This Summer, Saxophonist, Miguel Zenón released his latest album “Música de Las Américas” on Zenón’s Miel Music label. The music making up this collection of original works grew out of Zenón’s passion for the history of the American continent, and the resulting album pays tribute to its diverse cultures while also challenging modern assumptions about who and what “America” is. The music not only is inspired by the pre European colonization, “… it also looks at what’s happened since – cause and effect,” says Zenón.
Zenón represents a select group of musicians who have masterfully balanced and blended the often contradictory poles of innovation and tradition. He’s widely considered as one of the most groundbreaking and influential saxophonists and composers of his generation who has also developed a unique voice as a conceptualist, concentrating his efforts on perfecting a fine mix between Jazz and his many musical influences. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón has built a distinguished career as a leader and has crafted his artistic identity by dividing his time equally between working with older jazz masters and the music’s younger innovators, irrespective of styles and genres.
Featuring his longstanding quartet of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole, Música de Las Américas represents a broadening of scope and ambition for Zenón, who is best known for combining cutting-edge modernism with the folkloric and traditional music of Puerto Rico. In realizing such a wide-ranging project, Zenón engaged the illustrious Puerto Rican ensemble Los Pleneros de La Cresta to contribute their unmistakable plena sound to the album, with additional contributions by master musicians Paoli Mejías on percussion, Daniel Díaz on congas, and Victor Emmanuelli on barril de bomba.
Zenón’s compositions on Música de Las Américas reflect the dynamism and complexity of America’s indigenous cultures, their encounters with European colonists, and the resulting historical implications. Zenón immersed himself in these topics during the pandemic, reading classics like Eduardo Galeano’s Venas Abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent), which details Western exploitation of South America’s resources and became the inspiration for Zenón’s “Venas Abiertas.”
Other sources of inspiration include Sebastián Robiou Lamarche’s “Taínos y Caribes”, referring to the two major societies who inhabited the Caribbean prior to European colonization and who are the subject of the album’s opener. “They were the two predominant societies but were very different: the Taínos were a more passive agricultural society while the Caribes were warriors who lived for conquest,” says Zenón, who captures the clashing of the societies in the interlocking rhythms of the piece.
Following the thread of indigenous Caribbean societies, “Navegando (Las Estrellas Nos Guían)” pays homage to the seafaring culture that existed across the region. “One thing that blew my mind was how they could travel the sea at long distances just using canoes while being guided by the stars,” says Zenón. “That opens conversations about what’s ‘archaic’ versus what’s ‘advanced’ in terms of scientific achievement between the ‘New World’ and ‘Old World.’”
Zenón referred to the star formations used for navigation by those societies as the musical foundation of the song, which prominently features the percussion and vocals of Los Pleneros de la Cresta, who sing and accompany the titular chorus: “Navegando vengo, sigo a las estrellas.”
Possibly the most challenging piece on the album in its harmonic dissonance and complexity, “Opresión y Revolución” evokes the tension and release of revolutions on the American continent, notably the Haitian Revolution among others. Featuring the percussion of Paoli Mejías matched with the percussive piano work of Perdomo, the piece also reflects the influence of Haitian vodou music, which Zenón was heavily exposed to while working with drummer Ches Smith and his ensemble “We All Break.”
Although for many the term “empire” brings to mind the contemporary Western world, Zenón composed “Imperios” with the various indigenous empires of America in mind, including the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. “They were some of the most advanced societies at their time; as a matter of fact, they were in some ways more advanced than what was happening in Europe in terms of contemporary mathematics and astronomy, society and politics,” says Zenón. “There was something there already that was really advanced, and it makes me think about what could have been: what would have come out of that?” The melody derives from Zenón’s transcription of music from a ceremony of Aztec descendants, which is the counterpart to the rhythmic structure of the song.
“Bambula” features percussion virtuoso Victor Emmanuelli, whom Zenón lauds for pushing the musical envelope as a bandleader in his own right. The term “bambula” refers to a dance that was brought over by African slaves to the Americas. Over time, bambula became the rhythm commonly referred to as “habanera,” which is found in much of Latin American music today. Here, Zenón captures the feeling of connection across time and space that is carried by this single rhythmic cell:
“It’s a thread from New Orleans to Brazil to Central America back to Africa, across all these eras from the past to contemporary pop,” says Zenón. “For me, I wanted it to feel like you’re out at the dance, but at the same time hearing this more modern harmony and melody.”
In highlighting these connections across geographical regions, Zenón also returns to a major theme throughout the album: the conception of America not as a country—that is, only referring to the modern United States—but as a continent. “América, el Continente” makes that point clear while reminding listeners of the political implications of the United States assuming ownership of the term “America,” with its subtle erasure of the remaining Western hemisphere.
“Antillano,” named for the residents of the Antilles, showcases what Zenón is best known for: bringing together past and present in a forward-thinking, musically satisfying way. Ending the album on an optimistic note, the piece emulates aspects of contemporary dance music while serving as a feature for Daniel Díaz on congas. Some odd-meter surprises may fly past the ear of a casual listener, but they do so without any interruption to the musical flow so naturally conveyed by Zenón’s quartet.
Zenón presented the album live during the summer with the album launch taking place in San Juan, Puerto Rico and then followed this up with a series of concerts in New York City. For our American readers you can catch this live in a series of concerts scheduled in October and December. Details of these concerts are published below.
In confronting often challenging historical topics on Música de Las Américas, Zenón has created a masterwork, whose musical delights will inspire and uplift while spurring a conversation about the problematic power dynamics across the American continent. The premise that modern jazz cannot be both grooving and emotionally resonant to the casual listener while formally and intellectually compelling is patently false, which Zenón proves here as he has time and again throughout his career.
Tuesday, October 11 – Chicago Penn State University, State College, PA
Wed-Thurs, October 19-20 – 1905, Portland, OR
Friday, October 21 – Forum, Town Hall, Seattle, WA
Saturday, October 22 – The Seasons, Yakima, WA
Wednesday, October 26 – Atheneum, San Diego, CA
Thursday, December 8 – Teatro Esperanza, Philadelphia, PA
Friday, December 9 – Jimmy’s on Congress, Portsmouth, NH
Saturday, December 10 – Groton Hill Music Center, Groton, MA
Sunday, December 11 – Cultural Agora, Boston, MA
Last modified: September 13, 2022