Miguel Zenon
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“Part of the Tradition Is Tipping Your Hat”: An Interview with Jazz Saxophonist Miguel Zenón

With two new live recordings, jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenon looks to two sources of inspiration for his border-crossing art and tells PopMatters his story.

El Arte Del Bolero
Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo
8 January 2021
Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman
Miguel Zenon
5 March 2021

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón has been a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and he is known for innovative composition and fresh concepts in improvised music. But he is also the kind of creative big thinker who is always aware of the history that his work is built on.

Perhaps that is why so many of his recent projects have been nods to artists and traditions that preceded him. “There is something to that,” he tells PopMatters. “It’s part of the tradition of creative music to build on what was laid out before you. I’ve always felt fortunate to be inspired by this history and tradition. And part of the tradition is tipping your hat.”

Two Contrasting 2021
Releases of Live Concerts

Zenón’s two new recordings bow in two different directions, each important to his sound and artistic life. On the one hand, there is El Arte Del Bolero, a live album of duets with pianist Luis Perdomo recorded from New York’s empty Jazz Gallery for live stream this past September. The duo—a Puerto Rican saxophonist and Venezuelan pianist—chose classic Latin American tunes that are part of the culture of the artists’ families and origin with little discussion of form. Bolero uses these standard melodies as sung and loved by generations of people, but they are also transformed—in harmony and rhythmic feeling.

On the other hand, Zenón has released another live recording of a quartet of Spanish-speaking musicians currently based in Europe, pulled together for a concert presenting music by another stirring alto saxophonist, Ornette Coleman. Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman features drummer Jorge Rossy, Argentine bassist Demian Cabaud, and Cuban tenor saxophonist Ariel Bringuez in concert with Zenón in Switzerland in 2019.

Both of these releases are stunning for having been the documents of concerts that were so spontaneous. Zenón and Perdomo are longtime collaborators, but they had never rehearsed their approach to these Bolera-era tunes. The result is a stunning collection of intimate conversations. The melodies are every bit as memorable as the “American songbook” classics that we associate with this style of ballad playing. And the duo uses the flow and harmonic subtlety of jazz to create a program that is both classic and fresh at once. The Coleman concert quartet had never played together before, yet they sound startlingly unified by a sense of play and joy that is so central to Ornette’s style and sensibility. The band there sounds telepathic, demonstrating that improvised music not only crosses cultures but also lines of association.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Two Kinds of Folkloric Music

Every note on both of these Zenón releases sounds natural and instinctual. Zenón explains it this way: “This is music that I know really well, to the point where it almost feels like it’s mine. It is like a natural extension of me. When you work on an original piece, you write it, rehearse it, play it, and let it go. But these tunes are ones I grew up on.

“The two bodies of music would seem to be very different. The boleros come off as classic ballads, rooted in a fold tradition. Ornette Coleman is known by so many as a musical iconoclast who pioneered “free jazz” that often jettisoned the standard chord changes that defined the music before 1960.

In fact, Coleman’s melodies are also grounded in a folk tradition—they are truly songs that stick in your head and are based on a degree of hip simplicity. “The Ornette tunes,” Zenón explains, “are also very songlike, very lyrical.

“If I’m learning a Wayne Shorter tune, there are all these elements I have to master—the harmonic changes, the hits, and so on. But with Ornette, it’s just the melody. Yet you have endless possibilities with this music. You can play the melody, reverse the melody, go into a different key. It is like folkloric music. They sound like field songs, like music that is coming out of the earth, Of course, you’re dealing with the jazz lexicon, but it’s very direct music that opens up so many options.”

Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman

The European band uses many approaches, but it is impossible not the be reminded of the classic Coleman recording. The instrumentation—tenor and alto saxophones, bass, and drums—reflects the one Coleman used in his quartet with Dewey Redman. On “Free”, for example, the two saxophones play the theme in a clean unison, followed by an explosion of swing as Zenón and Bringuez both improvise at once. It is delightful—they slide and flow across the same tonal center without having to be slaves to a set of chord changes, all while bass and drums drive the groove in a popping overdrive.

Equally rich but utterly different is the band’s version of “Broken Shadow”, a searching ballad theme articulated by the horns in octaves as Cabaud plays a bowed harmonic line and Rossy works on textures. One saxophone will repeat the melody as the other improvises—reminding us all along that, no matter how abstract this kind of jazz may seem at first, it is grounded in a sense of sung melody, a tune that can get stuck in your head.

