The 21st-century jazz saxophone titan, educator, recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, and champion of free and sustainable access to music Miguel Zenón revealed intriguing glimpses of a humble and transparent man through his silky solos. A vibrant audience at First Church Back Bay on November 15th bore witness to live music culled from his innovative new CD “Yo soy la tradiciòn,” a concert-length album recorded in collaboration with the Chicago-based, Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet.
Reminiscent of Glass, Ravel, Bartok, Steve Reich, jazz improvisations of Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker, folk music, as well as settings of religion and folklore from Zenón’s native Puerto Rico, the work unspools at an imaginary meeting place between classical music and jazz. Zenón’s buttery, overarching melodic lines soared from the opening work Rosari, over the syncopated and repetitive bouncing of the perfectly articulated violins in the dance-like Cadenas, providing a sense of directed freedom by juxtaposing strict classical idioms with the freedom of modern jazz. The performers somehow managed to find homogeneous intersections among vastly different traditions while maintaining commanding authority and unity of ideas.
Zenón’s melodic lines often merged with the cello in Vieljo, a work written in the Puerto Rican Jibaro style, which provided a polyphonic sound palette that swept across the colorfully illuminated hall. The deep resonance of the cello combined beautifully smooth round timbre and surprising crispness. Promesa certainly occupied the most sacred and spiritual space of the evening. A celebration of the Christian “three kings”, the work encompasses repetitive and interlocking rhythmic phrases played by the quartet, embellished with long, beautifully phrased solos that not only showed the saxophonist’s virtuosity, but also captured the most delicate subtlety and nuance of even the quietest passages.
Deploying an absolute mastery of rhythm, he could interject repetitive and syncopated metric patterns with complex polyrhythms which rose above the canvas of sound painted by the quartet. His obvious technical mastery included a subtle and deep understanding of improvisation. He interacted remarkably with the quartet also, and he could encourage the quartet to breath while dancing away in perfect dynamic balance. Tasteful amplification came from directional mics capturing each violin and the viola, while a large-diaphragm condenser transmuted the waterfall of sound coming from Zenón’s sax and the cello, as the players passionately explored and perfectly blended innovations from Puerto Rico with more familiar forms.
A folkloric music of the Americas has morphed into a global phenom which Zenón and the Spektral Quartet encapsulated whole-heartedly.
Classical Guitarist, Composer, and Audio Engineer, Carl Straussner completed his Master’s Degree in Classical Guitar Performance under Eliot Fisk. He’s likely to be arranging show tunes for big bands, composing music for animations, directing and producing radio documentaries.