Miguel Zenon: Ceremonial

Robert R. Calder

Miguel Zenon


Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2004-01-13
UK Release Date: Available as import

Flier, notes, and the rest announce the remarkable gifts of Miguel Zenon, and speak of his association with David Sanchez. Sanchez is certainly something very special, with a wide range of tonal expression on his horn and great variety of phrasing. Frankly, it's the palette and the command and freshness of phrasing I miss in this recording packaged in expressions of unbridled enthusiasm.

Everything done here, I could say, is done very well. I have to say before anything else, though, that I do not take to Miguel Zenon's sound on his horn, and probably my objections go deeper, to the whole emotional climate of the music, at least here. He doesn't have an interesting way of playing alto saxophone; there is a whine in his high-pitched wail which turns a great deal of the music, in my hearing, to something both sentimental and complaining, with a lack of spirit.

The title track seems in some respects familiar, although clichéd is almost another word for it. Clichéd would, I think, be a good word for the saxophone sound, which is trendy and merely a more subtle version of a noise which can be heard widely on the media. "Mega" is an interesting boppy piece, but there's a drag to the tone, a trendy plangency at odds with the energetic theme (and a drummer stuck in a rut).

Other than the opener, and the closing eight minutes of "Great is Thy Faithfulness" -- which might be sincere but sounds to me sentimental self-indulgence -- every title is a composition by young master Zenon, and in a contemporary mainstream sort of style, with not unexpected Latin aspects. There is no gimmickry, no evasion into anything less, just a serious programme, played with amazing instrumental accomplishment and with ensemble passages of a subtle, dreamy impressionist character as the major if not sole individual distinction of the overall performance.

But it's all so oppressively dated by the leader's -- to me -- appallingly mannered sound on a sort of horn that has been used to a wide range of effect. Give me Bobby Watson, give me Ed Jackson or Peter King. Let me reach into the cabinet for something by Bruce Turner, another great European. Charles McPherson, Lee Konitz, Lou Donaldson, Willie Smith: they did not and do not collapse into the wail and vibrato which seem to be a current indulgence among altoists -- and which as mere uptodateness is a major handicap of Miguel Zenon, the whingeing sound of the horn and the resulting mediocrity of much of the emotion in his playing. It's a mechanical failure of expression, a complacency. While presumably it annoys a lot of people less than it annoys me, it does annoy me a lot.

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