Miguel Zenón and Laurent Coq make the musical adaptation of an antinovel sound easy.
Kids of the '70s and the '80s had their Choose Your Own Adventure books while the adults of the '60s had the antinovel. Authors like Julio Cortázar and Thomas Pynchon were putting a new twist to fiction, mapping out their novels in unusual ways where things only made sense to the reader if they took the story into their own hands and, if necessary, read it out of order. Agrentine author Julio Cortázar's Rayuela, meaning "Hopscotch", was a prime example of the antinovel. Right from the beginning, Cortázar was recommending that the reader read his 155 chapters out of order. I've never read this book and if I ever choose to do so, I can't imagine tackling it without a notepad or a spreadsheet to guide my way. Which is why I find it all the more baffling that someone would want to create a set of music based on the novel Rayuela. That just sounds crazy. But saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Laurent Coq have done just that. And if you are worried that your enjoyment of Rayuela the album will depend on your knowledge and/or enjoyment of Rayuela the novel, you needn't be.
Zenón and Coq have collaborated in the recording of Rayuela but wrote the pieces independently. Zenón had a bit of a home court advantage on this one: he's from Puerto Rico and has read Rayuela while Coq is from France and hadn't read it. The storylines of the novel alternative between Buenos Aires and Paris. So naturally, one would assume that Zenón composed the Buenos Aires pieces and Coq the Paris ones. That seems logical, but you would be wrong; Zenón represents Paris while Coq writes for Buenos Aires. This switcheroo doesn't seem to get in the way of the collaboration. If Laurent Coq struggled on his end of the bargain, you can't tell. You could say that musical geography takes a backseat to the duo's confidence in each other, almost as if Zenón just told Coq "oh, you'll do fine".
Given all this information, you may be surprised to hear that Rayuela is not all that strange. As much as the narrative bounces around, it's still a temperate voyage that keeps a sharp focus on how jazz music has flowered outside its homeland. Miguel Zenón splits the difference compositionally speaking, constructing some melodies directly from the text as they correspond to a scale or just conjuring a musical mood set by a scene. Keeping with Cortázar's disorienting literary approach, Zenón and Coq do not follow the order of the book (although I get the impression that if they had, it would still have been a non-linear approach nonetheless). The liner notes for each song is written in Spanish and the song titles on the back of the digipack are listed from bottom to top imposed over a picture of a hopscotch diagram. Yep!
One could go on and on about Rayuela's format, but it's the music inside that preserves the album as its own entity. Miguel Zenón and Laurent Coq have an old fashioned, silky smooth approach they are able to stir up together, invoking images of both early 20th century ex-pats with skinny cigarettes as well as the free spirited streets deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Dana Leong tags along, whom I saw playing cello with Joel Harrison last year. So imagine my surprise when I see that he switches back and forth between cello and trombone on this sucker. Dan Weiss, meanwhile, is kept busy by switching his mindset from drummer to percussionist and back, sometimes within the same song.
When Miguel Zenón wowed everyone with Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook last year, that pretty much established him as a talent who had arrived. With Rayuela, he's staying at the top and is in it for the long haul. Free of irony and intellectualism, Miguel Zenón and Laurent Coq have carved out quite a unique thing here. You've got the parts that appeal to your inner musician, like "Traveler", and you've got the ones that satisfy that guilty pleasure-seeking side of you that just wants to hear a sticky melody, like "Talita". And you have everything else to go with it. The whole enchilada. Welcome to the current climate of world jazz. The temperature's just right.