Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album
It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.
It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.
My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo
Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).