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Miguel ZenÓn

Jíbaro

(Marsalis Music; US: 24 May 2005; UK: Available as import)

Tradition, Sideways

Young jazzman Miguel Zenón is busting out all over the place. Last year, very few people had heard of him, and then he joined the Liberation Music Orchestra and became the featured saxophonist in Joshua Redman’s SFJazz Collective and put out a solo album called Ceremonial and now, suddenly, you cannot escape him. Zenón is ambitious, which is good, because he is also technically incisive and has a distinctive pure tone.


This solo album is a loose celebration of jíbaro, a style of Puerto Rican acoustic folk music. Zenón warns us in the notes that it is far from being the actual music itself, but that is clear from the stomping and complex opener, “Seis Cinco”, which is jazz all the way. “Seis Cinco” has echoes of Ornette Coleman’s early quintet work, Pat Metheny’s later trio stuff, and the funk jazz of the 1970s, but returns to a futuristic syncopated chorus that also somehow sounds like it might be related to Puerto Rican folk music.


Some tracks here also betray other influences: the long slow ballad “Aquinaldo” reminds me of Charlie Haden’s excursions into South American styles, and “Llanera” is mutant jazz salsa, so sexy and fiery that I keep expecting to hear Celia Cruz yell “Azucar!” even though the song is in about twelve different shifting time signatures.


One of the disc’s great pleasures is just hearing the way that Miguel Zenón busts down the door with his saxophone. His control and assurance are stunning, especially in someone still introducing himself to the jazz world. The opening of “Marianda”, where he plays a long ambient intro with only minimal backing, does not betray any kind of fear or hesitation; the dude just flat out plays, the way God and Charlie Parker intended.


But even though Zenón is unbeatable as a soloist, his real best trick is his choice of backing musicians. This is one of the tightest bands you will ever hear, with Hans Glawischnig on bass, Antonio Sánchez on drums, and Luis Perdomo on piano. And Zenón knows how to play to their strengths; on “Charreao”, he wisely does not attempt to solo over Sánchez’ insanely-tempoed but still funky bebop beat, which is the real star of the piece. Instead, he and the rest of the group just inject some melodic lines here and there and then sit back and listen to the percussion demonstration.


I have heard other critics complain that this is not a step forward in a young composer’s development, because it is too foreign or too funky or something. This just proves that other critics are crazy. It is thrilling to hear Miguel Zenón trying on this hat, which he wears with great style and panache. There’s plenty of room up here on his bandwagon. Jump now while there are still seats available.

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