When saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, first
encountered New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage, he was astonished to find that despite
being two or three generations removed from life on the Caribbean island, they were as
connected to its traditions as the people he knew back home in San Juan. This discovery set Zenón off on a three-year voyage to understand the way in which “Nuyoricans” experience their national identity.
What he learned can be summed up in the title of his new album, Identities Are Changeable (Miel Music), to be released November 4. “The idea that I had is to try to represent musically this
concept of identity being multiple and being able to change,” Zenón explained in a phone
interview from California.
In characteristic fashion, Zenón brings to bear on the project a lively curiosity, an intellectual
rigor, a supple and muscular emotionality, and a musical sophistication capable of translating his social research into an eloquent artistic statement. Backed by Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass), and Eric Doob (drums), Zenón brings his discoveries to the Outpost this Thursday.
The project got its start via a commission by the Montclair State University’s Peak Performance series for a multimedia performance. Zenón began by interviewing seven articulate Nuyoricans, using the same series of questions that ultimately tried to get at what it means to be Puerto
Rican. This fieldwork uncovered several themes that, although expressed differently by each
interviewee according to their personality and circumstances, were nonetheless shared. Zenón translated those themes into a song cycle: “¿De Donde Vienes? (Overture),” “Identities Are Changeable,” “My Home,” “Same Fight,” “First Language,” “Second Generation Lullaby,” “Through Culture and Tradition,” and “¿De Donde Vienes? (Outro).”
First performed by the quartet in 2012, the music interacted with abstract images and with video and audio clips of the interviews. On the album, on which the quartet is brilliantly
supplemented by a 12-piece big band, excerpts from the interviews introduce each track and appear and reappear throughout the tracks. Some of the songs’ melodic elements come
directly from the speech patterns of interviewees, capturing their cadences and rhythms.
“These excerpts, they are meant to interact with the music,” says Zenón, “but they’re
always the same, right? I wanted to have a couple of those that could be interactive
basically. They could interact with the music, almost like a solo that could be in the
moment. So a lot of those spots when you hear a specific excerpt that’s really matching rhythmically or matching melodically to something that I play, that’s because I’m
triggering those specifically in the moment, making them part of what I’m playing or what the band is doing.”
As he typically does, Zenón began the compositional process with the rhythmic concept.
“The pieces were really written about specific rhythmic figures that are supposed to kind of
interact with each other,” says Zenón. “I think about rhythm in an almost melodic sense. I think about rhythmic melodies, rhythmic counterpoint, and stuff like that. I’m not the only guy that does that, but it’s definitely a central part of the way I think about music”—and especially
central to this work, he adds.
The songs on Identities Are Changeable all feature dual rhythmic streams, with one time
signature rubbing against another—say, seven against five, or three against two. It’s a telling metaphor of the multiple identities that are a shared Nuyorican experience. (Zenón notes that they are easier to deal with theoretically than they are to play. Henry Cole, the drummer on the album, has the task of working in both streams simultaneously and accomplishes that
brilliantly. Zenón says Cole is still speaking to him, despite the experience.)
A Personal Connection
The personal connection to this project for Zenón is reflected in a variety of ways. First, it
expresses itself in his compositional choices. For example, “Through Culture and Tradition”—a song that Zenón says reflects “the folkloric tradition and how that connects to the Puerto Rican identity as a whole”—opens with a beguiling figure that is played by Perdomo and eventually picked up and expanded by the entire ensemble. “It was something that I started hearing as a kid,” Zenón says. “I started thinking about this melody that my grandmother used to sing to my mom and my mom used to sing it to me. She would sing it like a playing song for kids—on her knees, she would bounce you around to that melody. It obviously stuck with me for all these years.” (He notes that because the melody is three bars long, it provides a great opportunity to match it up against a three-against-two rhythmic scheme.)
The use of bomba and plena rhythms in this song reinforces the claim of one interviewee that it was through Puerto Rican music that he connected with his culture, and underscores Zenón’s strong
connection with the musical traditions of the island, well
documented on his previous releases.
Then, there is the reverie of “My Home,” which reflects the nostalgia of people for a place they may never even have visited. Zenón notes that there are many ways to connect to a place
without having been born there. “With the people I interviewed, it was pretty consistent. . . . They made a choice. They could have brushed that aside. They made a conscious choice to
connect with that.”
The issue of changeable identities is also reflected in his own life. One of the interviewees is his sister, Patricia, who has a young son and speaks of the responsibility of passing on the
traditions to him. The same issues confront Zenón and his wife.
“This project was connected to me in a very, very personal way,” he says, “because as I was working on this and kind of giving birth to this project, we were literally giving birth—my wife was giving birth—to a child. We’ve been dealing with this idea of how we’re going to approach language with her, how we’re going to keep her connected to our culture and our traditions.”
His daughter, Elena, now three, shares with 1.2 million other Nuyoricans a Puerto Rican
heritage that cannot be cordoned off by geographical boundaries, and an identity that is
multiple and changeable. Zenón says he can no longer make a distinction between Puerto Rican New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans living on the island. The connection of both to the culture and tradition is what he celebrates with Identities Are Changeable.
Miguel Zenón Quartet
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 7:30 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $20/$15 members and students
For tickets or more information, go here or call 505-268-0044.
© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.