Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alto Sax Powerhouse Miguel Zenon Salutes a Salsa Icon with an Intense, Dynamic Album and a Stand at the Jazz Standard

The line between good salsa and good jazz has alway been blurry. Although jazz these days tends to be less rhythmically straightforward, the best salsa bands have always been able to jam with as much imagination as any straight-up jazz act. So it’s no surprise that as a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, Miguel Zenon was blown away when first intoduced to the music of Ismael “Maelo” Rivera. Rivera brought a percussionist’s polyrhythmic complexity to his vocals: essentially, he was a jazz guy singing salsa. A couple of decades after that epiphany, Zenon has made an album, Sonero – streaming at Bandcamp – in tribute to the iconic salsero. In a career full of powerful, relevant albums, this is one of the best Zenon’s ever made. The fiery, profoundly innovative alto saxophonist and his quartet on the album – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – will be celebrating the record release at the Jazz Standard with a stand this Sept 12-15. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The pleasantly low-key bit of an intro – including a Rivera vocal sample – doesn’t offer a hint of how radically Zenon and the band are going to reinvent these old songs, a mix of Rivera’s hits and lesser-known material. After a similarly cheery if much knottier opening, Perdomo’s launch into an ominous, percussive attack on the keys in Quítate de La Vía, Perico sets up a deliciously bracing, modal Zenon solo…and then the sun bursts through the clouds, the band finally bringing the tune full circle.

Las Tumbas – originally a tale about Rivera being behind bars – shifts from Perdomo’s rippling bittersweetness to Zenon’s airy, wistful lines as the bass and drums rise subtly from a muted conga-like pulse to more emphatic syncopation and another gritty Zenon crescendo. He takes Bobby Capo’s El Negro Bembón – a chronicle of the racist murder of a black man – through bustling variations on a quasi-calypso theme over Perdomo’s circling, stabbing chords, to a series of agitated crescendos and finally a riveting, interlocking,  animated yet troubled coda.

La Gata Montesa – a portrait of a real she-devil – is a burner, the bandleader’s relentlessly edgy spirals and leaps over the band’s circling, trickily emphatic syncopation. Anchored by Perdomo’s somber, eerie riffs, Traigo Salsa is the closest thing to straight-up oldschool salsa dura here, although Cole takes plenty of devious metric liberties as Zenon parses dark blues and sharp-fanged modes.

Las Caras Lindas is equal parts sparkling beauty and windswept angst, at least until an ostentatious, rapidfire, Dizzy Gillespie-esque blend of tropicalia and hard bop. Zenon’s mournful melismas and Perdomo’s funeral-bell piano make Hola the album’s arguably most gorgeous number. Colobó has come a long way since Rivera took a poem written for him on a turtle shell by a fisherman fan and made a bomba out of it. Glawischnig propels this joyous romp with a spring-loaded bounce.

The quartet return to brooding balladry with Si Te Contara and close the album with El Nazareno, saluting Rivera’s mystical side with a contrast of uneasy close harmonies from the piano beneath sailing sax lines: Cole’s evocation of a clattering timbale solo is the icing on the cake. Zenon has never played more eclectically, nor Perdomo more tersely, than each does here: what a great band, what a great album. Even the liner notes are very informative.

September 8, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mighty, Majestically Orchestrated, Ambitious Album and a Vanguard Stand This Week From Alto Saxophone Titan MIguel Zenon

You might not expect Miguel Zenon to open his latest album with a cantabile pastorale, but that’s exactly what he’s done. The alto saxophonist has made some amazing records over the years – his smoldering Oye! Live in Puerto Rico from 2013 is a favorite – but his most recent one is his most ambitious yet. You could say that Yo Soy la Tradicion is his Sketches of Spain, a collaboration with the magical, microtonally-inclined Spektral Quartet streaming at their music page.

Jazz sax and strings have a history that dates back to Charlie Parker; this is a lot closer to Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous, or Bartok, than orchestrated swing. Zenon has yet another weeklong stand at the Vanguard starting tomorrow, March 12 with his quartet and continuing through the 17th, with sets at 8 and 10:30.

The Spektral Quartet – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – open the album with the rather stark, almost severely precise intro to Rosario, inspired by the Catholic rosary tradition; then Zenon flips the script and builds a bubbly dance overhead that brings to mind the similarly paradigm-shifting work of Argentine bandoneonist JP Jofre. It’s catchy, almost to the point of sentimentality.

Cadenas (Chains) draws on European 20th century minimalism as well as Puerto Rican line dances, the strings’ hypnotic, insistent acerbity balancing Zenon’s folksy, airy delivery. Then the sax and quartet switch roles, a neat touch.

