Beginning with Jibaro in 2005, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón has conceived and recorded a series of albums built on the Puerto Rican experience. Both Jibaro and 2009’s Esta Plena explored folkloric sources, while 2014’s Alma Adentro interpreted classics from the golden age of Puerto Rican songwriting by such luminaries as Rafael Hernández, Sylvia Rexach and Pedro Flores. 2014 saw the remarkable Identities are Changeable, which based its compositions not on musical sources, but interviews with Puerto Ricans born in the mainland United States that explored their sense of identity.
Each was progressively more complex than the previous. Jibaro was simply a quartet. Esta Plena added additional percussion and Alma Adentro utilized a string ensemble. Identities was a big band album. At the core of all four, though, was Zenón’s quartet. The title of his brand new album, Típico, might lead you to believe that it is a continuation of this conceptually themed series, but it is instead a more purely musical project that takes as its starting point the core experience of that working quartet since 2005: pianist Luis Perdomo, Henry Cole on drums and bassist Hans Glawischnig.
“The title ‘Típico’ refers to something that is customary to a region or a group of people or something that can be related to a specific group of people. And when I was writing the music, I was thinking about the music that identified us as a band.”
I’m speaking with Miguel Zenón by phone as he is preparing to take the quartet to California for the first leg of a Típico tour that will bring him to Chicago’s Jazz Showcase March 9-12.
“I wanted to go back to that initial idea of just writing something for the band and focusing on the things that I feel the band can do well and use the record as a showcase for that.” Zenón continues, “The way we usually put records together, even when there are large ensembles or conceptually bigger projects, they all start with the quartet. The other elements are added to that, but when we go out on tour it’s usually just the quartet again. So this time, when putting this record together, I thought about the music as not just the first layer of a bigger project, but with the band itself as the main attraction.”
In a few of the album’s tracks, sounds and ideas initially created by individual band members figure in the new compositions. On “Corteza”, Zenón based the melody on a Glawischnig’s bass solo first heard on Esta Plena. “Entre las Raíces” started with a Luis Perdomo piano solo on his album Awareness, while “Las Ramas” takes its starting point from figures that drummer Henry Cole has developed over the years that include his Afrobeat Collective album Roots Before Branches.
I ask Zenón if it’s fair to say that Típico is a more purely musical record. “There definitely isn’t a grand concept on this record. I wanted to do something that was more reflective of our experience as a band. If there’s a concept at all, it’s modern music written for a specific group of players that have developed a language together that we use to communicate with each other and create something that we can communicate to a listener.”
The idea of communicating to a listener interests me. Zenón’s music is quite intricate and carefully planned, but as a listener I’m not thinking about complex time signatures or harmonic cadences. If anything, music provokes a human response, be it pleasure, thoughtfulness, serenity, etc. I tell Zenón this and ask him to comment on the dynamic between composer, player and listener.
“When I’m putting music together, I’m trying to do it out of a place of truth and an honest representation of who I am. So it really needs to be ‘me’. A lot of things that we do start as ideas or systems or exercises, technical things, but then you want to put that in a context where it relates to a listener. There’s a balance needed between an intellectual level and a more human, sentimental point of view if it’s going to reach someone else besides us. My process is a slow one of putting together various ideas and conceptual things, but then I look for ways to add elements to the mix so I can communicate to other people. “
The ‘típico’ of Típico is this culture that exists within the Miguel Zenón Quartet, and not a reference to a geographical region. The compositions themselves have their origin in Zenón’s experience as both an observer and participant in this culture, with few obvious outside points of reference. There are sonic moments that jump out at me: The studio layering of multiple saxophone and bass lines that open “Ciclo”; a simple and very human whistle that opens the increasingly complex variations of “Las Ramas”; 30 seconds or so of in the pocket vamping from drummer Henry Cole in “Corteza”; the delicate intro to “Cantor”.
None of these compositions are likely to bring to mind Latin music. There are, however, two tracks that do conjure this feeling, one deliberately and the other, I believe, naturally flowing out of Zenón’s Puerto Rican heritage.
The lovely melody at the heart of Sangre de mi Sangre (inspired by Zenón watching his daughter play in a park) has a lyrical beauty that sounds like it could have appeared on Alma Adentro. “I actually wrote lyrics to that melody when I first sketched it out. I was watching her play and thinking about our connection, then also thinking about my parents and how they probably felt about me when I was young,” Zenón continues, “In a sense, the version that appears on the record resulted from the same sort of process that I used on Alma Adentro – start with the melody of an existing song, then build a new arrangement from that. We’ve never played it with the lyrics, but I always think about them when I play it.”
The title track makes explicit reference to Latin folkloric music. “I was trying to capture a specific feeling of folklore, specifically this harmonic cadence that I recognize in a lot of the music I like from Latin America. I played around with this cadence a lot of different ways and combined it with different elements and rhythms. Even though it is an original composition, it evokes that folkloric sound when you hear it.”
I jokingly tell Zenón that the piano intro to “Típico” sounds like a montuno played upside down, but to my surprise he readily agrees. “That’s exactly what it is,” he says. “We’re trying to play around with it, sort of like it’s a mirage of something that’s there, but at the same time, not there. I was trying to emulate a feeling I get when I listen to that music, but not the actual music itself.”
Miguel Zenón is no stranger to Chicago. He was here twice in 2016. In the spring he presented Identities are Changeable in concert at the Logan Center and conducted a discussion and performance of its themes and sources at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. He returned to Chicago in early fall to perform Yo Soy La Tradición, a world premiere work for saxophone and string quartet, at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Miguel Zenón Quartet, however, hasn’t been at the intimate confines of the Jazz Showcase since 2015. When I spoke to Zenón prior to that appearance, he said, “I feel honored that we have become part of the musical family at the Jazz Showcase for so many years now. (Showcase owners) Joe and Wayne (Segal) have a long history of supporting younger bandleaders, especially Latin American musicians such as Danilo Pérez and David Sánchez, both of whom have already become such an integral part of the history of the club. I look forward to performing at this great venue for many years to come.”
Better now than later.
Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase March 9-12. Shows at 8 & 10pm plus 4pm all ages matinee on Sunday. Info and advance tickets at jazzshowcase.com.