Standing central amidst his musical collaborators of over fifteen years, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon bobs and weaves like a boxer in the ring. His fluid virtuosity and effortless command over the instrument shine through in flurries of melody and quick, rhythmic jabs. This past weekend, Zenon brought his longtime quartet, featuring Luis Perdomo on Piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Henry Cole on drums, to the Jazz Showcase in support of their newest release, Típico (2017). The album is an homage to the comradery that this group has developed over the course of almost two decades working together. Zenon, who prefers a conceptual and researched approach to writing music, constructed pieces to accentuate the strengths of each band member, and his measured style yielded exceptional results.
Zenon’s quartet represents modern jazz in its most thorough and refined form. There are no music stands, elaborate cues, or momentary hesitations. There is quiet confidence and trust in every beat, but there is also slight rigidity to the music, and that lack of uncertainty and risk-taking prevented me from becoming fully enveloped in its performance on Thursday evening. Even so, Cole’s shrouded swing feel and talent for bridging rhythm and melody on the drum set, Glawischnig’s firmness and ability to find and fill the music’s open crevices, and Perdomo’s virtuosic and blues–inflected modern jazz harmony synthesize the perfect backdrop for Zenon’s unique musical vision.
The night’s most special moment came during a duet performance between Zenon and Perdomo. The two played a beautiful, wistful introduction to “Las Ramas,” bringing the room to a complete standstill. I was particularly struck by the way the two interwove melodic fragments and seemingly merged into a single performer. The jazz world would surely benefit from a duo recording from these two.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Miguel and pick his brain about Típico, the value of longtime musical collaborations, and his approach to composition and role in jazz education.
We are now very happy to welcome the wonderful saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Miguel Zenon to the “J Word.”
L: Miguel – welcome to the show.
M: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on this morning.
L: So, this quartet you are playing with at the Jazz Showcase, the same group on your new record Típico, are some of your longest musical collaborators. You four have been playing together for over fifteen years. I’m wondering how the musical vernacular of the group has changed throughout that time period?
M: Well we started playing in 1999 or 2000, and at first we were getting together basically to try out things I had written and, you know, just in a casual jam session format kind of thing. Eventually we got enough tunes that we decided to get some gigs and then eventually put some of that music on record. So, at the beginning it was more about getting together with friends and people who’s playing styles I liked, and trying this music out, eventually, once we started making records and touring it became more about us getting used to the idea of being a band. By that I mean, getting used to interacting together and learning about each other in terms of their musical personalities and focusing on music that would bring that to the forefront. In a lot of ways this new record is a showcase for that attention and learning, but a lot of the music I’ve written through the years, having been playing with these people for so long, also comes from that perspective.
L: Yeah, so this record Típico is a tribute to many of the things you’ve been talking about, being in a band with people you are friends with and that you actually like. I’m interested to hear your approach to writing the music, as it pertained to bringing out the strength of different members of the band?
M: In terms of thinking about the strengths of the different players in the band, I definitely felt from the get-go was looking to write music for specific personalities. Especially when thinking about the idea of rhythm and what that means, and a specific way of feeling rhythm. I was trying to find musicians who were like-minded, who would have a deep understanding with the music of Latin America, who could already feel that rhythmic sense intuitively, so that when we dove into that zone, I didn’t really have to explain things for them. Of course, I’m also thinking about their individual personalities and the things they bring to the plane. After playing for so long, I’ve gotten an idea of what each of them can do comfortably, and with the band being in some sense a vehicle for my own compositions, I’m trying to use them as the platform for that, but also give them space to be who they are. I think for me that is the key about this all. When I started writing music, I never really thought about it from the perspective of having my own band or anything, it was more that I just needed a platform to try out some ideas. Eventually when I found that platform, it made sense to keep that the same and compose music on that constant platform.
B: I think you can definitely hear that on this record, and how that platform allows the music to speak. Listening I was struck by the compositions, the complexity of the compositions, but also the space allowed for each individual performer. I wanted to ask what you would say the process behind a Miguel Zenon record entails? I’ve noticed listening to your discography over the years that each one seems to explore a different topic or a different style or theme. It seems like there is an aspect of research that goes into many of records, could you speak to that?
