Friday, August 12, 2011

The musical highway is a two-way street

In his two current overlapping projects, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has added a new lane to the musical bridge between the jazz world at large and his native Puerto Rico.

The initial project was developed with some of the resources from his 2008 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” He organized and funded Caravana Cultural, a program in which he brings bands, generally quartets or quintets, to perform free jazz concerts in rural communities in Puerto Rico, with a pre-concert talk before each performance. His mission: to eliminate any social or political stigma that could be tied to jazz “while also taking this music to places where the public has had little or no exposure to it.”

The first two concerts, held in Barranquitas in February and Yauco in June, focused on the music of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker respectively. Zenón returns October 2 for a concert in Adjuntas that will feature the music of Ornette Coleman. For this one, his band mates will be tenor player Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. More such concerts are planned in 2012.

The second project revolves around his newest recording, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, which will be released August 30 on the Marsalis Music label. Zenón adapted 10 classic popular songs from his native Puerto Rico for his jazz quartet. For the recording, he added a 10-piece woodwind section, which played backing arrangements by Guillermo Klein. That full band, with Klein conducting the woodwinds, made its first live appearance last weekend at the Newport Jazz Festival. (see photo)

Both projects approach the same issue from different directions.

“Even though people know about jazz in Puerto Rico, there is a certain perception or taboo that it is only for the elite,” Zenón told me this week. “Now, where I am using music so connected to the people there, it opens the door for their curiosity, and lets them dig a little deeper into what jazz is all about.” He said the new recording “gives an immense sense of pride among the people in Puerto Rico to see that their music is being brought to people who didn’t know it before.”

The MacArthur grant has given Zenon the resources to move the music forward in his vision – and to be selective about the side gigs he takes.

“I’m just enjoying where I am right now,” he said. “I’m enjoying the ride.”

Next stop: New York’s Jazz Standard next month, where his quartet will perform selections from Alma Adentro for four nights.

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