Recent Listening: Miguel Zenón

Zenon 1.jpgMiguel Zenón, Awake (Marsalis Music). In the DownBeat critics poll results announced in the magazine’s August issue, Zenón swept the “Rising Star Alto Saxophone” category and placed sixth among established alto players. That puts him in company with Ornette Coleman, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Kenny Garrett and Greg Osby and ahead of the pack of alto players closer to his age. He is thirty. The timing of the release of this remarkable suite just before the voting deadline may have had something to do with his showing, but Zenón registered a large blip on the critics’ radar with his previous CD Jíbaro and his work with David Sánchez, Charlie Haden and the Mingus Big Band, among other groups. Nearly two years ago, when the music on Awake was a work in progress, I raved after hearing much of it in concert.

Gradually, the content of Zenón’s music, the band’s intensity and the passion of the soloing created the awareness that this was chamber music of a high order; captivating chamber music flowing with Latin pulses, lyricism and yearning, fed by jazz sensibility and swing. Zenón’s playing is unlike that of any other young alto saxophonist of whom I am aware. He has the potential to become one of those soloists–not uncommon a couple of generations ago–whom the average listener can recognize after a few notes.

To read the whole thing, click here. I erred then in attributing “Camarón” to the Jíbaro CD. Zenón was developing that beguiling piece for the album that became Awake, along with “Santo,” “Lamamilla,” “3rd Dimension” and “Ulysses in Slow Motion,” which is intriguing for more than its title. They are among Awake‘s ten pieces, which can fairly be called movements because they are parts of a unified whole.

It is an index of Zenón’s ability to conceptualize that in the sixth track he adds three horns to the quartet for several minutes of simultaneous free improvisation and that he incorporates it lucidly into the form and flow of Awake. I should think that Ornette Coleman, avatar of free jazz, would smile on hearing that section. Zenón’s maturing compositional skills are reflected in his scoring for string quartet on two of the pieces. The writing for strings is not grafted onto the music, as it often is in jazz projects. It is organic, like his uses of Latin rhythm patterns in his compositions, and his improvisational methods. When he quotes Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” in the course of his solo on “Camarón,” his wit galvanizes the listener’s attention for a second, then, with a neat harmonic turn, directs it back into the course of the music.

For nearly three years, Zenón’s quartet has Cole.jpgincluded his fellow Puerto Rican Henry Cole, a drummer whose listening reflexes and placement of small, controlled, explosions beneath the improvisations of Zenón, pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Hans Glawischnig account for much of the music’s vibrancy and energy. It is good to have recorded evidence of Cole’s work with this satisfying band, and good to hear Zenón’s creative growth matching or exceeding his increasing success with audiences…and critics. 

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