It is notable that Zenón didn’t choose the obvious or most common Coleman tunes, even if they might have been the ones his bandmates would know best. There is no “Turnaround”, “Broadway Blues” or “Lonely Woman” on Law Years. Zenón leans toward tunes like “Dee Dee”, which is known from Coleman’s At the Golden Circle release with just a trio. The result during the concert is a sense of the familiar and the slightly unusual—that peppy Coleman spirit is there, but you haven’t heard this tune played by so many folks. The two saxophonists chase each other all through the corridors secret passages of the melody. It becomes your favorite Coleman tune in a flash of enjoyment. 

With both of these recordings, the initial plans were not to release them commercially. “The guys pushed me to listen to the recording of the show in Europe, saying how great it was,” Zenón says. “My records are usually very planned out, conceptually. This was a different direction—and it opens different doors. This is just another way of sharing things.”

El Arte Del Bolero

The duets with Perdomo were also released fortuitously. And while the two have been playing together since 1999, this is the first record of them alone together. “We got together, and that’s really how my band came about [The Miguel Zenón Quartet, which also includes Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and fellow Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole]”, says Zenón. “We can play together any time, anywhere, in any combination. I’ve played trio with just bass and drums and without Luis. And for this show, Hans and Henry couldn’t come, and so we played as a duo.

“This format allowed for a different approach. We decided to to this thing where we just play tunes. We picked them right before the concert. They are just second nature, immediate to us—we don’t have to make an effort to learn the lyrics. We already know them! Luis is even more well versed in this tradition than I am.

“This music is not just native to me, it is common across an entire region of the world—although it is from before my time, at least one or two generations before me. But it represents a connection back to music recorded in the ’70s, ’60s, ’50s. These are tunes that bridge generations.” And listening to the duo play “Juguete” by Bobby Capo, you can hear the history and the sense of connection. It sounds like it could be a standard tune from one of any ten different musical traditions, and Zenón and Perdomo play it with ease and familiarity that helps it to cross borders. In the middle of his solo, Perdomo weaves a reference to the de Paul and Raye tunes “Star Eyes”, which Zenón answers with a reference to the similarly phrased “Mona Lisa”.

“A song is a song”, explains Zenón. “The same way we would play on ‘My Funny Valentine’—that is how we play on the boleros.”

In a time before the pandemic with no touring on this repertoire, Zenón admits, they might not have released El Arte Del Bolero.

A Legacy to be Honored and Chased

On both of the new Zenón recordings, his sound on the saxophone is light and bright. But the range of sound and approach is also wide. Playing on the Coleman songs, Zenón uses bite and abstraction as well as a ripe tone. He rips with joy and squirts free of convention more often. He sounds like Cannonball Adderley on a crazy day or, of course, like Coleman himself. On the standards, Zenon more often sinks into a cushioned tone that is pure like Johnny Hodges or light in the manner of Lee Konitz. All the while, you can hear Zenon himself—like all the great players of his generation, he is a collection of history that has emerged into individual identity.

“It feels amazing to have such a legacy on this instrument”, says Zenón. “We have such an amount of information in the saxophone and the history of the instrument. In listening to the masters, there are nuances you never noticed before. I could go on forever just uncovering things, little things.

“My generation and younger players have this luxury of all this information that you can draw on. But it’s also a great responsibility to follow in those footsteps. I want to to do it right.”

Miguel Zenon
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

In addition to being a successful creative artist, Zenón—like almost every major player in a generation that has lived through the collapse of the record industry for all but the very most popular artists—has become an educator and entrepreneur. He is a permanent faculty member at The New England Conservatory and The Manhattan School of Music, and an Artist-In-Residence for the Zucherman Institute at Columbia University. He also founded Caravana Cultural, a program that presents free concerts in rural areas of Puerto Rico.

“With the current generation, the reality of becoming an artist is different”, Zenón knows. “In the ’90s you could get a recording deal with Verve and go on the road with a band. Not anymore. My generation has had to be more crafty. We have to be able to do a lot of things—play, produce, educate, write. The more you can do, the more well-versed you are, the higher the chances of being successful at your art.”

He notes that younger musicians are also less likely to look back at history right now. “You have to tap them on the shoulder to remind them to do it,” he jokes. But his sense that the music has a future? It is strong and clear. “The music is unstoppable. Music transcends no matter what.

“I’ve seen the power that music can have in different situations. Jazz has been global for a long time. The labels that were created to put a limit on something? They are disappearing, and the music is going beyond those labels. There are many roads the music can follow. And that makes me feel really good about music and about the state of the world.”

With El Arte Del Bolero and Law Years, Miguel Zenón is moving creative music through time and space—into the past and across borders. Across some labels too.

He is philosophical about the task before him. “Why am I doing this? To make money or because I’m passionate about the music? Will it pay off?”

For listeners to a pair of thrilling 2021 releases, it already has.