Miguel Zenon is a young alto saxophonist with speed-of-light articulation and a bright future in jazz. Awake is already his fourth disc as a leader (and his third on Branford’s Marsalis Music imprint), and it is state-of-the-art modern jazz in every respect: smartly written, adventurously performed, and beyond category.
Zenon was born in San Juan, then journeyed to Berklee and on to New York to pursue music at the highest level. His resume includes work with the Either/Orchestra, Charlie Haden, David Sanchez, Edsel Gomez, Ray Baretto, the Mingus Big Band, the David Murray Big Band, and the SF Jazz Collective. He is a pleasure to hear, as his tone — somewhat against the grain these days — is light and quick, like a silver streak through your ear in patterns of bop, blues, and stabbing freedom.
Awake features two of Zenon’s longtime musical companions, bassist Hans Glawishnig and pianist Luis Perdomo (both from his first three discs), as well as a new drummer, Henry Cole. In addition, one track benefits from a small horn section in collective improvisation (“Awakening — Interlude”) and two utilize a string quartet. For the most part, however, Awake is a continuation of Zenon’s ongoing work — ten additional pieces of modern jazz that assimilate the post-bop vocabulary, adventurous freedoms, textures from pop music, and Latin grooves.
After the disc’s alto/strings prelude, “Cameron” gets right down to business, Cole snapping with danceable polyrhythm over a bed of bass and Rhodes electric piano. Above these waters, Zenon plays like a hummingbird, tracing a hip melody and then blowing over the complex harmonies with a genuine fluency. The lightness of the leader’s tone is undeniable, but he’s not afraid to rip it across lean and nasty licks. The result is a saxophone voice that sounds sumptuous even when it gets a bit nasty. Nice combination.
Tunes like “Cameron”, where the quartet is playing in perfect sync and sympathetic groove, are the rule on Awake. “Penta” features a passage before the piano solo where the unison between Zenon and Perdomo is so exact that it sounds like a new instrument has entered the band. “Ulysses in Motion” returns to the Rhodes sound, and Cole punches up the groove so that the proceedings seem like a jubilant New Orleans-infused channeling of the 1960s Miles Davis Quintet, with a perfect series of stop-times capping the daring alto solo. “Santo” starts as an eerie ballad, but then erupts into a dancing groove, smooths back into mid-tempo, then continues to morph into a series of carefully written sections that seem like effective movie music. The list of strong performances here, strong collective work, goes on and on.
But it’s worth noting the remarkable exceptions where Awake surprises in the best ways. On “The Missing Piece”, Zenon arranges the quartet in a truly striking manner, with alto sax and bass playing a keening melody in unison, accompanied only by Perdomo at the start. The melody is simple and gorgeous, with a majestic contrasting section that leads the group back to the top. No one “solos” here in the usual sense until the end, where the tightly controlled arrangement starts to fragment, and Cole begins to bring the thunder on his kit. It’s a fabulous composition — the kind of tune others will eventually record. Equally as remarkable, perhaps, is “Awakening — Interlude”, where the additional horns (Tony Malaby on tenor, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, and Ben Gerstein on trombone) improvise freely with the quartet for five-plus minutes. Eventually, a melody emerges from the chaos, only to crumble again as the next tune emerges in a flurry of arpeggiation.
Then there is “Lamamilla”, where Zenon incorporates the string quartet from his prelude with the jazz quartet in striking fashion. Writing for strings is a common stumbling place for jazz musicians (though, for a notable exception, see Terence Blanchard’s latest, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)), and Zenon here passes with a B+, allowing the strings to articulate both melody and accompaniment in easy sync with the band. It’s a lovely track, and a sure sign that Zenon has a sense of ambition about his music — he’s looking to stretch the form in interesting ways.
Miguel Zenon is not fooling around. Working with his own band and writing music that can dash, dodge, and dart, Zenon is doing more than just marking time, making it as a sideman on the New York scene. With his own airy voice and a carefully balanced set of compatible influences, Zenon is shooting to become one of the jazz musicians who matters. On the album’s final tune, “Awakening — Postlude”, Zenon plays an unaccompanied saxophone solo, a virtual shout of attention to those who should be listenting. Hey! This guy over here! He is the Real Deal! Yet, there is no doubt: Zenon plays with an understated tone and a crafty subtlety.
All of which means that it might take just a bit of extra ear-work to follow the Miguel Zenon story. But my advice: don’t miss it. What a story. What a storyteller.