M: Speaking about the records themselves and the way I approach the thematic material on each record, I do think about them as independent projects. A lot of them, especially the ones where I’ve delved more deeply into a musical idea or theme, like some of the music from Puerto Rico etc. they have been sort of like research projects. I’ve gone deep into one theme and explored that and ran out certain elements that I then used to write music. Típico was a little different because I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it on a grander conceptual scheme, I was thinking about going back to focusing on the sound of the quartet and music for us. When we make records usually the process is pretty similar, it always starts with the four of us building the foundation for the music itself, and playing the music a lot in rehearsal and live before going into the studio. We like to make sure the music is flowing well before we press record and that was certainly the case for this record, we laid down the whole thing in maybe like a day and a half. And then we take it on tour, and usually at some point on the road we will start writing new things and starting the cycle again.
M: For a while now, ever since Alma Adentro, I’ve been looking for a unique look that identifies our recordings and I’ve kind of fallen in love with this vintage photography that deals with the idea of Puerto Rico. For this recording specifically, I was looking for something that was musical, connected to Puerto Rico, and connected to an older, more folkloric idea of what music is. This picture jumped out at me because it had all those qualities, but also it had four individuals in the picture, connecting to the quartet. Reflecting on what típico means to me, growing up in Puerto Rico, usually when someone says típico or musica típica, they are referring to something that you can identify to a very specific group of people or musicians. In this case I was thinking about the music as being something that I identified with, so when I say típico, I’m thinking about music connected to us, the quartet. And the cover to me exemplifies that.
B: Another track on the record “Academia,” referring to school and perhaps your own experience as an educator, you’re at the NEC correct?
M: Yeah, I’m a teacher at the New England Conservatory. I’ve been teaching there for about five years now and one of the things that I really like about the program is that it’s very loose and wide open in terms of how you put the curriculums together for the students. I mostly teach private lessons, and because it’s not exclusively focused on saxophonists, I have to come up with a specific curriculum for each student. A lot of the time I end up coming up with specific exercises, or short compositional ideas for them to work through during the semester. Many times those ideas find their way into my other compositions, fitting them together using the same creative process. And so “Academia” kind of built on that, using some the compositional ideas from time with my students and writing them into a composition.
L: That track in particular speaks to the previous two things you were saying. You are interested in tradition, whether jazz or Puerto Rican, but your music is also very modern sounding and forward looking. And maybe this is also because you spend so much time around young students, but I’m wondering how you think about balancing that interest in tradition and doing something really new and modern at the same time?
M: That has sort of always been the kind of balance I have been looking for. As I get older and interact with younger musicians, I’m realizing how much of a difference there is between my generation going to school 20 years ago and the generation I am interacting with now. The interests are different, the approach is different, their approach to what a jazz musician should be is totally different. So it’s interesting for me to see that and try to react to that in a way. At the same time, I’ve always been very clear about what that means to me and what the importance of that balance means to me. Ever since I got into this music, first off coming from Puerto Rico and not growing up with jazz, I realized early on this music wasn’t a native or first language to me. With any kind of music I learned it was the same, going to the roots, studying it almost from an academic point of view. That process helped me to realize that anything I could become would have to be tied very deeply to tradition. As I have studied the musicians I admire, I’ve realized they all went through a very similar process as well; they connected with a specific musician that came before them and used that connection and study as inspiration to develop their own identity. I’ve sort of made this my mantra ever since then – we need to know what came before us in order to be able to develop into a well-rounded personality.
B: Certainly. One last note we would like to touch on, if you would like to talk about it, the Caravan Cultural, bringing jazz back to Puerto Rico. Can you explain what that organization does and how it has shaped your music making as well?
