Thursday, November 17, 2011

Miguel Zenon at The Mission Theater

Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon is one of the greatest jazz musicians playing today. He's a monster alto saxophonist, and appears to have no weakness in technique, tone, or creativity. He's also a monster composer and arranger, and truly has his own voice. Although not quite a household name, he's gaining recognition slowly and steadily as a bandleader, and has been able to work steadily enough to have the same band for many years. He recently received a MacArthur Genius Grant; hopefully he can use that press to increase his fame. In short, Zenon is the future of the music, and the future is now.

I have been fortunate to share the stage with Zenon on a handful of occasions. The first was actually a recording, a project led by Greg Tardy(Abundance, on the Palmetto label). I believe the first solo on the CD is Zenon's and it's smoking. I remember thinking that it was awfully big of Tardy to let someone potentially upstage him on the first song of the CD!I believe we played with the Mingus Band a few times after that. I subbed for Zenon's pianist Luis Perdomo on one concert back in 2007. It was one of the more challenging musical experiences of my life, and I've played a lot of hard music in my day! I was asked to sub another time, but the gig got cancelled at the last minute. Still, even one chance to play Zenon's music was a treat and an honor.

Last night, I went to hear Zenon and crew at The Mission Theater in Portland. The concert was sponsored by PDX Jazz, directed by Don Lucoff. I think it's great that Lucoff is programming some adventurous bands(last month was Cuong Vu's Burn Unit, and next month....wait, it's my band! More on that later). The turnout was more than respectable; I couldn't help but think that there should have been more PSU students at the concert. Maybe the word isn't getting out to the students. Hopefully we can change that, because Zenon is exactly who the students should be hearing.

Luis Perdomo
Drummer Henry Cole
Zenon's music is jazz, for sure, but there are key elements that give it a distinctive character. One is his pieces have a lot of rhythm and a lot of melody and a lot of harmony. However, there is always a perfect flow of energy from beginning to end of each piece, and from beginning to end of an entire set of music. His sets feel like one long symphonic suite, and within each piece, there is a grand development of ideas. Tonight's concert featured music from Zenon's latest CD, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook. (Zenon, a New York City resident, is originally from Puerto Rico.) While the melodies were very diatonic, with a simple folk song quality, the presentation was quite complicated, but with purpose. The first tune of the night, which I believe is the title track of the CD, the band began with a moody rubato in G minor, perhaps nodding to Coltrane's A Love Supreme. But the melody was very simple yet passionate. Eventually, free time gave way to a 10 beat groove with a descending bass line which  gave pianist Luis Perdomo a chance to shine as a soloist. Perdomo has great facility, but also resists showboating, and shows a fair amount of restraint, considering the energy which is around him. Drummer Henry Cole, also from Puerto Rico, is a true virtuoso drummer; he has perfect time, dynamics, and is able to follow the emotional shapes of both a song and an entire set.

The next piece had some 5/8 leanings which metrically modulated into a 4/4 which revealed the simplicity of the melody, and then shifted back to the 5/8. It occurred to me how much excitement Zenon is able to build without playing outside the chord that much. Again, when you have facility like Zenon,  it takes a certain amount of restraint to not play a ton of chromatic lines or ultra harmonic extrapolations. Zenon is able to build using range, dynamics, and rhythm.

Hans Glawischnig
Acoustic Bassist Hans Glawischnig, who I have had the pleasure of working with on a number of occasions, play a unaccompanied solo into "Tiemblas" which was intensely impressive. Glawischnig effortlessly plays things on the bass that other bassists could only dream about, and he does it with a facial expression of reading the newspaper! Glawischnig is the heart of this band; he holds down the most complex of rhythmic groupings with total confidence, and can also solo marvelously. His left hand is the  textbook for what a bassists left hand should be able to do. This concert, he used only a microphone, no pickup, but his sound was never lost in the shuffle.

The final soloist was Henry Cole, who took a masterful and energetic drum solo over a groove.(I never figured out the meter; it was one of those things where it was in 7 and then 8 and then 5. I bought the CD so I can study the music more.) Cole always knows where the form is and can easily slip his ideas
 in and around the "one" of the form. This concert left me as satisfied as the perfect meal; I was left having heard all the necessary elements. The music had passion, intellect, and skillful execution; indeed, music like this can't be played with a pick-up band. These guys have put in the hours together. I'm truly inspired. I may not get a chance to play with Zenon in the near future, but I'm incredibly inspired by his new project, and plan on trying to dissect some of his new CD as I drive around the streets of Portland. Check out the video of Zenon talking about the new CD.......


  1. Thanks for the heads-up on this guy. Will check it out.

    Dave Kane

  2. A few years ago (maybe 5 or so), I read a review of a Miguel Zenon CD that essentially said he was "all flash and no substance." Back then, I disagreed and it's an even bigger falsehood today. His passion for the music is real, he pours his heart into the presentation, and, yes, he's can play fast and hard but he never seems to be detached from the music. And I agree about his band-mates - very impressive. Mr Zenon's work with the SF Jazz Collective is also well worth checking out.
    Keep up the good work, George - I really enjoy this blog.

  3. Whomever reviewed that CD is an idiot.That's why I started this blog, so that we, the people who are informed and care about this music, can be the ones to judge the music. A lot of jazz critics can't hear and don't care, they just want to collect their 25 dollars.

  4. I'm surprised you didn't mention the sampler... I saw one of the next shows of the tour and he used samples of voices (people talking) on a few of the tunes. The music was great but I thought the samples were a bit intrusive and not as seamless as they could have been. The band was superb, though.

  5. Love this band so much, these guys are ridiculous. Thanks for posting, I hope the come around my way soon. I really like Miguel's compositions and of course the playing by everyone is phenomenal. One time I was stopped at a stop light here in Philly and the guy in the car next to me was listening to some burning alto player and I rolled down the window and asked him who it was, turns out it was Zenon! Pretty hip!


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