It’s not uncommon for modern day jazz musicians to explore the fertile creative ground between storied tradition and contemporary innovation. Paying homage to musical roots and examining how they fit within the modern musical zeitgeist forces composers and improvisers to reconcile history and influences with their modern-day muses. Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer prize-winning Blood on the Fields takes an unflinching look at darker times, while Jason Moran’s uproarious Fats Waller Dance Party demonstrates the stride master’s life and enthusiasm still packs energy and vitality.
Jazz, in great part, owes much of its performance practice to honoring and reinterpreting the past. The entire concept of jazz standards–tunes originating from early Broadway shows, and the unquestionable masters of the art (Bird, Miles, Dizzy)–requires modern day musicians reinterpreting music from the last century, infusing it with a new vitality through arranging and improvisation. Of course, this isn’t to say that all jazz is actively paying a debt to the past; there are scores of contemporary performers composing cutting edge music that bears no resemblance to traditional jazz. Inevitably, however, everyone needs to reconcile with the ghosts of their music’s past, either through rebellion or embracement.
The music of saxophonist Miguel Zenón tends to honor two traditions: the complexity of jazz, and the traditional folkloric elements of his native Puerto Rico. A Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, Zenón’s extensive catalog of recordings, collaborations, and arrangements reflect a musical personality that unites jazz and Latin influences through contemporary arranging and improvisation. His latest record, Yo Soy la Tradición, is a concert-length album pairing him with the astounding Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. Far more than an updated version of Bird with Strings, Yo Soy la Tradición is a breathtaking record of dense, nuanced compositions that reflect one of the best voices in jazz today.
Opening track “Rosario” echoes the phrasing and musicality of the traditional rosarios settings of the Holy Rosary. Setting the Holy Rosary text to music often resulted in unusual phrases, creating complexities not often found in traditional folk music. Zenón reflects this quality with jagged rhythms and twisting, interlocking lines. The Spektral Quartet shine on this track, locking into the stuttering syncopations with a graceful touch. Based on the origins of la cadenas, a chain-like dance formation, “Cadenas” plays out like a foray into minimalism. At times driving like a Philip Glass piece, Zenón’s melodious improvisation plays out like a call and response against the quartet’s propulsive rhythms.
“Yumac” is a flurry of pizzicato strings and silky melodies, featuring a virtuosic unison moment between saxophone and violins that stands out as one of the best on the record. Likewise, “Milagrosa” features the collective performing a tightrope act with blistering fast harmonized moments that still retain a sense of humanity and charm despite their lightning speed. Both tracks reflect Zenón’s astounding writing for strings, something he’s only flirted with on prior records. While the album is under his name, Spektral Quartet is featured so heavily it almost feels like their record. The interplay between string instruments is sophisticated, yet the quartet never flounders, treating each track with care and nuance and making the music sound like a living, breathing entity.
Slowing down on “Viejo”, Zenón practically floats with ethereal melodies and improvisations. It’s a pensive work, a welcome relief after a handful of frenetic works. “Viejo” also gives Spektral a chance to shine, moving from brilliant staccato stabs to lush, sustained lines, all conveyed with due dynamic integrity. It’s a moment that makes the saxophone and string quartet pairing feel entirely natural, almost as if it were an obvious, tried-and-true ensemble combination.
Any mature musician is a synthesis of their ideas, influences, and passions. With Yo Soy la Tradición, Zenón displays his propensity with jazz, Latin traditions, and modern composition techniques with stunning results.