Yumac may have roots in rural Puerto Rican folk music – the ttile is the town of Camuy, home to popular 50s songwriter German Rosario, spelled backwards – but the music comes across as a more harmonically complex take on Ernesto Lecuona’s anthemic mashup of Afro-Cuban themes and western classical orchestration.

Milagrosa is more balmy, an unexpectedly successful mashup of spaciously sequenced postbop sax and alternately rhythmic and lush string passages, with a crescendo midway through that’s as majestic as anything Zenon has ever written.

The album’s most gorgeous track is Viejo, shifting from troubled, massed Julia Wolfe-like insistence, to an unabashedly lyrical ballad with an elegaic cello solo followed by Zenon’s broodingly wafting melody. Zenon’s tone is more biting than Paul Desmond’s, but the lyricism here is very similar.

If Bartok had a thing for Spain instead of Tunisia, he might have written Cadenza: there are also echoes of wistul, uneasy Debussy. Again, Zenon brightens the ambience, this time with flamenco allusions. Imagine Ligeti trying to reduce a flamenco tune to simplest terms: that’s the outro.

The album’s most epic track is Promesa, a diptych of sorts that refers to the Catholic festival of the Three Kings. A pensive cello solo takes centerstage over a lush backdrop that recedes to a steady, minimalist pulse, Zenon building the longest solo here from gentle pastoral colors to lively, blues-tinged spirals. Then the atmosphere shifts to artfully pulsing variations on a lively alguinaldo jibaro country dance theme.

Piazzolla, or for that matter, Lecuona would have been proud to have written the anthemic final number, based on a variant of that style from the town of Villalba. Obviously, Zenon’s Vanguard stand this week isn’t likely to showcase a lot of this material; on the other hand, with a guy who’s been known to reinvent classic Sylvia Rexach boleros, you never know.

March 11, 2019 Posted by | classical music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Smart, Playful, Tuneful Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Miguel Zenon

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is the rare bandleader who’s been able to keep a group together not only for months but years. In this increasingly challenging climate, that’s a major achievement. More than anything, Zenon’s new album Tipica – streaming at NPR – documents a hard-working band at the pinnacle of jazz technique and composition, a bunch of thoroughly road-tested tunes played by a band with intuitive chemistry. Zenon’s tunes literally leap from the page, impactfully and often poignantly. Variations on circular piano riffs are a recurrent trope. Although Zenon draws on his Nuyorican heritage as well as sounds from across the Americas, it would be shortsighted to pigeonhole his work as latin jazz. Tuneful postbop may be a much broader category, but that description encompasses the many, many flavors of his music. With his quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole –  he’ll be airing out those numbers at the band’s upcoming stand at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM starting on Valentine’s Day and running through the 19th of the month. Cover is $30 which includes a drink.

The album opens with Academia, drawing on Zenón’s work raising the next generation of jazz greats at New England Conservatory. A tensely circling piano riff, Zenon’s lithely dancing, exuberant lines and Cole’s subtle snowflake cymbal accents kick it off. There’s some judiciously multitracked, interwoven sax as it hits a jaunty crescendo; Perdomo’s drive from enigmatic back toward the dancing main theme is typical of how he builds momentum. The ending is way too fun, and too funny, to give away, especially since the band reprises it elsewhere here.

The ballad after that, Cantor sends a shout-out to Zenón’s buddy Guillermo Klein, expanding from Perdomo’s tight clusters to balmy and rippling, with a Zenon solo that finally bursts in to flame. With Perdomo’s subtle humor, neoromantic glimmer and blues, Ciclo makes a great segue; the passage where Glawischnig shadows the bandleader is a recurrent meme with this band in concert.

The album’s title track begins with Perdomo running an altered salsa riff, then Zenon wryly syncopates it, Perdomo bringing hints of vintage swing to his signature lyricism, Cole circling the perimeter with a solo as he pans the speakers. Sangre de Mi Sangre is next, a tenderly pulsing ballad inspired by the composer’s four-year-old daughter, with a whispering, tiptoeing Glawischnig solo.

Zenon recycles a Glawischnig solo from the 2009 tune Calle Calma as a central theme in Corteza, the sax bobbing and weaving with a richly cantabile feel: this really is a song without words. Likewise, Entre Las Raíces – “Between the Roots” – is assembled around a Perdomo solo from Street View: Biker, from the pianist’s Awareness album. A wryly scurrying group improvisation opens it; Zenon echoes both Albert Ayler and Joe Maneri in the kind of vein that the title implies. Zenon likens Cole’s intricate work on the album’s closing diptych of sorts, Las Ramas (The Branches) to a drum etude. One quibble with this track: let’s leave whistling on albums to the likes of Paul Simon, huh?

February 9, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album

It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.

It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.

My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo

Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).

November 16, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

May 21, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment