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.