M: Caravana Cultural is a project I started six years ago in Puerto Rico. The idea behind it is that we organize a series of free jazz concerts in rural areas that don’t have that much cultural activity, or stuff coming from the outside. Part of it is trying to widen the audience of jazz in my country, but also the grander purpose is to use culture and cultural activity as an investment towards everything going on there and to paint a picture that music is an important thing in society that should be available to everyone. So what we do is put together a concert focusing on a specific historical musician. I put together a band and bring it down there, and we usually organize a group of students from the community to play with us at the end of the evening. That is really the most special part of the event, as the music becomes a real connection with the community. We also do pre-concert talks, making it an educational thing touching on jazz history and improvisation. We also started giving out a small scholarship to one of the musicians playing to help them buy musical equipment. Overall this started as a small one-time thing, and now we’ve done about twelve concerts. It’s definitely been the most rewarding thing I’ve done with music and I’m trying to keep it going for as long as I can.
What was your upbringing like? What was your relationship with poetry and music, and how did those mediums evolved and intersect throughout the years?
Reba: I grew up playing the classical piano as well as the violin, and when I was a teenager I picked up the guitar & played terrible songs in terrible punk bands. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in and out of hospitals, & that’s how I developed my love of literature, too – books and records were quite literally, perhaps involuntarily, my only companions growing up. I’ve always written songs & I’ve always written poetry; I still remember spending hours penning the lyrics to a song I called ‘Not Rated E’ (yikes, right?) at 7 years old. I started producing about 2 years ago, while studying poetry in college, when I realized I wanted to extend my spoken word pieces beyond the page.
Historically, your music has been a supplement to your poetry. Now that it’s taking on a larger role in your compositions, do you feel like the themes you deal with are shifting?
Reba: Though my interest in producing began as a sort of cushion for my writing, I’d say this is no longer the case- many of my recent compositions don’t include spoken word at all. I don’t want to say I’m a musician before I’m a poet; I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. They need each other. I don’t think my ‘themes’ are shifting. I am still grappling with being sick, still learning how to have a body.
Do the samples you select have similar relevance to you as your spoken word?
Reba: I’d say yes, topically: I want my voice to situate itself in a mix as another instrument, a gash of sound. I select poems for songs based on their sonic qualities (their fricatives, sibilants, assonance, etc) just as much as I do their “meaning.” The same goes for samples- I choose carefully; everything resonates w/ me emotionally just as much as it does sonically.
Some listeners and critics compare your work to other artists who have a similarly abrasive sound such as WWWINGS, Rabit, or Elysia Crampton. How do you view yourself and your music in the context of the experimental club (if you can call it that anymore) scene, especially in relation to other artists?
Reba: I think it’s wonderful to be a part of this “movement,” if you will, and I draw inspiration from so many of the artists often grouped in w/ it, some of whom are my friends. I like that former ideas of what constitutes ‘club music’ are being challenged & rewritten.
What can we look forward to from you in the near future?
Reba: I’m playing a handful of festivals, touring, and have a second EP in the works.
Produced by: Leo Galbraith-Paul. Crew: Nathan Salon, Slade Warnken, Jason Sloan
Dave Rempis, a saxophonist and Northwestern alum, has performed and recorded with improvising legends such as Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Fred Anderson, and Hamid Drake. In addition to his eclectic musical career as a stalwart of Chicago’s thriving experimental music scene, Rempis runs his own record label (Aerophonic), is the board president of the non-profit arts venue/incubator Elastic Arts, and is an organizer of the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. We caught up on the phone during his brief Midwest tour this past week.
Many of the groups you play with have been long-time collaborations, the most obvious of which maybe being the Vandermark 5 (since 1998). How do the musical conversations of a group develop over time? How does the improvised vernacular grow and change?
Yeah, that’s kind of an essential linking point when you make (improvised music) bands like this. With groups that work in a compositional setting it’s like, okay you write a new group of compositions and that changes the sound of the band. With an improvising band, it’s different because nobody is writing the compositions and it becomes more of an evolution over time of how the group operates and works and interacts with one another. It’s a really organic thing, it’s not something that you can predict or control. And it also depends a lot from one group to another, based on what the individual musicians have been doing in their lives, musically, personally, professionally. I don’t know if you could say that there’s a particular process that unfolds every time with every band.
