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Miguel Zenón with Spektral Quartet

Identity Rearranged

By Claire Sykes

Photo: Daniel Kullman/Bitter Jester Studios

A new recording from Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet pays homage to the music, culture, and history of Puerto Rico.

A trilled shimmer from the violins and cello welcome the viola’s simple folk melody. The alto sax answers with a flourish, then rambles amidst plucked staccatos. Together they meander further into dissonance and rhythmic minimalism, reshaping the melody as they go.

So begins the hour-long Yo Soy la Tradición, by New York-based alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón in collaboration with Spektral Quartet. The eight-piece suite braids Puerto Rican folk songs and traditional forms with progressive jazz and new music, as varied as the geography of the island itself. Commissioned by the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (HPJF), in Chicago, Yo Soy la Tradición premiered there in September 2016; in September 2018, a recording of the work was released through Miel Music. And the work recently has been nominated for a Grammy.

Zenón—a multiple Grammy nominee, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and Guggenheim Fellow—was a perfect match for the HPJF. “The Festival is interested in supporting ways in which jazz is continuing to be developed, by composers who are drawing from different traditions and genres to create new amalgamations of the art form,” says Kate Dumbleton, its executive and artistic director. “It’s incumbent upon us to pay these artists, and give them the time they need to compose.”

She had known about Zenón’s music for years. In 2011, as executive director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Dumbleton invited Zenón to perform the music of Charlie Parker, with big band and string ensemble. How could he not? The alto sax giant is “my greatest inspiration,” he has said. A year after that February 2012 performance, Zenón said yes to recording with Spektral Quartet and French accordionist Julien Labro, based in Canada, for the latter’s arrangement of Zenón’s “El Club de la Serpiente.”

Founded in 2010, and two years later named ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago’s Music Department, Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola) and Russell Rolen (cello). “Our mission is to create bridges across the centuries and present new and old musics together, in interactive-concert format, so listeners can consider them within context to each other,” says Armbrust. Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2 and Arnold Schoenberg’s full string-quartet cycle have shared the Spektral stage with works by American trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Committed to their hometown, the quartet also commissions Chicago composers and projects.

Miguel Zenón and Spektral Quartet

Zenón and Spektral perfoming in Chicago in September 2018. Proceeds from the event went to hurricane relief for Puerto Rico. Photo: Elias Carmona

“These guys are adventurous; they’re always willing to push the envelope,” Zenón says of Spektral. So when Dumbleton asked him to write a piece for the HPJF that included Chicago musicians, he immediately thought of Spektral, and Spektal only; no rhythm section or chordal instruments. He had written for string quartet before, and turning to one now to further explore traditional Puerto Rican music and culture had been on his mind for a while.

Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón grew up with a mother who was always singing and a father who played percussion, all of it the music of his culture. There were no professional musicians in his family, but a neighbor taught him and other kids solfège and how to read music. At 11, he was accepted into the city’s Escuela Libre de Música wanting to study piano. He never would, since spaces for the instrument were already taken, but someone in the family had a saxophone. That would do. What mattered most to Zenón was the music. He studied it there for the next six years, but never thought of it as a livelihood.

Then he discovered jazz—John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and especially Charlie Parker and his free improvisations. Studying it formally meant leaving Puerto Rico. After high school, scholarships got him into the Berklee College of Music, in 1995. There, he met Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, with his blend of Latin American folk, jazz, European expressionism, African, and other musics. Through Pérez, four years later at the Manhattan School of Music where Zenón received his Masters, David Sánchez invited him to play in his band and tour. Soon he was playing with others, and formed a quartet. He started writing music, trying to sound like Parker and Coltrane. “Then I realized I had to return to the music that surrounded me growing up, and filter it through the jazz perspective,” says Zenón. “That’s when I came into my own.”

Since 2002, he has put out 11 recordings, all but one with his quartet, who now consists of drummer Henry Cole, pianist Luis Perdomo, and bassist Hans Glawischnig. His Puerto Rican roots run through all of his jazz.

Zenón saw Yo Soy la Tradición as an opportunity to introduce the folk music of Puerto Rico to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it, composing from a point of inspiration rather than imitation. He’d studied the music of his home country for more than a decade, with regular trips there where he still has family and friends. But he wanted to go even deeper. “I knew a lot about the traditions behind the music, but not their history. It was a revelation to me how geographically specific they are, by region, town and even neighborhood,” says Zenón.

