Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Más Miguel

I recently had the opportunity to write a preview of Miguel Zenón's upcoming shows at Chicago's venerable Jazz Showcase. Space constraints and the necessity to focus on the Rhythm Collective band that he's bringing here caused me to continually go back and edit out stuff that wasn't relevant to the preview, but that I nonetheless felt compelled to mention. The MacArthur Foundation "genius" has just done so much in such a short time.

I've got room for it here, though.

The Rhythm Collective release Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico is best viewed as part of a quartet of releases that move back and forth between the music of Zenón's home on the island and the cutting edge creativity of a forward-thinking jazz musician. Jibaro, Esta Plena, Alma Adentro and Oye!!! all, to some degree, place Afro-Caribbean traditions in a jazz context. It's not precisely Latin jazz, as there are no obvious signifiers and absolutely no fallback on standard rhythms and motifs. Instead, Zenón digs deep into the essence of these two African derived musics to get at an essential commonality.

Zenón has been investigating the cultural connection between Latin and North America since his first release, Looking Forward, in 2002. He's employed straight jazz quartets, lush chamber music and traditional percussion in pursuit of his ideas. A string quartet first showed up on 2008's Awake under producer Branford Marsalis' guiding hand. By 2011, Zenón was writing orchestrations for a large wind ensemble to give proper respect to the Puerto Rican Songbook on Alma Adentro. At the same time, he also spends a considerable amount of time (and some of his "genius" money) bringing the music of North American jazz masters like Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk to small Puerto Rican towns through his Caravana Cultura initiative.

photo courtesy New York Times
Even his projects that haven't been recorded are ambitious. When Zenón was in Chicago a few years back showcasing the (at the time) unreleased Alma Adentro, he also played something from another developing project that he called Identities. That multimedia cultural history project debuted the following year under the title Puerto Rico Nació en Mi: Tales From the Diaspora. It attempted to say something about the complexities of cultural identity when you've never even stepped foot in your country of origin. Video interviews with Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. were intertwined with music by both his quartet and a 12 piece big band. This New York Times review describes its premier in 2012. The project has since been retitled (and no doubt refined) Identities are Changeable: Tales From the Diaspora. It will be presented again in NYC this December.

2012 also saw the release of Rayuela, a collaboration with French pianist Laurent Coq based on an acknowledged literary masterpiece by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar. The experimental novel takes place in Paris and Buenos Aires and is at least partly a meditation on a trans-global life. When Zenón and Coq began their collaboration, it was quickly decided that Zenón, a Latin American, would write music for the Paris chapters, leaving the French pianist to explore Buenos Aires. They chose unusual instrumentation, namely cello, trombone and tablas to fill out the sound. In a way, Rayuela continues Zenón's exploration of multiple identities as it tackles the work of a writer who split his time between French speaking Europe and South America. Enlisting the help of a French musician working in a distinctly American art form adds additional layers of complexity, with echoes of the lives of the many black jazz musicians who flocked to Paris in the 1940s and 50s.

There are many supremely talented musicians working in jazz, but I'm hard pressed to name another that conceptualizes on such a grand scale, that uses his musical gift to continually explore ideas and ask questions that go beyond music to larger subjects.

I'd say the MacArthur Foundation has invested well, wouldn't you?

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