Does the group’s rapport influence the amount of preparation that goes into a performance? With long-time collaborators, does that level of comfort lead to more or less pre-show planning?
I think it’s a combination of both. With groups that I’ve been playing with for years, when we walk on stage, I know I can expect that everybody is going to be fully engaged in the improvisation. I don’t know what’s going to come out musically, but I do know that everybody is going to be paying attention to one another and dealing with each other in creative ways. We are always listening to different things and influenced by different things in our careers. And the people I work with are all accommodating to that, and are trying to deal with each other in new ways, basically. And that’s what keeps bands interesting. I know the people that I play with can play their instruments really well. So if I get on stage and all they do is play their instruments well, but it’s the same old stuff we’ve been playing for years, it’s not particularly interesting (laughs). That’s part of the challenge of pushing groups forward – dealing with those changes and not trying to just predetermine what your sound is and stick with that.
What about newer formations, such as the collaborations with Nate Wooley, Michael Zerang, or Elisabeth Harnik? What is the value/experience of these types of first time improvisatory encounters?
Some of those first time encounters can be some of the most exciting and revelatory ones because they’re so new and fresh. And there are encounters that happen once like that, and the next time you get together it doesn’t work. You just have to keep your sleeves rolled up and keep working on it because it’s a process–based art form, and that means you’ll have failures. I think any visual artist, writer, etc. can say the same thing.
You have played with improvised music legends like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee (among others) – what did you learn from how they approach and exist in the creative space? Were there particular things (or attitudes) that they demanded from you as a younger musician?
No, I wouldn’t say so. The thing that I think most improvising musicians want to hear from a new or younger collaborator is somebody who is really making an effort (whether they’re succeeding or not) to come up with some type of individual voice. There are plenty of good saxophone players who can sound like John Coltrane or whoever else. And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting, because Coltrane did that better than anybody ever will. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be familiar with it, or versed in it. But if somebody gets on stage and starts doing that in an improvised setting, forget about it (laughs). But if they get up and are really trying to do something new, whether they’re succeeding or not, even if there’s a glimmer of success, it’s positive.
As long as you keep pushing forward and keep working on your thing. This is a process-based art form and as long as you’re engaged in that process, it’s something you’re going to be engaged in for the rest of your life. It’s a musical practice, it’s a life practice, it’s an approach to life that people like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee have spent decades thinking about and refining and defining for themselves. And what those people respect in younger musicians is when people try to find a pathway of their own.
So, maybe just approaching that creative act from genuine and honest place?
Yeah, absolutely. And this isn’t specific to more modern improvised music; this is something very specific to jazz, since the beginning of the art form. People were expected and encouraged to develop their own voices. And that’s why Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins sound completely different. And they’re both incredible, when you hear them it’s difficult not to think ‘why would I play saxophone any different than that?’ I think at the higher level of jazz, that’s what people have been expected to pursue. And I think there’s issues with the academy that date back a long time, where you kind of have to codify things to justify your existence, to justify yourself as a professor or justify this as a study. If it’s always up in the air and always evolving, you can’t really justify your existence, or charge people x amount of dollars per year to come study it. But I do think that’s particular to the academy.
One thing that I’ve seen in the last 20 years in Chicago is a model of existence for both avant-garde musicians and people working in more traditional jazz. I feel like there’s been a lot more coming together of those scenes in the last 20 years, which is a really positive development because those things are helping to inform one another artistically but also structurally and in terms of how the music get presented and organized.
Out of curiosity, who are some musicians that you see bridging that gap?
Someone in the younger generation like Nick Mazzarella really bridges that gap incredibly well. Mike Reed is in between those two worlds in a lot of ways. Jeff Bradfield, Dana Hall, Clark Sommers. Greg (Ward) is an incredible example. An amazingly talented musician who can pretty much do anything. There’s an interesting moment happening right now, especially with Constellation, the Green Mill more and more so. Dave Jemilo, the owner there, has always been supportive of a lot of different types of music. Particularly in the last fifteen years or so he’s made some choices to bring in some more avant-garde type stuff. And that decision had has big ramifications in more straight ahead audiences and musicians paying more attention to some of that stuff.
