Thursday, September 20, 2018

Culture, Music, Fusion, & Emotion

Photo: Jimmy Katz
If you have closely followed the career of Miguel Zenón, you'll know it's been quite a journey from his early recordings with the Either/Orchestra and tenor saxophonist David Sánchez as well as his 2002 debut as a leader (the aptly-titled "Looking Forward" which featured, among others pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Hans Glawischnig, both of whom are still members of Quartet).  Zenón is also a founding member of the SFJazz Collective, an octet organized in 2004 currently in its 15th season (which will be the saxophonist's final one with the ensemble).  Go back and listen to the early recordings and you'll hear he's already has his signature sound and that his original compositions were (and still are) inspired by the folkloric and popular music of his native Puerto Rico.  What has changed from those initial recordings is that his writing has matured in wonderful ways.

His latest project and album, "Yo Soy La Tradición", is his fourth album on his Miel Music label.  Zenón has created a collection of pieces inspired by classic Puerto Rican songs as well as elements of musical styles from different cities and towns on the island.  Scored for alto saxophone and string quartet. Zenón's partners on the project are the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet (violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armrest, and cellist Russell Rolen). Recorded during the horrific days when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico (and elsewhere in the Caribbean and United States), the results are an amazing blends of styles, melodies, harmonies, interactions, and rhythms. Rhythms?  String quartet?  O, yes, a number of these works are based on "dance" songs and all five musicians play "percussive" melodic lines and, in the case of the strings, plenty of pizzicato.

Photo: Robert Watson
Five weeks ago, I wrote a preview of the album and there is no need here to go through every track (I included several cuts to listen to - click here).  But, let's look at "Rosario", the song that opens the album. It's based on a Catholic Church tradition in which every segment of the Rosary is presented to the congregation with a musical piece to accompany it.  The piece opens slowly with a melody that has traces of the Shaker Hymn from Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" (the melodic echo appears several times during the performance) with the alto saxophone leading the strings into the music.  They come together and move apart throughout the piece yet it's those strings that add the tension and percussive elements to the piece.  Zenón hands the lead position to viola, violin, and cello as well as keeping a section to himself.  The blend of his saxophone with the strings is impressive throughout and while it seems as if he is the "front man", this music is a true collaboration.

Photo: Brian Jackson/Chicago Tribune
"Yo Soy La Tradición" is brilliant, an entrancing, attractive, intelligent, and often stunning collection of songs that blur the lines between classical, folk, jazz, and popular music. In fact, throw out any and all labels. The insistence on labels only insults the intelligence of the audience.  Instead, focus on how beautiful - yes, beautiful - this music is.  Listen deeply, smile with it, be moved by the passions and the emotions, and enjoy how seamless the arrangements are throughout.  This is not "background music"; instead, this album will resonate for as long as you give yourself fully to the experience.  Kudos to Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet!

For more information, go to and to

Enjoy "Promesa":


One more thing. If you look up at the right hand side of the blog, you'll notice that there are new episodes of "The Jazz Session", the excellent series of interviews with musicians conducted by, arguably, one of the best, Jason Crane. You will learn so much from listening to Mr. Crane and his guests and it's fun!  Very good to have him back - there are still so many musicians out there deserving of the Jason Crane approach! For more information, go to

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