Miguel Zenón Plays the Music of Ismael Rivera


SONERO / MELLO-DO BRITO-FIGUEROA: Intro/Maelo a Cappella. J. HERNÁNDEZ: Quitate de la Via, Perico. CAPÓ: Las Tumbas. El Negro Bambón. PLATA: La Gata Montesa. J. VASQUEZ: Traigo Salsa. Alonso: Las Caras Lindas. TORRES: Hola. H. ARROYO: Colobó. REYNA: Si te Contara. H. WILLIAMS: El Nazareno / Miguel Zenón Quartet: Zenón, a-sax; Luis Perdomo, pno; Hans Glawischnig, bs; Henry Cole, dm / Miel Music, no number

This CD, due for release a few days from now (August 30), is saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s tribute to Ismael “Maelo” Rivera (1931-1987), a legendary singer of Latin salsa. As Zenón puts it in the press release, ““He wasn’t just one of the guys. For me, he was beyond that. He exemplified the highest level of artistry. He was like Bird, Mozart, Einstein, Ali – he was that guy. Putting phrases on top of phrases, like threes over fours, stuff that’s so advanced that as a musician you can say, ‘okay, that’s five, then the four, then it crosses over and meets here’ – but I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about that,” Zenón says. “He was just thinking about the way he felt it. But what he felt was so advanced and so ahead of his time that it was really transcendent. So a lot of the elements that I used to write these charts were things that were inspired by what he was doing rhythmically when he improvised.”

FYI, that is Rivera’s likeness on the album cover, not Zenón’s. This is an album of tunes that Rivera apparently played. Again, according to the press release:

While the Maelo pieces included in Sonero are Zenón’s arrangements of other composers’ tunes, they’re so fully elaborated into large-scale works that they feel like his compositions. Listeners may recall his arrangement of Maelo’s signature Bobby-Capó-composed soliloquy “Incomprendido” that lit up the quartet’s groundbreaking Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011), an album which correctly treated standards by Puerto Rico’s greatest popular composers as part of the jazz repertoire. Sonero brings a similar approach, featuring versions of tunes by some of the same canonical composers from the repertoire of Ismael Rivera.

Of course, the proof these words is in the playing and the music, and it is indeed quite good, avoiding the trap of so much Latin music to fall into the same basic tempi and grooves. Zenón’s little group also avoids cliché by the strength of his arrangements—just listen to the wonderful pace and shaping of Juan Hernández’ Quitate de la Via, Perico with its shifting time signatures and a rhythm that sounds more like blues-bop than like salsa music. And Zenón is a terrific improviser, one who pays close attention to the structure of his solos. He says something every time he plays his horn; he doesn’t just blow a string of notes to impress the less sophisticated listener. Even when he goes “outside,” he is building a complex structure. At the 4:28 mark there is a sudden release of tension, the band moves into a swinging 4 and pianist Luis Perdomo fills the air with a shower of notes in an excellent solo. I did, however, feel that Henry Cole overplayed his drums on this track.

Las Tumbas has an opening phrase that sounds very similar to the pop song Everybody Loves Somebody, but then moves into different territory. Perdomo leads this one off, playing delicate but very interesting lines before Zenón enters playing the Everybody Loves Somebody theme in different permutations over Perdomo. At 3:12, there is a sudden change, everything stops for a second, and the saxist plays dramatic figures over the rhythm section. Then the Latin beat enters the picture, driven by the bassist, as the music is developed.

El Negro Bambón is a light, fanciful arrangement that makes the melody sound almost like Sufi music but with a Latin beat every few bars. The music skims along in this odd sort of way, played mostly by Zenón with commentary from Perdomo. The rhythm becomes really complex around the 4:20 mark, but then straightens out a bit for Perdomo’s solo. Repeated rhythmic figures played by Zenón on alto make up most of the next chorus, switching to more lyrical playing for the ride-out.

La Gata Montesa opens with a fast, flowing bop line that sounds very Charlie Parker-ish, followed by repeated rhythmic Bs on the alto with drum accents. At the 1:26 mark Zenón plays more Parker-like lines, moving the piece forward before his extended solo with the rhythm playing in stop time. Hans Glawischnig also contributes an excellent bass solo.

Triago Salsa opens with the bass, leading into a fairly complex rhythm with a Latin tinge. The leader dominates this track with his alto sax, playing brilliantly-constructed lines and moving the piece along. Around the four-minute mark we hear a very Latin melody, underscored by Perdomo’s  bitonal chords. A very interesting piece!

Las Caras Lindas almost sounds like a complex Dave Brubeck Quartet chart in the opening, with Zenón playing against Perdomo, then it’s piano and bass in out-of-tempo licks before the rather complex tempo enters and the leader plays a lovely lyric line. The pianist returns to his out-of-tempo licks, with the drums roiling behind him, before the saxist re-enters, playing even more complex lines above them. There are moments of stop time and more shifting tempi before this one is over. Hola is a ballad, but not a very sentimental one; it also has a forward rhythmic momentum that keeps it from sounding sleepy, and the leader plays the melody particularly well. There’s an interesting passage in which Zenón plays a repeated lick while the bass plays bowed improvisations underneath him.

Colobó sounds the most like a salsa song, with the typical salsa beat but broken up occasionally and shifted around by Zenón and his talented group. At 1:23 there’s a splendid passage in which Zenón and Perdomo play rapid, complex lines in unison before the pianist’s solo. Si Te Cantara is another ballad, but again one with some rhythmic backbone. Glawischnig plays another excellent bass solo in this one.

The finale is El Nazareno, a medium-tempo Latin number that almost, but not quite, has a sort of Stan Getz-styled bossa nova feel to it. Aside from the fact that Zenón’s tone is much brighter than Getz’, the music is more melodically and harmonically interesting, but it does have that kind of vibe, which is not a bad thing. The middle section, played on the piano, is pure salsa, however, diverting the mood from Brazil to the Caribbean, and Zenón’s ensuing solo is very complex both rhythmically and in terms of the musical material he uses to form his improvisation.

This is really a splendid album and one that will change your perceptions of Latin jazz. No repetitive rhythms here—and lively, interesting arrangements and solos to boot!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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