He’s jazzed by sound of Puerto Rico

Publication: The Columbus Dispatch
Author: Kevin Joy
Date: April 18, 2012

New York musician Miguel Zenón has filtered the music of his Puerto Rican homeland through a jazz lens.

For his latest album, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, the 35-year-old alto saxophonist began with familiar music composed in the 1920s to the 1970s — cuts not quite anthemic but much ingrained in his native land.

“They’re a part of the culture in Puerto Rico,” said Zenón, who has a bachelor’s degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a master’s from Manhattan School of Music in New York.

Though long enamored of jazz, he found that highlighting his roots held even more allure.

“As much as I like . . . (American standards), I didn’t feel as personally connected.”

Such a fusion has paid off for Zenón, whose Alma Adentro was deemed the best jazz album of 2011 by National Public Radio.

It came on the heels of a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship — the “genius grant” that provides $500,000 apiece to cutting-edge individuals in science and the arts.

Such credit “does make people notice you a little more,” he said.

More exposure will occur on Thursday, when Zenón performs with a quartet at the Wexner Center for the Arts as part of the 35th annual Ohio State University Jazz Festival.

He talked this week from New Orleans.

Q: With no prior warning about being given the MacArthur grant, how did you react to the initial phone call?

A: It was a surprise for me — very pleasant. In terms of what that’s done for me and my life and everything, aside from the obvious financial connotation, it definitely opened a lot of doors and brought a little more attention to what we’re doing.

It’s given me a lot of freedom with my time — to play with the people I want to play with, financing my own recordings and projects.

Q: How did you select and interpret fare for your latest album?

A: The approach in general was just to think about these songs the same way you’d think about the great American songbook and how that’s become an essential part of the jazz lexicon.

A lot of the . . . ( Adentro selections) were written at the same time, when all this Tin Pan Alley stuff was happening. I felt I had a personal connection with these songs I’ve been hearing since I was a kid — through my parents or just on the radio or playing in school.

Q: Did any one song have a particularly strong pull?

A: Definitely the title track. The composer, Sylvia Rexach — she’s a favorite of my mother.
My mom, I remember, . . . was always singing her songs in the house. I know those songs very well — the lyrics. I had been hearing them for a very long time.

Also, Incomprendido — which was made very popular by a salsa singer. He recorded the one iconic version of the song, more like a dance song — . . . the way he sang with a personal twist.

Q: What first inspired you to enter music?

A: As a kid, I started music in Puerto Rico when I was about 11. I went to a performing-arts middle and high school, where I started playing the saxophone. I was always attracted to music as a general idea, not a specific type of music.

Before I heard jazz, I never considered playing music for a living.

But when I heard Charlie Parker for the first time, that made a big impact. It made me want to be a musician.

Q: What role does jazz play today in Puerto Rico?

A: It’s something that has definitely grown a lot since I was there.

I remember, in my teens, there wasn’t anywhere you could go study jazz.

Now there are a couple of higher-education institutions that have jazz programs. That’s definitely a step forward.

It’s still very minimal. But I feel that, with younger musicians and a younger audience, there’s more of a hunger for this kind of music.

Q: Did that, in part, motivate you last year to launch the “Caravana Cultural” series of free jazz shows in rural parts of Puerto Rico?

A: It’s been great. They’re still going. We’re doing a concert every four months. The idea is exactly that: to give people who had never had the opportunity to experience a jazz concert, to bring the music to them.

Q: As part of the OSU Jazz Festival lineup, what is it about jazz that you think is most worthy of a celebration?

A: The thing that always attracted me to jazz is this feeling of having a pure, free medium.

When I first heard some of those guys improvising, I felt that I was seeing a window into a soul — almost like if you were talking, the same way you express yourself.

My goal would be able to just do that: freedom of expression.