Miguel Zenon at the Top of His Game at the Vanguard and in Puerto Rico
What’s the likelihood of walking down into a random bar late on a Sunday and hearing an absolutely shattering version of one of the saddest songs ever written? If the bar is the Village Vanguard and the artist onstage is Miguel Zenon and his quartet, there’s your answer. That was how the Puerto Rican-born alto saxophonist began the final set of his most recent weeklong stand there, with an angst-riddled version of the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero Alma Adentro (Deep in My Soul). That the songs after that one weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the ability of Zenon and the rest of the group – Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Eric Doob on drums – to maintain a mood.
For someone as expansive as Zenon can be – the guy likes to stretch out, and is very generous with solos – he’s incredibly purposeful. He didn’t make an entrance until Perdomo had established a morosely glimmering ambience, pedaling the opening minor chord in tandem with the bass. Zenon then chose his spots, at one point lowlighting a particularly creepy Perdomo glissando with his own equally macabre, murky modalities. They brought the intensity to redline slowly, in clusters, from there, fueled by Doob’s hypnotically circular phrases, hitting hard but carefully articulate.
They kept the moody gravitas going with another Rexach hit, Olas y Arenas (Waves and Sand), matching the longing and alienation of the legendary Puerto Rican chanteuse’s original, Zenon establishing a suspenseful but vivid push-pull, Perdomo’s chenched-teeth, percussive attack contrasting with Zenon’s calm beachfront evocation, Perdomo quoting from Riders on the Storm before finally rising to a crescendo and a false ending. They lightened just a bit, reaching torward straight-up clave with a memorably rippling take of Rafael Hernandez’ slightly less angst-ridden Silencio, then worked a haunting sax/bass intro into a minor-key ballad that sounded like it was going to be yet another Rexach tune, or maybe Sumemrtime, but turned out to be neither. Artful polyrhythmic tradeoffs between Zenon and the rhythm section followed an expansive upward trajectory to a leaping, triumphant sax solo on the next number, they closed with an edgy, dancing number in 9/4, Zenon’s jaggedly terse lines handing over to Perdomo, who took it into the wee hours (literally) as Doob finally seized the role of one-man salsa rhythm section, firing off wry timbales and conga lines.
Zenon also has a strongly evocative new album out, recorded last year, which is somewhat different. Titled Oye! Live in Puerto Rico, it works an energetic yet restrained vibe. Culled from a two-night stand in Rio Piedras, it has an immediacy that gives the sense that those sitting under the air conditioner might have been especially grateful, even if if was dripping on them (which happens sometimes down there, Puerto Rico not being a particularly seasonal place). Bookended by a brief, rather joyous intro and outro, Zenon makes his way through an allusive, long-form take on Oye Como Va before expanding on four numbers which are almost as long (the shortest is almost nine minutes), teaming up with electric bassist Aldemar Valentin plus drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reynaldo De Jesus.
The heavy percussion in tandem with the bass evoke a piano in many places: Valentin is the rare electric four-string jazz guy who doesn’t try to Jaco it. Zenon evokes the haunting timbre of a Middle Eastern ney flute on his own Hypnotized, with a wary/lively dichomtomy; the band take their time with Silvio Rodriguez’ El Necio, then romp through Zenon’s catchy, hypnotically insistent JOS Nigeria and then a long, simmering take of his Double Edge, the bass and then the sax jabbing at Escapa as the drums break loose. And in a wry nod to where the album was recorded, the photo under the album’s cd tray shows an old AC unit which seems to be mounted somewhat less than parallel to the floor and ceiling. Whether or not it was dripping is anyone’s guess.
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