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Miguel Zenón Premieres a Video For 'Viejo,' From His Stunning New Chamber Album

Jimmy Katz

The myriad folk musics of Puerto Rico have been a highly productive fixation for Miguel Zenón, the acclaimed alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader.

Típico, an emblematic effort by his ace quartet, was released last year. With Yo soy la Tradición, which arrives this Friday on Miel Music, Zenón explores a softer-featured but no less intense collaboration with a contemporary chamber string ensemble, Spektral Quartet.

The album contains an eight-part suite commissioned by the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago, where Spektral Quartet is based. The ensemble reunites with Zenón in Chicago on Thursday at Constellation, as part of the series Once More, With Feeling!; and on Friday at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, in a benefit concert for hurricane relief.

Zenón, who was born in San Juan, made a serious study of classical chamber writing as preparation for the pieces in Yo soy la Tradición. Some tracks on the album, like “Milagrosa,” assume a brisk, kinetic form, emulating a distinctly modernist ethos of string-quartet composition. “Viejo” moves in the other direction: its title, which means “old,” is a nod to aguinaldo jíbaro, a subspecies of the rural Jíbaro music that Zenón first explored deeply with his 2005 album by that name. The aguinaldo style, said to be the oldest, bears traces of Spanish medieval music.


“Viejo” begins in a light pizzicato, like the tentative patter of an incoming summer rain, as Zenón projects in somber long tones. Gradually the focus shifts, to a mournful melody played by cellist Russell Rolen, before Zenón picks it up again. Then he and the ensemble achieve a kind of meld, moving forward in one slow, swirling mass. The composition is an almost perfect showcase for the focused gleam of Zenón’s alto saxophone, and an excellent illustration of the possibilities in this instrumentation, when the string players are as intuitive and open as these.

Along with Rolen, those players are Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg on violins and Doyle Armbrust on viola. After Friday’s concert in Chicago, they’ll join Zenón for performances on Saturday at Ripon College in Wis.; on Nov. 14 at UMass Amherst; on Nov. 15 at First Church in Boston; and on Nov. 16 at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit miguelzenon.com.

Yo soy la Tradición is out on Friday; preorder here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.