Miguel Zenón Live at the Jazz Showcase – Concert Review

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Miguel Zenón at the Jazz Showcase | September 19-22, 2013 | Review by Don Macica| Photos by Scott Pollard

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón brought an unusual project with him to Chicago this past weekend. Although the Santurce, Puerto Rico native often uses folkloric and other source material from the island as a basis for his compositions and arrangements, he rarely executes those ideas in an obviously Latin format. Instead, his regular quartet (which includes the extraordinary drummer Henry Cole, who brought his own Afrobeat Collective to Chicago last December) works almost exclusively on the jazz side, with Latin rhythms hinted at but not explicitly stated.

Miguel Zenón & the Rhythm Collective are something quite different, and his four nights of shows at the Jazz Showcase burned with Afro-Caribbean heat supplied by drummer Joel Mateo, bass guitarist Aldemar Valentin and especially percussionist Reinaldo de Jesus, who brought with him two tables worth of shakers, bells and other rhythm instruments to supplement his four congas. The Collective members are all from Puerto Rico, and the ensemble has played off and on for nearly a decade. A February 2011 gig in San Juan is documented on Zenón’s most recent release, Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico.

Zenón started things off with a nod to Charlie Parker, whose image looms over the Showcase stage as both a blessing and a warning to the performers to keep it real. After that, though, it was Afro-Caribbean all the way, albeit a highly original and inventive take on the genre. Parker’s She Rote was quickly followed by not one, but two songs from Cuban nueva trova singer/composer Silvio Rodriguez, Aceitunas and El Necio. The gorgeous melodies of both tunes served as a framework for Zenón’s lyrical playing, but each song featured arrangements that ventured far into rhythmic and harmonic territory unimagined in the simple guitar and voice of Rodriguez’s originals.

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The band then made a statement of purpose with a Zenón composition called The Chain that explored the African-derived commonalities of music from across the Caribbean: Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, even Honduras & Belize, with Zenón taking a short break from his horn to beat out a solid bomba rhythm alongside de Jesus.  Next up was another original, Hypnotized, a quietly intense and rhythmically subtle piece inspired by the late jazz drummer Paul Motian.

The first set closed by linking Motian to another important percussionist and bandleader, Tito Puente, with an unusual arrangement of his classic Oye Como Va. Fragments of the melody were repeated until they became nearly a chant as Zenón and the Collective nimbly moved back and forth between different time signatures, stopping, starting and sub-dividing the foundation that Puente built the song on.

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The second set was more of the same, mixing original compositions with well chosen covers.  After another Parker tribute, the band launched into Yuba #1, based on the bomba drum pattern of the same name, but sounding something like Chicago style free jazz.  Among the originals were Variations on an Afro-Cuban Theme and two songs from Oye!!!, JOSNigeria and Double Edge.  Zenón formed the Rhythm Collective 10 years ago for a U.S. State Department sponsored tour of West Africa.  JOS, inspired by that tour, proved to be one of the most straightforward tunes of the night as de Jesus provided a solid yet understated intimation of Fela Kuti’s signature Afrobeat rhythm, supported by Valentin’s supple bass, leaving room for Zenón to creatively reimagine Fela’s iconic saxophone runs. This segued directly into Double Edge which prominently featured layered and juxtaposed rhythms of remarkable precision, bringing the evening to a spectacular close.

Zenón told me that he’s taking his regular quartet into the studio soon along with a big band to record music from his ambitious Identities: Tales from the Diaspora project. Here’s hoping that the Chicago Jazz Festival or some other organization can find the resources to bring the live version to Chicago sometime soon.

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Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications including Chicagomusic.org and Arteyvidachicago.com. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

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