Miguel Zenón: Jazz player on the rise

Publication: San Jose Mercury News
Author: Andrew Gilbert
Date: November 10, 2011

Miguel Zenón is a musician with a mission.

Over the past six years, the Puerto Rican alto saxophonist has waged a fierce, single-minded campaign to make the jazz world aware of the island’s musical riches. On two previous releases, 2005’s “Jibaro” and 2009’s “Esta Plena,” Zenón combined his rigorous, mathematically structured post-bop vocabulary with folkloric Afro-Puerto Rican styles.

In a shift toward soaring lyricism, his latest album, “Alma Adentro” (Marsalis Music), is a ravishing orchestral session interpreting standards by five beloved Puerto Rican songwriters: Bobby Capó, Tite Curet Alonso, Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernández and Sylvia Rexach.

While it’s been at least two generations since the American Songbook lost its status as part of the nation’s ubiquitous popular culture, Zenón points out that the Puerto Rican Songbook, the informal collection of popular songs recorded by numerous artists, is deeply ingrained in the island’s contemporary culture (and indeed much of Latin America).

I haven’t lived in Puerto Rico for about 15 years, but I would say for my generation it’s different than the American Songbook. In Puerto Rico, this music is very present,” says Zenón, 35, who performs Tuesday at Yoshi’s-Oakland and Nov. 20 at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with his quartet featuring Venezuelan-born pianist Luis Perdomo, Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole.

Even though it’s not music from my time, it’s become part of the lexicon of Puerto Rican music,” Zenón says. “Most people will know these songs. They might not know the composer, but they could sing it and could tell you the most famous version.”

On “Alma Adentro,” he worked with Argentine composer and bandleader Guillermo Klein, who crafted chamber jazz orchestrations for a 10-piece ensemble based on Zenón’s arrangements for his quartet. It’s no coincidence that the altoist embarked on his most ambitious project after he won MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship in 2008, making him the youngest jazz musician so honored.

Everything is possible when you get that kind of help,” Zenón says. “This recording was a long shot because it involved a lot of musicians and work, and collaborating with Guillermo from Argentina. Marsalis Music helped as much as they could, but some came out of my pocket.”

While many were surprised — given his age — by Zenón’s MacArthur Fellowship, Bay Area jazz fans have watched him develop from a prodigiously hard working young player to a celebrated visionary.

He had one album to his name when he joined the SFJazz Collective, which turned out to be an ideal forum for his original compositions and arrangements. He’s the only founding member of the octet left, and next year his relationship with SFJazz deepens as he steps into a new role as a resident artistic director in the SFJazz Center, along with Bill Frisell, John Santos, and MacArthur fellows Jason Moran and Regina Carter.

He is a lethal combination of intelligence, humor, virtuosity, devotion and musicality,” writes Randall Kline, SFJazz’s executive and artistic director, in an email. “He also has huge ears and is intensely curious. Those two qualities in particular are a big part of his success with the Collective (and his career in general) and why he is a natural choice to serve as one of the resident artist directors of SFJazz Center’s inaugural year.”

Zenón is part of a new generation of jazz musicians developing an expansive Pan-American sensibility, combining mastery of jazz’s extended harmonies with various Latin American rhythms and song forms. It’s a movement that has outgrown the old term Latin jazz, coined shortly after the initial encounter between Dizzy Gillespie and Cubans Chano Pozo and Mario Bauza in the late 1940s. For the new generation, Cuba is but one star in a constellation of distinctive musical traditions.

Cuban musicians such as Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto are central to this loosely affiliated movement, but a good deal of the creative energy is flowing from South America and Puerto Rico, driven by artists such as pianists Danilo Perez from Panama and Ed Simon from Venezuela (a recent addition to the SFJazz Collective).

Born into a large working-class family, Zenón can’t really explain where his passion for jazz came from. Torn between pursuing a career as an engineer or a musician, he eventually decided to study music, though he knew it would mean leaving Puerto Rico.

Unable to afford tuition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he gigged around San Juan for a year, mostly playing in salsa bands, saving up money for school. A small scholarship from the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in 1995 paved the way for his studies at Berklee, where Zenón proceeded to win several awards.

Within his first week of arriving in Boston, he knocked on the door of Danilo Perez, who was teaching at Berklee. Like so many musicians who have encountered Zenón, Perez was immediately struck by his sense of purpose.

I could just feel his commitment and dedication,” Perez says. “It was spilling out of his body, out of his soul.”