Miguel Zenón’s “Tradición”

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ZENÓN: Rosario. Cadenas. Yumac. Milagrosa. Viejo. Cadenza. Promesa. Villalbeño / Miguel Zenón, a-sax; Spektral Quartet: Clara Lyon, Maeva Feinberg, vln; Doyle Ambrust, vla; Russell Rolen, cel / Miel Music (no number)

From one aspect, this CD, due out September 21, is an exercise in saxist-composer Miguel Zenón exploring his native Puerto Rican roots. From another it’s simply an astoundingly creative experiment in what Gunther Schuller called “third stream music” and which I simply call great modern music. It is my unshakeable belief that this is the future of art music if one could only find enough performers to take their heads out of the 18th and 19th centuries long enough to mature musically and live in their own time, which requires very different skill sets.

Zenón’s writing for the quartet, though clearly having a jazz bias, is actually more conservative than that of David Balakrishnan (of the Turtle Island String Quartet) or jazz singer-composer Sophie Dunér (listen to City of My Dreams). This isn’t to say that it lacks jazz elements—it certainly includes them—only that the scores are based much more on traditional classical lines. The strings swing, but the linear writing owes much more to Bartók than to Bird, if you know what I mean. This is not accidental; Zenón admits that he “studied many chamber works from various periods” and, while writing these works, was “also able to integrate feedback from the members of the quartet, whom I would send sections and passages to.”

Yet Zenón was lucky to obtain the services of the Spektral Quartet, an exceptional group of musicians who can outswing the highly overrated Kronos Quartet any day of the week. And since his compositions are based on Latin themes and rhythms, there is a certain A Night in Tunisia feel to many of the pieces. I’m not certain if the string solos that pop up here and there are fully scored, but to my ears they did not sound improvised; they were too close to the overall fabric of the preceding and succeeding passages to be so; but I may be wrong about that.

Zenón’s music is primarily tonal with continually shifting harmonies underneath. At times he is clearly improvising above the quartet score, while at other times he sounds as if he, too, is playing written solo lines that happen to fit into the music. Trying to give a detailed description of each piece within the confines of this review would be futile, as there is so much going on. Zenón keeps the beat going most of the time, and it is to the Spektral Quartet’s credit that they manage this easily and naturally. One aspect of these compositions that impressed me was that the music’s structure seemed more important than the format. In other words, any well-versed alto saxist could jump into these scores and play these pieces similarly, improvising a little differently from Zenón, and still produce very satisfying performances (provided that the string quartet has Spektral’s skills). This seemed particularly apparent to me in the second piece, Cadenas, in which the quartet’s asymmetric but repeated rhythmic licks were the basis of the piece.

Yumac, the name of a Puerto Rican town spelled backwards, is in fact so classical in concept that it contains different sections in contrasting tempi, like a mini-suite. Milagrosa, on the other hand, has such strong backbeats that they overwhelm the structure, producing what is probably the most evidently Latin-jazz-based piece heard so far on this disc. Indeed, the final section is a virtual moto perpetuo played by the strings in double time and a very strong rhythm, with Zenón jumping in to improvise above a slightly different rhythm in the final chorus. Interestingly, the piece immediately following, Viejo, sounded to my ears like the second movement of an integrated quartet piece. Here, the tempo is more relaxed and the quartet plays traditional string tremolos over the solo cello, with the first violin coming in for commentary to lead the quartet back to homogeneity beneath Zenón’s alto sax playing (which, again, sounds written). In Cadenza, there is a section where cellist Rolen plays a repeated figure and the others do rhythmic hand-clapping in the background.

As I said earlier, I could give more detailed descriptions of these and the succeeding works on this CD, but mere description would prove futile. It is truly an outstanding listening experience, and to do so would defeat the purpose of the disc. I simply recommend that you obtain it and hear it; it is superb from start to finish.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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