A Mighty, Majestically Orchestrated, Ambitious Album and a Vanguard Stand This Week From Alto Saxophone Titan MIguel Zenon
You might not expect Miguel Zenon to open his latest album with a cantabile pastorale, but that’s exactly what he’s done. The alto saxophonist has made some amazing records over the years – his smoldering Oye! Live in Puerto Rico from 2013 is a favorite – but his most recent one is his most ambitious yet. You could say that Yo Soy la Tradicion is his Sketches of Spain, a collaboration with the magical, microtonally-inclined Spektral Quartet streaming at their music page.
Jazz sax and strings have a history that dates back to Charlie Parker; this is a lot closer to Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous, or Bartok, than orchestrated swing. Zenon has yet another weeklong stand at the Vanguard starting tomorrow, March 12 with his quartet and continuing through the 17th, with sets at 8 and 10:30.
The Spektral Quartet – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – open the album with the rather stark, almost severely precise intro to Rosario, inspired by the Catholic rosary tradition; then Zenon flips the script and builds a bubbly dance overhead that brings to mind the similarly paradigm-shifting work of Argentine bandoneonist JP Jofre. It’s catchy, almost to the point of sentimentality.
Cadenas (Chains) draws on European 20th century minimalism as well as Puerto Rican line dances, the strings’ hypnotic, insistent acerbity balancing Zenon’s folksy, airy delivery. Then the sax and quartet switch roles, a neat touch.
Yumac may have roots in rural Puerto Rican folk music – the ttile is the town of Camuy, home to popular 50s songwriter German Rosario, spelled backwards – but the music comes across as a more harmonically complex take on Ernesto Lecuona’s anthemic mashup of Afro-Cuban themes and western classical orchestration.
Milagrosa is more balmy, an unexpectedly successful mashup of spaciously sequenced postbop sax and alternately rhythmic and lush string passages, with a crescendo midway through that’s as majestic as anything Zenon has ever written.
The album’s most gorgeous track is Viejo, shifting from troubled, massed Julia Wolfe-like insistence, to an unabashedly lyrical ballad with an elegaic cello solo followed by Zenon’s broodingly wafting melody. Zenon’s tone is more biting than Paul Desmond’s, but the lyricism here is very similar.
If Bartok had a thing for Spain instead of Tunisia, he might have written Cadenza: there are also echoes of wistul, uneasy Debussy. Again, Zenon brightens the ambience, this time with flamenco allusions. Imagine Ligeti trying to reduce a flamenco tune to simplest terms: that’s the outro.
The album’s most epic track is Promesa, a diptych of sorts that refers to the Catholic festival of the Three Kings. A pensive cello solo takes centerstage over a lush backdrop that recedes to a steady, minimalist pulse, Zenon building the longest solo here from gentle pastoral colors to lively, blues-tinged spirals. Then the atmosphere shifts to artfully pulsing variations on a lively alguinaldo jibaro country dance theme.
Piazzolla, or for that matter, Lecuona would have been proud to have written the anthemic final number, based on a variant of that style from the town of Villalba. Obviously, Zenon’s Vanguard stand this week isn’t likely to showcase a lot of this material; on the other hand, with a guy who’s been known to reinvent classic Sylvia Rexach boleros, you never know.