Miguel Zenon brings 'Tipico' to Jazz Kitchen

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The brilliant alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón will make a stop at the Jazz Kitchen on March 8. Zenón is touring in support of Típico, his 10th release as a leader. In line with the majority of Zenón's recent releases, Típico explores musical concepts inspired by the folkloric traditions of Zenón's Puerto Rican homeland. Zenón's individualistic approach to interpreting traditional Puerto Rican music through jazz has earned the musician multiple Grammy nominations, and both a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowship.

Kyle Long: Miguel, you were born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1976. I know you began studying music early in life. I read that it was hearing a Charlie Parker record as a teenager that moved you towards jazz. Do you remember what it was about that sound that pulled you in?

Miguel Zenón: Yes, that's definitely true. I attended a performing arts middle school and high school in Puerto Rico. That's where I got my initial training in music. It was all classical, classical saxophone training. Towards the end of that period in my late teenage years I discovered jazz. One of the things that made a deep impression on me was hearing Charlie Parker, specifically I remember hearing him play with the Machito orchestra. It was a tune called "Mango Mangue", one of the two pieces he recorded with that big band. I was immediately impressed with his saxophone playing, and even more impressed that he was improvising.

That kind of opened a door for me in music. I had been exposed to a lot of music before, but it wasn't until jazz came into my life that I became passionate about it.


Kyle: Your music is typically categorized as Latin jazz. Obviously, the Afro-Cuban influence has dominated Latin jazz for decades, going back to Machito and Mario Bauza in the first half of the 20th Century. One of the elements I love about your music is that you've stepped away from that Afro-Cuban jazz legacy to explore the music of your Puerto Rican heritage. And you explore Puerto Rican music in a very nuanced way, your sound is not at all a stereotypical approach to Latin jazz.

I'm going to ask about a couple of your specific projects later, but I wanted to first ask if you could talk more broadly about your general approach to incorporating Puerto Rican musical concepts into your group's sound.

Miguel Zenón: My approach initially was to try and understand Puerto Rican music at its core and understand its history and development. Even though I grew up with this music, it got to a point that I realized I didn't really know it the way I should. So I kind of made it into a goal of mine to try to go deep into the music and learn the history and the development. As I was doing that I started finding elements in the music that were really interesting and unique. I also started finding the threads between Puerto Rican music and other styles of music from the Americas that were coming out of the same roots. That eventually led me to connecting those roots with jazz music.

You mentioned before that this encounter between jazz music and Latin American music has been for a long time sort of exclusively connected to the Afro-Cuban music tradition. But I can see over the last 10 or 20 years there's been an obvious departure to welcome other ideas coming out of Latin America. There's an understanding now that just because a musician is Latin American and he's playing jazz, he doesn't have to fit into this box that's been around for the last 50, 60 or 70 years. There's a realization now that something else can come out of that combination.

Kyle: Through the years there have been some great saxophonists to come out of Puerto Rico, and I wondered if any of those musicians had been an influence on you? I was particularly thinking of Lito Peña who founded the legendary Orquesta Panamericana in the 1950s, and later went on to study classical music and write some important orchestral works that incorporated the influence of traditional Puerto Rican folk music

Miguel: Most definitely. I actually met Lito Peña when I was a young student in Puerto Rico. A lot of his bandmates in Orquesta Panamericana were actually my teachers at school. So I met Lito Peña through them. A lot of my teachers came out of the tradition which combined classical training with exposure to dance music and popular music. A lot of my early professional engagements were playing that type of music. 

Of course, as you mentioned there are so many great musicians, specifically saxophone players, to come out of Puerto Rico. I have to mention the tenor saxophonist David Sánchez who came out of the same school I came out of in Puerto Rico. He's about eight or nine years older than I am. But we actually went to the same courses and studied with the same teachers at the school. He was a mentor of mine when I first moved to New York. He was very, very influential and extremely helpful in helping me find my personality as a saxophone player. 

Kyle: In addition to being musically rich, so much of your recorded work is also very conceptually rich and there's one album in particular I wanted to ask you about. In 2014 you released Identities Are Changeable, a powerful work that explored the concept of identity, particularly the identity of New York's Puerto Rican population. Throughout that album you weave in dialogue from interviews you recorded with Puerto Ricans in New York, and it certainly feels like the music was composed, or at least tailored around the themes presented in the dialogue. Tell us how you created Identities Are Changeable.

Miguel: As you mentioned, that record grew out of my desire to understand the perspective of the Puerto Rican community outside of Puerto Rico, specifically people living in New York City, which is the largest community outside of the islands and the most historic community. What I did was interview a couple individuals, colleagues and friends who were born and raised in the New York City area, but have roots in Puerto Rico through their parents and grandparents. 

Through those conversations we got into some very specific themes of language and culture and the connection to other communities, like the African American community for example. Then I took those themes and wrote pieces around them using rhythmic layers as something that would represent identity in this case. I would have very specific structures sort of coexisting with each other and representing this idea that identity is not something that has just one space, it has many varied spaces and those spaces can be represented in different parts of your life. 


Kyle: Another record I wanted to ask you about is your 2009 release Esta Plena. Many years ago I found an album of plenas by one of the great masters of the form Manuel "Canario" Jiménez. I instantly became fascinated with the tradition of plena music, and I love your interpretation of the form on Esta Plena.

Miguel: That album came from a series of albums I did with each one focusing on a particular aspect of Puerto Rican music, in this case it was plena music, which is sort of our Carnaval music. It's a very percussive music, and a music that is very embedded in the culture. For this project I incorporated a group of percussionists who come out of the plena tradition and who are also vocalists. A lot of the tracks have vocals with lyrics I wrote trying to follow the tradition of this music, which is very specific about the lyrics. I tried to marry the two worlds of plena and jazz together.


Kyle: You're currently touring on your new album Típico, and you'll be performing at the Jazz Kitchen on March 8. Tell us about Típico.

Miguel: I wanted to go back to some of the early developments of this band. I've been playing with this group for a long time, it's a quartet with me on alto saxophone, Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Henry Cole on drums. Hans and Luis and I have been playing together for 16 or 17 years and Henry has been playing with us for about 10 or 11 years. 

A lot of the recent projects we've worked on have been more focused on larger conceptual things, and larger ensembles with more musicians. I just kind of wanted to go back and write music that was specifically focused on our ensemble, the sound we've developed over the years and the specific personalities of all the people in the band.

I wrote the title track of the album "Típico" about a specific feeling I get when I listen to music I consider to be folkloric or coming out of folklore. There are certain things to me that jump out of music that makes me think it's coming out of that place, it could be a harmonic thing or rhythmic thing. It's the opposite of music that's coming out of conservatory training, its music that's coming out of the ground, if you will.


Kyle: Finally Miguel, I wondered if the current political and social climate of the United States is influencing your music making at all?

Zenón: You know it's definitely affecting us all. The music we make as musicians is a reflection of life and the world, so of course it's going to be reflected in our music. But this is all still so new, it's hard to think but it's only been like a month and a half of the situation that's going on here in the States.

But I have to say it's awe inspiring to see how many musicians have undertaken this task to not be quiet and have their music represent how they feel about what's going on and I definitely include myself in that group. It's really hard not to be affected by this.



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