That leads us perfectly into the next question! What level of engagement do you expect from your audiences? What (if anything) do you expect that they know about avant-garde jazz before entering the room?
I feel like most people who are open-minded who know nothing about jazz can come to a performance and hear something and be totally blown away by it if it’s a good performance. It happens that people hear something completely new to them inadvertently and are totally into it. Like right now I’m doing a Tuesday night residency at a bar in Logan called The Burlington. The first night we played there there was a rock show in the back room and we were playing in the front room. By the end of the night we poached about half of the rock crowd because people were like ‘What the hell is this? This is cool.’ I do like to think that it doesn’t require background information.
You run your own record label (Aerophonic) through which you release all of your projects. How does this model work for you? Do you think that these types of artist-run labels, which deal with distribution directly and allow for plenty of flexibility/creative control for the artist, are becoming more important in avant-garde jazz and experimental music?
Yeah, absolutely. It also mirrors what’s happening in the larger culture. Huge pop artists no longer depend on the media to interface with their fans, they do it directly through social media. That said, the music we do is not broadly based appealing music to a larger commercial audience. So for the most part we’re talking about selling records with numbers in the hundreds. For me, being able to actually reach all those folks directly. I mean – I’m the one on tour who’s going around the states or Europe, meeting fans, meeting the people who actually buy the records. It doesn’t make sense that a record label would be trying to leverage those already existing relationships between me and my small fan base. I already have access to those people. I feel like I should be the one reaching out to them, developing that relationship, keeping them interested in what I’m doing and keeping them updated on what I’m doing.
That makes sense. I will say that as a consumer and as a radio host, there is a certain curatorial association with particular record labels. Like I know when I see a new Clean Feed release, even if I’ve never heard of the musicians on the record, there’s a good chance I’ll be into it.
That’s one of the few labels out there that’s incredibly active in putting out really great stuff. I can’t think of any label nowadays putting out this kind of music that’s as active as they are. That’s really a great label.
You help to run Elastic Arts, a venue that functions as one of the primary meeting places and presenters of experimental music and art in Chicago. Elastic Arts is a non-profit – how does this organizational model feed and inform the institutions mission?
It’s one model of presenting this type of music in this day and age. The space itself actually started as a rehearsal space and recording studio for a group of about ten people. Around 1998, a number of them were Northwestern students, people who needed a place to rehearse and record their stuff. It kind of grew out of that. From the beginning there was the informal process of people having meetings weekly and talking about the space and how they wanted to use and develop it. By 2002, they made the decision to formally incorporate as a not-for-profit, which was a really great idea. It took quite some time to fully realize what that meant. In the last couple of years – my improvised music series at Elastic started fifteen years ago – we moved into a new space. I think that on its own has really energized the organization in a lot of different ways. I took over as board president about a year and a half ago and we have a really serious board of directors that are engaged in the organization and bring a lot of different skills to it. People like Michael Zerang, who has a lot of non-profit experience. Katinka Kleijn, who’s a cellist for the CSO is joining our board in April. We have a really fantastic group of people at the moment, and I think that is going to lead to some longer-term growth and sustainability for the space.
Being a not-for-profit makes it more difficult because there’s a process involved, there’s a board involved, and there are a lot of different voices that need to be heard. I think that really helps to strengthen the organization in the long term, because it’s not just one person’s vision, it’s the result of a careful process of discussion and deliberation and decision making.
Does the process of grant-writing (and the recognition of being awarded money) lead to more visibility for the type of music you’re putting on?
When it really comes down to it, the mission and the drive and the ideas behind the organization have to come from within. When you’re interacting with a foundation or a government entity, it’s really more about not taking ideas from them or playing to them. It’s about showcasing what you do, and convincing them that that is something worth putting money into. A lot of times people end up just chasing grant money and create programs that are going to win a grant. You have to have that mission and that idea before you start, and that has to inform everything about what you do. Ideally, it’s having a really strong vision and an intelligent staff that can present the meaning, ramifications, and value of that vision.
