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Alto Sax Icons Part 2: Miguel Zenon. “Sonero” 2/27/20, Lincoln Recital Hall, PSU Portland Jazz Festival 2020

By MICHAEL "SHOEHORN" CONLEY // Miguel Zenon is a visionary arranger, theorist, and leader, and his voice on the alto sings freely with burning intensity and a sensual and flexible tone, perfectly suited to the style he has developed.

Miguel Zenon, the youngest of the icons in this survey, gave a master class at Portland State University as part of the 2020 Portland Jazz Festival on Thursday afternoon, which I attended. This class was not so much about saxophone as it was about rhythm, and different ways of looking at layers of rhythm or polyrhythms. The depth of Zenon’s theoretical grasp of this topic is astounding.

While it's commonly acknowledged that Afro-Caribbean rhythmic traditions are some of the richest ever produced on the planet, Zenon pointed out that the artists practicing the folklore traditions he investigated to develop his theory generally do not go into such mathematical analysis.
Zenon, a MacArthur fellow, has found a way to synthesize the deep roots of his Puerto Rican heritage and the related cultures in Cuba, Haiti, and West Africa to create a new thing, which is melded with the language of Charlie Parker and modern jazz. The master class at PSU had him scribbling notation on a dry-erase board and showing how cycles of notes overlap and meet up in layers.

Without getting too technical, a simple example would be how three measures of four quarter notes each and a parallel line consisting of dotted quarters will line up and land on the downbeat together on the fourth measure. (8 dotted quarter notes = 12 quarters) Zenon went on to explain how to make this work with 12/8, 5/4, 7/8, and 9/8 time signatures, and using the numbers in micro and macro form (subdivisions vs. counts). He played us recorded examples of various types of grooves from his own discography and other groups.

He went on to perform a little bit with some of the PSU music students, playing a standard number chosen by one of the kids and a Parker blues, utilizing some of the rhythmic tools he had explained to us and critiquing their playing.

His concert that evening was a whole different story, and nothing in the workshop prepared me for what was to ensue. The repertoire they played was from his album “Sonero”, music of Puerto Rican composer and performer Ismael Rivera ( a sonero is an improvising lead singer) .
Starting with an acapella sax cadenza, he began a tune which steadily built to a smoldering energy during the piano solo, with the alto chiming in at the ends of choruses in unison with pianist Luis Perdomo. I was thinking to myself “Just what kind of rhythm is this?” This tune ended with some impressive unison chromatic lines with sax and piano.

The next tune started a little more relaxed, almost like a Bossa, the piano leading the way, and a familiar sounding melody, Zenon chiming in behind the piano solo.

With a seamless segue into the next number, the saxist called the band in over some breaks and grooved on for a while before the band dropped out for another sweet sax cadenza, Zenon again calling the band back in, now in response to a catchy melodic riff. Zenon ripped a long solo closely aligned with a repeating piano part consisting of reductive intervals in a sort of chromatic counterpoint, culminating in a piano solo with gushing bursts of sixteenth notes over busy drums and bass, an animated Zenon rejoining the fray with a repeated 7-note motif.

The next song featured a bass solo by Hans Glawischnig, with steady accompaniment from Perdomo and drummer Henry Cole. In a way Perdomo was holding the tempo in this group rather than his mates in the rhythm section, often playing a repeating pattern in steady time, while the bass and drums were free to explore busier lines- there were no walking bass lines and swing ride cymbal here. This tune ended smoothly with lyrical piano and sax.

Their next tune was set up by bass and drums with Zenon entering lyrically again. The song progressed over a piano and sax duet joined by arco bass, with the drummer finally entering, dramatically, almost like a prog-rock virtuoso.

The groove here was again marked by an insistent ostinato by Perdomo, breaking to stunningly fast unison runs, restless, unrelenting drums, and great sax and piano solos.

These arrangements of Rivera's material truly transcend the generic confines of “Latin jazz”. With musicians from Puerto Rico or Cuba often being typecast as Latin jazzers, I feel it is important to note that this music really is something else. Perdomo’s playing completely transformed conventional Latin piano patterns, such as montuno. Considering the absence of the typical percussion section of congas and timbales, and given drummer Cole’s prodigious technical gifts coupled with Zenon’s sophisticated arranging, this modern music really exists in its own universe of rhythm and sound.

In conversation with a couple of bass players after the show one of them remarked that it was impossible to count the music. This is something I believe many musicians do at concerts- analyze forms and beats and other structures, be they harmonic, rhythmic or formal. I myself was sometimes able to imagine a clave pattern superimposed on top of this maelstrom of energetic polyrhythm, but it was never obvious.

Tempos seemed pretty fast even when the saxophonist was playing in a lyrical mode, due to Cole’s underlying pulsations. This band did not do any Jazz standards or bebop repertoire, and were really taking the source material into some new territory, likely to a place it's composer never dreamed of.

Miguel Zenon is a visionary arranger, theorist, and leader, and his voice on the alto sings freely with burning intensity and a sensual and flexible tone, perfectly suited to the style he has developed. He has transposed his mathematical rhythm theory into instrumental poetry. The festival audience gave the band a standing ovation and were rewarded with an encore.

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