. Jíbaro
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The jazz world got to know Miguel Zenón quite well in 2004. The young alto saxophonist/composer expanded his already impressive sideman résumé with featured roles in the SF Jazz Collective and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. He also captivated numerous listeners with his heralded Marsalis Music debut, Ceremonial. Now, with the same supporting cast of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Antonio Sánchez, Zenón makes his most deeply rooted yet visionary statement to date on Jíbaro.

The ten compositions on the new disc explore the rural music of Zenón’s native Puerto Rico, a music that is frequently overlooked by those more attuned to urban sounds. “Most people think of Puerto Rican music as bomba and plena, which came from the African Diaspora,” he explains. “Jíbaro music is very different. It comes more from the Spanish side; there is less call and response, less percussion, and greater use of stringed instruments, especially the cuatro [a small four-stringed guitar]. It was developed in the rural areas of the island, and in fact the term Jĭbaro is also used to refer to country people. These were the plantation workers, people with little education and little money; yet they developed this music, which has many variations.”

Because of its rural and lower-class origins, even many Puerto Ricans are unfamiliar with the complexities of Jíbaro music. “It has become very common,” Zenón reports, “especially at Christmas, when it is all that you hear on the radio. So all Puerto Ricans have been exposed to it, even though we don’t all know about it. I never played it in my youth, for instance, because the traditional instrumentation is very strict. Strings carry Jíbaro, and it is very rare to hear it played with a horn. A trumpet occasionally, but never a saxophone.”

Structural elements also contribute to the uniqueness of the style, as Zenón quickly learned. “What really got to me, once I began to look into the music, was the unique sense of organization and the form, in terms of both the vocals in traditional Jíbaro music and the rhyme schemes. Decima, or `tenth’ in Spanish, refers to a verse form containing ten lines that the music adheres to very strictly. It was only after I became familiar with the rules that I started to hear how I could apply them to my own ideas in a jazz context.”

With the support of a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts’ Individual Artists Program, Zenón created ten compositions that both honor and expand upon the tradition. “The melodies and other elements are not just made up,” he emphasizes. “They are taken from the original stylistic sources. The piece `Llanera,’ for example, is taken from the llanera style of Jíbaro. I didn’t want the music to sound traditional, but I wanted it to be grounded in tradition. The key was to understand the starting points.”

The members of Zenón’s quartet rose to the challenge of Jíbaro with brilliant performances. “This is more difficult music than the music on Ceremonial, which we had been playing extensively on tour before we recorded. In this case, even though part of the grant involved playing all of the music in a New York performance, I knew that there would not be as many opportunities to play all of it. And, like all of the music I write, the compositions don’t include sections designed specifically for improvisation. I write something because I hear it; then I have to work on playing it creatively, the same way everyone else in the band does. Given my tendency to sometimes write music that is too difficult to play, I was sensitive to bringing the music to the point where it was difficult, but not impossible. I also wanted this music to sound like a logical evolution of what we had done before.

“With all of that in mind, the guys in the band really played incredibly. Everyone was so relaxed and prepared; and when the hardest songs went down in a single take, I relaxed, too. It was a nice surprise how smoothly things went.”

Zenón emphasizes that the ten sections of Jíbaro do not comprise a suite. “To me, that term describes a specific approach, with common themes linking the parts. All of the parts are connected, in ways that are obvious to me; but Jíbaro is really a collage of different pieces revolving around the same cultural theme, with each piece based on a different part of the culture.” It is also among the most original, lyrical and passionate statements you will hear this year, from a young man who is coming to be acknowledged as one of his generation’s most profound jazz musicians.

Other Releases by Miguel Zenón

Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook
Miguel Zenón


The Quartet      
Miguel Zenón Alto Sax    
Luis Perdomo Piano    
Hans Glawischnig Bass    
Henry Cole Drums    
Woodwind Ensemble      
Guillermo Klein Conductor    
Nathalie Joachim Flute    
Domenica Fossati Flute    
Julietta Curenton Flute    
Romie de Guise-Langlois Clarinet    
Carol McGonnell Bass Clarinet & Clarinet    
James Austin Smith Oboe    
Brad Balliett Bassoon    
Keve Wilson English Horn    
Jennifer Kessler French Horn    
David Byrd-Marrow French Horn    

Many of the most cherished standards in jazz were born as popular songs. In fact, through the course of jazz history, popular songs have served as a source of inspiration for jazz artists. They still do.

Now, in Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, his new recording of classic Puerto Rican songs, saxophonist, composer and arranger Miguel Zenón brings that jazz tradition home – his home. Read more »

Esta Plena
Miguel Zenón

Earthy and sophisticated, the music of Esta Plena suggests a summing up of the work of saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón thus far. It is rooted in the traditional plena music of Zenón’s native Puerto Rico – reinterpreted with the sensibility, the approach and the tools of 21st century jazz. Read more »

Miguel Zenón

There have been few new voices in the jazz world that have caused as much of a stir and possessed as much individuality as Miguel Zenón. The buzz began with his quartet’s first Marsalis Music release, Ceremonial, a program of original compositions that appeared in 2004. Jíbaro, his second disc, followed a year later, and its bold reinterpretation of the rural music of Puerto Rico helped earn Zenón the overall Best New Artist award in the 2006 JazzTimes poll. Now, the alto saxophonist and his talented crew plus special guests embark on a more personal journey with Awake that is sure to bring even greater accolades. Read more »

Miguel Zenón

At its best, the most passionate and promising of today’s jazz is less a fusion of exotic and mainstream elements than a reflection of the more complex, cosmopolitan environment of the contemporary improvising musician. Miguel Zenón whose alto saxophone and quartet make their Marsalis Music debut on Ceremonial, is a stellar example of the blends of energy, passion, intellect and spirit that ensures the music’s continued relevance and growth. Read more »