The focus of Elastic Arts has been providing a space for Chicago artists to develop their work, and to then take it out and present that to the world. In many ways, I think of us as an incubator space. At this point, particularly right now in Chicago, there’s an incredible younger generation of people interested in free improvisation, contemporary forms of music. There’s a really great pool of players, and I have to say that right now it’s really inspiring to do my series on Thursdays and see all these folks coming in with new ideas and new energy. Doing their own thing working with older peers. And that’s another thing about Chicago. Across the board in the arts, the city has that reputation as a place where people can come and develop their work.
It’s often said that when you have an experience, you are most likely to only remember the beginning and the end. While this might be true for most events, the triple bill at Lincoln Hall on January 13th, featuring Overcoats, Caroline Smith, and Xenia Rubinos, peaked in the middle. A trifecta of dynamic, soulful songstresses congregated for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, but Rubinos, billed as the second act of the night, pierced through with wonderful untamed energy.
Opening things up, the New York duo Overcoats mixed soaring harmonies and sparse instrumentation with cool blue and purple lights. Minneapolis-based Caroline Smith closed the night with sparkling, lovelorn soul. Luminous presences on stage, both Smith and Overcoats charmed the audience with effortless vocals and a sleek, cool aesthetic.
By the end of the night, though, it was clear how Rubinos stood in contrast to her bill-mates. Making her way on stage to the slinky dueling bass lines of “Lonely Lover,” she gave the impression that the audience was in for another agreeable set leading up to Smith’s headlining slot. In short order, though, Rubinos broke things wide open with a dense, confrontational take on “Just Like I,” a fiery anthem off her most recent album Black Terry Cat. Rubinos wasted no time diving into the audience for the first of several times that night, singing “I’m just like your sister, your brother, your mother” urging them to see for themselves.
Xenia Rubinos’ first album, Magic Trix, was released in 2013 and made for a disheveled and disarming entrance into the New York music scene. With her sophomore release out this past year, her musical style has taken on more polish, but her live show has not lost its characteristic spunk, humor, and energy.
With Rubinos, every lyric requires an exertion: a punch of the fist, a bend of the knees, a shake of her shoulders. She’s like an antenna that takes every nuance in her music and broadcasts it to the listener through a rhythmic stream of gesturing hands, flailing arms, and bulging eyes.
Throughout the night, Rubinos moves from material that is dense and driving to that which is more funky and atonal. She closes the night with a highlight: the defiant, dance-worthy groove “Mexican Chef,” whose potency lies in its social acuity and humor.
Rubinos’ performance isn’t as “effortless” as Smith’s or Overcoats,’ but I think this is where Rubinos’ appeal lies. She tries, and she tries hard. Her vocals are not without their flaws and her melodies are often more confrontational than agreeable, but it’s clear that she believes in every word she’s singing. And if the audience doesn’t, she’ll dance her way through each song until they do.
The Frequency Series began in 2013 as a weekly Sunday night show curated by Peter Margasak at Constellation focusing on Chicago’s burgeoning new music scene. Since that time both the scene and the series have grown and flourished with new venues, musicians and festivals continually popping up throughout Chicago. This year the Frequency Series Festival will take place over six days at three venues and feature the music of seven exciting and important artists in new music. The festival kicks off tonight with Chicago-based music/performance ensemble, Mocrep, at the MCA presenting a program of identity, chaos and translation. Tomorrow night the festival continues at the Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago with Denver contemporary pianist R. Andrew Lee. Thursday thru Sunday Constellation will host the Morton Feldman Players, Bill Orcutt & Austin Wulliman, Olivia Block & Quince, and Ensemble Dal Niente.
It’s an eclectic and well curated mix that in my opinion explores the relationships between performer, ensemble and composer while also presenting a wide scope of both acoustic, electric and mixed new music performance. No venue in my mind, presents consistently well-curated shows like Constellation and the Frequency Series Festival is a logical extension of that. Tickets are available for the individual shows, some are free and you can pick up a pass to all seven shows for only $40. More information on performers, locations and time here.