Miguel Zenón weaves Puerto Rican roots into jazz

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón hadn’t heard any jazz while growing up in housing projects in San Juan, Puerto Rico, until, at age 15, a friend gave him a Charlie Parker tape. Now 34 and living in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Zenón is one of the fastest rising names in jazz and this year placed third on his instrument in the DownBeat Critics Poll and eighth in the jazz magazine’s Readers Poll, as Lee Hildebrand reports in San Francisco’s Chronicle.

Leader of his own quartet and a member of the SFJazz Collective since its inception seven years ago, he also is on a mission to incorporate elements of Puerto Rican folkloric and popular music into jazz and to introduce American jazz to young people in his Caribbean homeland.

The recipient three years ago of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship from which he receives allotments of $25,000 every three months, Zenón used the proceeds to launch Caravana Cultural. Since February, working in cooperation with the Puerto Rican nonprofit organization Revive la Música, he has performed three free jazz concerts in remote regions of the island using as sidemen top New York players such as trumpeter Avishi Cohen and pianist Gerald Clayton. The first featured the music of Miles Davis. Parker and Ornette Coleman were the focus of the second and last month’s third.

“As soon as I got the fellowship,” Zenón says by phone from New York, “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. We took a couple years putting it together. It’s a lot of hard work because it’s very grassroots in the way we’re trying to do it. It’s a lot of small towns in a small country. We have students from one of the schools join us in one of the songs. There’s a lot of obstacles, but it’s very, very fulfilling.”

Zenón has recorded five CDs for saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ Marsalis Music label since 2004. Three have featured Zenón’s jazz interpretations of styles of Puerto Rican music that he’s been hearing since childhood. His longtime sidemen – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – play on all three.

The first of the triumvirate, 2005’s “Jibaro,” features Zenón compositions based on musica jibara, a genre of Puerto Rican mountain music that utilizes string instruments and a style of 10-line poetry from Spain known asdécima. “This music,” the saxophonist says, “is more connected to European music. It’s not as percussive as other styles that we have in Puerto Rico.”

Highly percussive plena music, the focus of 2009’s “Esta Plena,” Zenón explains, “would be kind of the opposite. It’s from the coast. It’s kind of a carnival music, like if you think about second-line in the States or samba in Brazil or soca in some places in the Caribbean.”

Unlike its folkloric predecessors, the current “Alma Adentro” CD presents the Zenón quartet, plus an ensemble of 10 horns, playing jazz arrangements of popular songs from the 1920s through the ’60s by prominent Puerto Rican composers Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, Bobby Capó, Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernández and Sylvia Rexach.

“The idea for the CD,” Zenón says of “Alma Adentro,” “was not to change the songs too much but trying to capture that certain time in Puerto Rico where these great songwriters were writing all this great music and trying to make a connection between the Puerto Rican Songbook and the Great American Songbook. I wanted to give those great composers a little exposure in the jazz world and maintain the connection that jazz has always had with songbooks.”

“People like George Gershwin and Cole Porter were songwriters and they were famous people,” he adds. “The same can be said for Rafael Hernández. He was not only regarded as musical hero but as a national treasure in Puerto Rico.

In March, along with Regina Cater, Bill Frisell, Jason Moran and John Santos, Zenón was named an artistic director of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Their duties, which include performing, providing programming input and participating in outreach and educational activities, will be begin with the scheduled October 2012 opening of the festival’s new 700-seat SFJAZZ Center.

Zenón has spent three weeks in San Francisco in late February and early March for the past seven years rehearsing with the all-star SFJazz Collective, which tours for a month and a half in the spring and a month in the fall. While other members have come and gone, Zenón has been a constant.

“I see it as an opportunity to be part of something that is very special,” he says of the band. “We get to write a lot of music and perform it in a unique way. I’ve gotten a chance to play with people like Josh (Redman) or Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Lovano, Nicholas Payton, Dave Douglas and all the musicians who are in the band now.” Besides Zenón, the 2011-12 edition is made up of trumpeter Cohen, trombonist Robin Eubanks, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraharpist Stefon Harris, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland.

Zenón has never forgotten the Parker music that inspired him to play jazz in the first place. On a recent CD by pianists Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein titled “Bienestan,” he plays the Parker tunes “Moose the Moose” and “Blues for Alice.” Their familiar melodic phrases oddly speed up and slow down over a steady 4/4 pulse through unique arrangements by Klein in which the rhythms are subdivided by fours and threes.

Math also is employed, though in different ways, in many of Zenón’s own compositions.

“It’s something that goes with my personality,” he explains. “I’ve always been this kind of guy that everything has to be organized and concrete. I’ve been trying to leave more space for the unseen and the random, but I feel more comfortable when I pretty much know exactly what I want to do.”

Miguel Zenón: 8 p.m. Tues. $16. Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero W., Oakland. (510) 238-9200. www.yoshis.com.

For the original report go to http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/11/10/PK901LPQGS.DTL#ixzz1dk53FJDQ

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