Miguel Zenón and his caravan of conversations

Bud Kliment is a current OHMA student. In this post, he discusses Miguel Zenón's vision of the stories jazz can tell us.

In the recorded work of jazz composer and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, the musical culture of his native Puerto Rico has had a strong and audible influence.  On Jibaro (2005) and Esta Plena (2009), he utilized folk and plena styles, respectively, and on Alma Adentro (2011) he featured the work of classic Puerto Rican songwriters.

On Zenón’s latest release, Identities Are Changeable (2014), Puerto Rico once again plays a central role.  But, rather than its music, his inspiration is the island’s continued presence and influence in the lives of those whose families emigrated to America.  Using a series of interviews with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent, sampled and integrated into the album’s 8 tracks, Zenón creates a song cycle that evokes the ways many of them feel both American and Puerto Rican.

From a video for the song cycle created by David Dempewolf

From a video for the song cycle created by David Dempewolf

Included are bass player Luques Curtis, actress Sonia Manzano and the late Juan Flores, Professor of Latino Studies at NYU, and others.  In response to a fixed set of questions, each identifies how Puerto Rico figures in their ideas of home, family, language and music.  (The interview transcripts can be found here. While their experiences are sometimes shared, sometimes individual, collectively they form an oral history-inspired portrait of a group whose members are beautiful hybrids, suspended between places and cultures, not easily characterized or defined.

The voices frame the musical tracks and sometimes, as in “My Home” and “First Language,” provide their meaning.  But the most distinct voice is Zenón’s music, serving as both foreground and background to the interviews.  As he noted in “How You Sing Your Song,” his 12/3 Oral History and Public Dialogue workshop, Zenón composed the music around sets of contrasting rhythms, to represent coexisting cultures and identities.  From that base he builds swinging ensemble groupings. Tracks like “Through Culture and Tradition,” have a rhythmic intensity (reminiscent of Gil Evans) that evokes the busy urban landscape that many “Nuyoricans” call home.

While the interviews are monologues, the music contains many conversations: between points of view, voices and instruments, soloists and the group, even the alternating approaches of the quartet and the 12-piece band. The conversations withhold judgment--there is no one way to be Puerto Rican in America, only variations on a theme, as in music.  Here identities are changeable for composer/performers like Zenón, playing a variety of musical roles, as well as for immigrant families.

Besides Puerto Rico, Miguel Zenón has the traditions of jazz history (specifically the alto saxophone) contributing to his cultural identity.  The alto sax has a long and distinguished jazz heritage that has included such players as Benny Carter, Paul Desmond and Ornette Coleman.  Two alto masters, the twin poles of the instrument, are Johnny Hodges, whose warm, seductive tone made him a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band:

and the innovative Charlie Parker, who defined bebop through improvised solos that becamelandmark jazz compositions: 

In the workshop Zenón recalled how, in Puerto Rico, he first heard a recording of Parker. His alto sound was like a siren’s call, luring Zenón to jazz, making him interested and ultimately dedicated to it.  Parker’s uniquely American musical voice spoke to him, urging him to this country to develop and explore his music.   Their conversation is still underway.

Zenón regularly returns Parker’s favor.  His Caravana Cultural series brings American jazz to Puerto Rico, through discussions and free concerts.  Besides John Coltrane and Miles Davis, he has showcased the music of both Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington (whose band included Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol):

These, too, are vital conversations between cultures featuring musical voices.

Although Miguel Zenón’s use of interviews on a jazz record is unusual, the connection between jazz and oral history is not, since both are based on subjective performance.  A jazz musician strives to develop a personal playing style, an individual instrumental voice.  In fact, there’s a jazz saying that a musician taking a solo “tells a story.”  As bassist Gene Ramey once explained to writer Stanley Dance, the goal for jamming musicians was to “say something...not just show off your versatility and ability to execute.  Tell us a story, and don’t let it be a lie. Let it mean something…”  Using the experiences of others as a catalyst, Miguel Zenón, with his music, his sax and his band members, tells us new kinds of jazz stories, all of them meaningful.