Miguel Zenón discusses “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera”

By Don Macica

“He’s a larger than life figure. I’ve been connected to him for as long as I can remember listening to music. When I was a child, his music was always present around the house. This was before I had any thought of becoming a musician. When he passed, it was like a president had died or something, a period of national mourning. That really affected me.”

I’m speaking by phone with Miguel Zenón about his new album with the Miguel Zenón Quartet, “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera,” the latest of several albums spanning almost 15 years in which the saxophonist and composer explores the emblematic subject of Puerto Rico, both musically and culturally.

“Later on, when I began to study music, I realized that Rivera was a genius,” Zenón continues. “Since then, he’s always been my guy. Over the years, I dabbled around the edges, arranging some of Rivera songs for David’s group (Zenón played alto sax for nearly 5 years in a group led by fellow Puerto Rican David Sánchez before forming his own quartet in 2005) and later on for my ‘Alma Adentro’ album. I finally felt it was time for a full investigation.”

The product of that investigation will make its Chicago debut September 19 at the Jazz Showcase when the Miguel Zenón Quartet (Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums) begin a four-night residency. Zenón has been coming to the historic Chicago jazz venue regularly for almost twenty years, first as a member of David Sánchez’ group, then as leader of his current quartet. In 2013, he brought his Rhythm Collective side project.

L to R: Hans Glawischnig, Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenón, Henry Cole – Photo by Noah Shaye

Although I’ve long known that Rivera was an important figure, I didn’t quite understand the depth of that reverence. I knew that Zenón was preparing this tribute from a conversation that I had with him last fall at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when he celebrated the release of his previous album, “Yo Soy la Tradición”, with a concert there. I immersed myself in the music and story of Ismael Rivera before calling Zenón. I believed it was necessary to understand more about Ismael Rivera before I could approach a tribute to him.

The story is considerably more complex than this brief outline, but Ismael Rivera’s career is roughly divided into two periods: His work as lead vocalist in the groundbreaking 1950s and early 60s pre-salsa output of Cortijo y Su Combo, led by his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo, and the 1970s, when he formed Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos after the ascendency of salsa in New York. In between those two periods are five years in prison due to a 1962 drug bust, which ended Cortijo’s combo.

Rivera, nicknamed Maelo, is a genius in the way that saxophonist Charlie Parker is a genius: employing an unprecedented and innovative approach to art and technique so that their field (in Parker’s case jazz, in Rivera’s Afro-Caribbean improvised sonero singing) is forever divided up into pre- and post-eras. No less than the great Cuban singer Benny Moré dubbed Rivera “El Sonero Mayor.” It was natural, then, that Zenón would study Rivera’s vocal improvisations the same way he would study Parker.

“Rivera and Cortijo were grounded in traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music,” says Zenón, “and they brought that to the stage and dance floor, putting a specifically Puerto Rican spin to a sonero tradition that comes out of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré. What Maelo built on top of that was unprecedented. Maelo’s melodic and rhythmic gifts of invention took sonero to another level.”

“Rivera is an important cultural figure,” continues Zenón. “Maelo and Cortijo were guys from the ‘hood.” Zenón is referring to Santurce, San Juan’s historic working-class neighborhood (where, many years later, Zenón was born as well) populated largely by Afro-Puerto Ricans. “They took street music like bomba and plena and built a modern, popular sound out of it that didn’t rely on Cuban son as its only reference. No one had done that before, and people loved it. The story goes that songwriter Bobby Capó, who was a big advocate, arranged for them to perform on a popular television show. When the band showed up, the producers saw they were these black guys from the streets and didn’t want to even let them in the hotel where the show was broadcast from, let alone put them on the air. Bobby argued that they’re here, what else are you gonna do? The producers relented, and Cortijo y su Combo became a huge sensation. People loved their attitude, their rhythms, their choreography, everything.”

“Later on, they became the backup band for Benny Moré, and that took them to big stages everywhere, not only in Puerto Rico, but all over Latin America and in New York.”

Many an academic study has been written examining Rivera and Cortijo’s significance to everyday Puerto Ricans, and I won’t quote them here, but suffice it to say it’s a big deal. It’s no surprise, then, that Zenón was drawn to Maelo for personal, socio-cultural and artistic reasons. To drive the point home, Zenón brought in one of those scholars, César Colón-Montijo, to write Sonero’s liner notes.

“I didn’t make the album to expose Rivera to a wider audience, especially among jazz fans,” says Zenón, “but if that happens it would be great. His music deserves it.”

Before listening closely to Zenón’s album, I researched and assembled the original versions of the source material in the same order as the tunes appear on “Sonero”, then committed them to memory as best I could. It’s worth noting that neither Rivera nor Cortijo were songwriters. Some of Puerto Rico’s best, including Capó and the great Tite Curet Alonso, took care of that, often writing tunes expressly for them. Rivera’s genius was in his improvised singing, essentially “composing” in real time much like a great jazz musician.

For “Sonero,” Zenón and his quartet take those written and improvised compositions, examine them, break them down, reassemble them and build new themes on top of them. The album’s 10 tracks are divided equally between the early Cortijo material and the later sides that he recorded for Fania.

Capó’s 1975 tune “Las Tumbas”, as an example, begins with Rivera’s verse (his “prison blues” according to Colón-Montijo) played gracefully by pianist Luis Perdomo and then gradually picked up by the rest of the quartet. The simple melody is lovingly spun out over the course of 3 minutes until, just as the coro is briefly hinted at, Zenón and company abruptly take on the original’s opening horn fanfare before exploring variations the coro for several minutes, returning to the fanfare at the end.

The 1958 Cortijo y su Combo classic “El Negro Bembón”, also penned by Capó, once again starts by taking Rivera’s vocal as Zenón’s initial theme, only this time it’s one of his exuberant improvisations, which is then played against the band’s ensemble work. A similar approach carries Curet Alonso’s 1978 “Las Caras Lindas”, Rivera’s ode to the varied and beautiful black faces of the Caribbean.

The rest of the album continues in this vein, with Colón-Montijo’s liner notes helpfully providing the social and personal context of each song. [Author’s note: Yes, I am suggesting that you buy the CD for its beautiful and informative packaging rather than simply streaming the audio. You won’t regret it.]

Zenón and the rest of his quartet, while all fans of salsa, resist the urge to “salsify” the tunes. “Although salsa and jazz both emerge out of popular traditions and the music of the people, they took different directions,” remarks Zenón. “But the source is the same.”

The Miguel Zenón Quartet may be masters of modern jazz, but the heart and soul of Puerto Rico embeds its spirit into every note of “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera.”

Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase, September 19-22, two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets and information at jazzshowcase.com

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