For instance, jibaro, Puerto Rico’s “country music,” originated in the farmlands and mountains. You can hear its Spanish temperament, stressing the strings, in Yo Soy la Tradición’s “Yumac” (the town, Camuy spelled backwards). The percussive bomba came from enslaved West Africans working the island’s sugar plantations, and was the influence for plena 300 years later from the southern city of Ponce. Both of these folk musics inform Zenón’s suite.

Then there’s the traditional music of Puerto Rico’s Catholic rituals, like that of the Holy Rosary, conveyed in Zenón’s spirited “Rosario,” the CD’s opening piece. He says, “The viola starts by playing a traditional melody. Then I wrote my own melody over that, reharmonizing it in a different progression, and expanded this arrangement throughout the piece. I did this with a lot of the pieces in Tradición.”

Armbrust says, “Miguel has an astounding mastery of harmony, and the ability to work his way from seemingly distant harmonies and move effortlessly between them. It feels like pure expression to me.”

Another is his “Promesa,” a nod to the annual religious celebration honoring the Three Kings and the promise to a deity. It begins with a pensive improvisation from the cello, followed by scored repetitive chords from it and the viola. These two, the violins and the sax all play different meters in the music’s 7/4 time, sounding at once chaotic and coherent, until turning in a completely different direction.

Miguel Zenón

Photo: Jimmy Katz

The suite’s basic, classical form provides common ground for the integration of Puerto Rican folk, new music, and jazz. To arrive there, Zenón pored over string-quartet scores by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Bartók, Glass, and those in Spektral’s repertoire. “I was trying to find things that I could be comfortable with, and not stretch myself or the quartet so far as to go at it blindly,” says Zenón. His biggest challenge in composing was “to take what I usually have at my disposal and apply it to a string quartet, coming up with different roles for each instrument so they can shine.”

“What stands out for us is that Miguel wrote for five instruments, not a saxophone and backup. He made us all equal voices, and that’s really meaningful for us. He wrote a piece that takes advantage of the skills we’ve been developing since we started the quartet, and we feel that our abilities are being used in an effective and inspiring way,” says Armbrust.

Zenón also tried to find that balance where Spektral could play the way they usually did “and still push through percussively, almost like a drum choir but with the quality of a string quartet,” he says. In Yo Soy la Tradición, rhythm carries the jazz, with its asymmetric riffs, backbeats, and counterpoints.

The jazz tradition also speaks in the suite’s improvisations. “Normally, with a jazz quartet, I’d give the rhythm section a set of changes, a harmonic progression, and write on top of that,” says Zenón. “But for Tradición, because string quartets don’t usually improvise, I had to write out specific parts, trying to create that same, improvisational feel of a jazz ensemble.”

"Zenón saw Yo Soy la Tradición as an opportunity to introduce the folk music of Puerto Rico to people who otherwise wouldn't hear it... "

Armbrust says, “What feels like freedom in jazz is the result of being even more exacting about timing than we are in the classical world. Because the pulse is so regular, it allows you to go off and know exactly where you are within the structure of the piece. It’s all about trying to remove friction from the sense of the pulse, when there’s no push or pull to the timing. If you listen to Miguel’s solos on the album, you can see that he writes in fairly complex rhythms or meters, and he plays around with those. The only way he can do that is when he can be a hundred percent dependable on the quartet being accurately in time.”

While he composed, Zenón consulted with Spektral, sending passages and sections for feedback. By late summer 2016, they received the mostly completed score and began rehearsing by phone and Skype. The September 2016 Hyde Park performance was the first time the five played Yo Soy la Tradición together in person.

A year later, they met up again in Chicago to record a CD of the suite, Zenón’s first with only him and a string quartet. It so happened they were in the studio just days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Everyone in the quartet saw how much Zenón was on the phone during the weeklong rehearsal and recording session, and suggested they do a benefit. “They were so touched by the experience of making this music, they wanted to give back,” he says.

The CD aims to draw attention not only to the hurricane’s immediate devastation and lingering trauma, but also the resiliency of a people. On September 27, 2017, it did just that, with a concert at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago. All proceeds went directly to Chicago’s Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. More benefits are in the works.

"With a lot of this project, I feel that I’m developing a stronger sense of identity with what it means to be a Puerto Rican artist, a musician living outside of the country. Being here has connected me to the culture, music and traditions of Puerto Rico in a way I would’ve never been had I stayed there,” Zenón says. “That connection has been the music. Exploring it keeps opening the door into something more to learn. That’s the way it is with all music. It’s infinite.”

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. Along with this magazine, her music articles have appeared in Strings, Bass World, Piano & Keyboard, Opera News, The Wire, Musicworks, and others. She also covers the visual arts, health and bioscience, philanthropy, and business.

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