Interview: Miguel Zenón’s “Yo Soy la Tradición” Benefit Concert and Album

by Don Macica –

In September of 2016, jazz composer and alto saxophone player Miguel Zenón premiered a new composition at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Puerto Rico-born musician has used the music and culture of his home (and its corresponding diaspora in the U.S.) as conceptual source material for album length explorations ever since his 2005 release Jíbaro. Several more albums followed over the next decade, including Esta Plena, Alma Adentro, Oye! Live in Puerto Rico and Identities Are Changeable. With the exception of Oye!, which was more overt in its Latin instrumentation, all of these works were written with Zenón’s core jazz quartet (Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole) as its principal means of expression.

Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by Hyde Park’s David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Festival, also mines Puerto Rican traditions for its subject material, but this time around the writing was in collaboration with the Chicago based classical new music ensemble Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust and Russell Rolen). The concert was warmly received, and a year later Zenón returned to Chicago to enter the studio with Spektral. The album that resulted is a collection of 8 works for alto sax and string quartet that derive from Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious and musical traditions, yet sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. There are echoes of older Spanish traditions like flamenco (the hand claps on Cadenza are clearly inspired by flamenco, but not unrelated to composer Steve Reich’s Clapping Music) and dances that preceded the island’s European colonization, but also jagged harmonies, rapid minimalist rhythmic sections and beautifully lyrical passages that recall, to these ears, Zenón’s playing on Alma Adentro‘s boleros. The quartet is fully integrated into each movement, never merely a backup band to a sax player.

The CD will be released September 21 and celebrated with a concert at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will benefit Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts.

“My starting point for Tradición was studying the folkloric music of Puerto Rico and identifying the elements that make it unique, then extract that and use it without emulating it.” I’m speaking to Miguel Zenón by phone as he is heading to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires to participate in an Astor Piazzolla festival. “Then I spent time studying classical chamber works from various periods until I felt ready to start writing. My early training as a player was in classical music, so I was at least familiar with it, but I didn’t begin studying it intently until much later when I started writing my own music.

“Writing for strings was a different and more challenging process than writing for my jazz quartet,” says Zenón.  “We’re a working band and we know each other very well. When I’m writing for them I have a sound in mind that I know they can do, so even if it’s a difficult passage I’m confident that it can be played well.

“I had been a guest musician on one of Spektral Quartet’s albums and enjoyed working with them,” Zenón continues. “So I knew they were terrific and creative musicians, but I was still unfamiliar with the technical capabilities of string instruments. So I would write passages and send them to Spektral and I would get feedback like ‘This part is great but it would be hard on our instruments to do this part here.’ They would make suggestions based on those sorts of things.”

I asked Zenón about the intersection of folkloric, jazz and classical music. “First of all, I’m a jazz musician, so there’s always an element of improvisation even when the writing is formal.  But I’m also a Puerto Rican jazz musician.  Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am. Lastly, even when I’m writing for jazz instrumentation, I’m aware of and applying harmonic and structural concepts learned from classical and new music composers. A string quartet is just a more identifiably classical format.”

As it happened, the long-reserved studio time booked to record the CD was scheduled just days after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico. Thus it was that Miguel Zenón found himself in Chicago for three days beginning September 22, 2017.

“We were in the studio in Chicago just after María struck, so obviously it was on our minds while we were recording. So the CD will always be connected to that.”

Spektral Quartet just published a moving blog post on their website, describing the atmosphere at sessions and describing how Zenón would call home repeatedly during breaks trying to get updates at a time when much of the island was flooded and without power. It also touched on how artists play through adversity. The post, titled Why our album release is a benefit for Puerto Rico, states “Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists.”

“At the same time I was calling home for updates,” Zenón says, “I was also calling musician friends in California to organize a benefit concert there. Later on I did one in Boston and another in New York. Spektral wanted to do something here and asked me if I knew somewhere in the community that would host. I immediately thought of Segundo Ruiz Belvis.”

This is not Miguel Zenón’s first visit to SRBCC. In May of 2016, the saxophonist preceded a full big band performance of Identities Are Changeable at the Logan Center with a community event at SRBCC that explained the concept of Identities (an exploration of identity and community of U.S. born Puerto Ricans) and included informal performances with the center’s youth ensemble, Chicago-based Puerto Rican saxophonist Roy McGrath, and local bomba powerhouses Bomba con Buya.

“I learned about the Centro years ago when I first started to come to Chicago to play the Jazz Showcase with David Sánchez’ band. I would always head to Humboldt Park to eat some food, hang out, buy records. I would hear about this place that was keeping the culture alive. Then about 3 or 4 years ago I was here for a Chicago Jazz Festival appearance and after my set I went to the neighborhood to jam with some salseros at Festival Boricua. It was there I met Omar.”

Omar is SRBCC Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright [Full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also a co-founder of Agúzate]. Zenón continues, “He told me about the Chamaco Ramirez documentary that he was working on and his work at the Centro.  Then the University of Chicago chose them as the community partner for my Identities concert at the Logan, so I had the opportunity to go out there and see it first-hand.

“So it was an easy choice to do our benefit there.”

I’m speaking with Miguel a week after he returned from several days in Puerto Rico as an Artist in Residence at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan. I ask him how things are there a full year after María.

“The infrastructure is a little better. Most people have electricity and running water. But deeper than that, there is still a struggle. There is still stuff to be fixed, but one thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that there is still a lot of trauma. People are traumatized. It is a deep experience that will influence a generation. But the overall situation is deeper than just the hurricane. A lot of negative things like the economic situation had been building for a while, and what the hurricane did was bring them to the surface.”

“What it boils down, too, at least in my opinion, is the political situation,” Zenón continues. “Puerto Rico continues to be in limbo. We’re connected to the states, but we don’t have the benefits of being a state. We have our own government, culture and language, but we are not a free country. And even our government isn’t really in charge because they have to answer to a fiscal control board created in the U.S.

“There is a realization shared by more people now that this limbo can’t continue because it isn’t working. Whether that is statehood or independence is open to debate, but the current situation is clearly not sustainable.”

What is clear is that, one year post-María, Puerto Rico is far from healed, and help is still needed. The particular fund for this benefit concert helps artists who, in many cases, are finding their roles more important than ever on this traumatized island. It doesn’t matter if that role explicitly addresses coping and constructive analysis or simply a balm from harsh daily realities. Both are vital as Puerto Rico heads into year two and an uncertain future.
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Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet: Yo Soy la Tradición
A Benefit for Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago
Friday, September 21, 7pm
$20 general admission, $50 and $100 VIP tickets available
Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org