In conversation with miguel zenón
By Tomas Peña
“Zenón is a slick and savvy soloist whose gleaming sound and slippery rhythms give his improvisations a zigzagging brilliance. He’s reinventing Latin Jazz in his own image, eschewing familiar blends of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music with bebop for a more integrated and sophisticated fusion of musical ideas from Puerto Rico and up-to-the-minute post-bop.”
Excerpt from a review by Detroit Free Press music critic, Mark Stryker
We last spoke in 2001, just prior to the release of Looking Forward. At that time you closed the interview by saying that you were hoping to “create a musical melting pot” and “looking forward to seeing your music evolve in the future.” Has your music evolved in the way that you hoped it would?
My music has definitely evolved and I feel that I have grown as a composer, an artist, and a saxophone player. With time and experience you learn to do certain things in a more effective way so … yeah, I do feel that my music is moving forward. My musical preoccupation has always revolved around not getting “stuck,” not doing the same thing (conceptually) again and again.
As we speak you are touring with the SF Jazz Collective. Tell me about the origins of the SF Jazz Ensemble and how you became involved with the organization.
In 2002 or 2003, Randall Klein and musical director Joshua Redman came up with the idea of creating a band to represent their organization. The idea was to create a band like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with different instrumentation, pairing up established musicians with up-and-coming musicians, that kind of thing. They approached me and I agreed to participate. SF has changed and evolved over the years. Of the current roster, pianist Renee Rosnes and I are the only two members of the band that have been with SF from the beginning.
Who are the current members of the SF Jazz Collective?
Myself, Renee Rosnes, Eric Harland, Matt Penman, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano and Stefon Harris. Robin Eubanks is the band’s newest member.
That’s quite a lineup. What is the name of the SF Collective’s most recent recording?
That would be last year’s recording [Live 2007], which features original compositions by all of the band members and the music of Thelonious Monk. This year we are paying tribute to the music of Wayne Shorter.
So the SF Collective is currently performing the music of Wayne Shorter?
Yes, we are currently three weeks into the tour.
You composed all of the tunes for Awake over a two or three year period. During that time you were reflecting on your growth as a musician as well as your personal and professional priorities?
The tunes are a combination of old and new material. I have been revisiting some of the old tunes and writing new material that is along the same lines … I went through a period after I did Jibaro where I wanted to have a very clear idea of what I am doing musically. I tend to be very judgmental of myself and at that time I felt … I wouldn’t say stuck … but some of the concepts I was coming up with were starting to repeat themselves and I wanted to find a way out of that. I want my music to move forward but I also have to feel content with what I am doing. I reflected on the issue for some time, spoke to a number of musicians that I respect and got their feedback. In the end I came to the realization that all of the pressure that I was putting on myself wasn’t really necessary and that I should let things take their course and flow naturally.
It’s interesting that you would feel that way, given all of the accolades you received for Jibaro …
You have to put all of that in perspective. It’s very rewarding when the peers, critics and the general public like what you doing, but there is a flip side. As an artist I am dealing with the music in a personal way, so it doesn’t really matter whether everybody likes it or not, I have to be satisfied …
So the title, Awake, speaks to that period in your life.
I guess you could say it represents an awakening to a new perspective about music. But it also represents a new perspective about other things - my family, my loved one’s, religion – in the end it’s about bringing all of these influences into perspective.
So the music is more introspective and philosophical than your previous work. You also added some new “colors,” the Fender Rhodes piano, strings …
Yeah, it’s not like I tried to do that on purpose but it brought out a different perspective. It’s hard for me to notice because I am so involved with the music, maybe somebody that listens to my stuff before and after would notice, or perhaps if I didn’t say anything at all …
You always perform the material in a live setting prior to going into the studio. Where did you work-out the material for Awake?
We performed the material at the Iridium in New York.
Let’s go through the tracks. Tell me what was on your mind as you composed the material. Let’s begin with “Camarón.”
I was thinking about the flamenco singer, El Camarón. Many consider El Camarón to be the single most popular and influential flamenco cantaor (singer) of the modern period.
That’s a new composition. It’s something that is based on a geometrical figure, it kind of looks like a star, it’s called a pentatonic scale. The composition is created around the numbers fifteen, five and three …
Funny that you should mention that. When I listen to your music I envision mathematical equations and geometric shapes. I read somewhere that prior to becoming a musician you had given some thought to the idea of becoming an architect …
An engineer …
Maybe that explains it. How about ”The Missing Piece”?
It’s an older composition that the band developed over time. We added the “missing pieces” as we went along.
It’s based on the book Ulysses by James Joyce. The book deals with everything that happens within the course of one day. It also deals with a train of thought, what the characters are saying, what they are thinking and how one’s brain connects events and thoughts into different ideas. So I was trying to write something like that. Of course, I couldn’t really go as deep as Joyce … because my idea was simpler I decided to name the tune ”Ulysses in Slow Motion.”
I was watching TV and as I flipped through the channels I came to a Christian channel. The setting was kind of like a mosque and there was chanting. So this one melody caught my attention. It kind of reminded me of something that I had heard in the opera, Tosca. Anyway, I started playing around with the melody and the tune wrote itself. "Santo" is one of the newer tunes …
I understand ”Lamamilla” is your wife’s nickname …
Yes, the tune is dedicated to my wife, Elga. I used a system that assigns a note to every letter. The melody spells out her nickname.
And ”Third Dimension”?
The song has cycles of rhythmic dimension that overlap and meet at a certain point. Some of the ideas were inspired by saxophonist, Steve Coleman.
Awakening – “Prelude,” “Interlude” and “Postlude” is obviously the main theme …
Awakening is the oldest composition. It’s the main theme and it appears at the beginning, middle and end of the recording. I recorded it different ways … solo, with strings and with the entire band playing “free.”
Tell me about the musicians you chose for this project.
Well, the core group is pianist, Luis Perdomo, bass player Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole on drums and percussion. Special guests include saxophonist Tony Malaby, trumpet player Michael Rodriguez and Ben Gerstein on trombone. And then are the strings: Judith Insell, Orlando Wells, Marlene Rice and Nioka Workman. I have known Luis and Hans for a long time. This is the first time that Henry Cole has recorded with the band.
Not long ago I had a conversation with Hans Glawischnig. During the course of the conversation your name came up. Here is some of what he had to say about you: “Miguel is a great example of someone who has absorbed the tradition but is not hindered by it. He has managed to fuse the intellectual and visceral components of music, something few musicians have achieved.”
I wish he would tell me that [Laughter].
(Laughter]. So where do you feel the music is headed, circa 2008?
That’s a hard question because there is a lot going on that I don’t know about, however, from my experiences in New York and traveling around, there are a lot of people doing creative things and there is definitely a strong input from international musicians who are fusing their culture and their folklore with jazz. In terms of young players there are so many. There is one guy that I like a lot. I don’t really know him so I don’t know if he is younger than me or close to my age, but his name is [saxophonist] Steve Lehman. He’s made a bunch of good records. Conceptually, he’s a great player, thinker, very unique. Also, there are a lot of young Latino’s trying to make it in jazz music – the Rodriguez Brothers, Henry Cole, Ricky Rodriguez from Puerto Rico. They are all very talented guys.
What are you listening to as we speak?
I am listening to something right now!
What might that be?
Keith Jarrett’s Survivor’s Suite. I have been listening to a lot of his stuff lately. Also, the recordings Keith did in Japan [The Sunbear Concerts], the African guitarist and singer, Ali Farke Touré and the Brazilian vocalist, Djavan, a recording by the name of Luz.
You are scheduled to perform at the Jazz Standard on April 29th and 30th. Will this be the band that is on the recording? Will there be a CD release party?
Yes, it will be the band that’s on the record. I think we are going to treat the event as our official CD release party as well.
I hope to see you there. Is there anything that you would like to say to Jazz.com’s readers?
I hope to keep making music for as long as I can and I really appreciate everybody that has enjoyed anything we have done. If this music makes people happy, that’s enough of a reward.
You’ve made me a happy camper!
So I guess I am all set … [Laughter]!
And on that note … it’s been a pleasure speaking with you Miguel. Thank You.
Thank you Tomas.
As a Leader:
Jibaro, Marsalis Music (2005)
Ceremonial, Marsalis Music (2004)
Looking Forward, Fresh Sounds New Talent (2002)
As a Sideman:
SF Jazz Collective, Nonesuch Records (2005)
Mingus Big Band, I am Three (2003)
David Sanchez, Melaza, Columbia Records (2001)
For More on Miguel Zenón visit www.miguelzenon.com