Saxophonist Miguel Zenon grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He has many family members in and around the island's capital and has participated in several recent benefit concerts to raise funds and awareness of the plight of Puerto Ricans rebuilding following the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall. His Caravana Cultural brought free jazz concerts to rural areas of the island even before the storm.
Zenon frequently has turned to Puerto Rican music for inspiration. Most recently, music he's composing for his quartet is based on salsa music.
"The tunes we're working on are connected to a very well-known singer, Ismael Rivera," Zenon says from his home in New York City. "Many people consider him the greatest exponent of salsa. He's one of greatest singers ever. He's one of my musical heroes."
The Miguel Zenon Quartet will perform music from its 2017 release Tipico and new work inspired by Rivera at the Contemporary Arts Center March 16-17.
Zenon listened to all sorts of popular and folk music in Puerto Rico before he discovered jazz via tapes of legends including Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
"I fell in love with (jazz) right away," Zenon says. "Up to that point, I enjoyed music, but never considered it to be a central part of my life."
Zenon attended Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and became a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective. Branford Marsalis tapped him to become one of the first artists to release music on the Marsalis Music label, and Zenon recorded five albums for it. His work has been nominated for four Grammys and two Latin Grammys.
For several of the albums released on Marsalis Music, Zenon bridged contemporary jazz and Puerto Rican folk music. His 2005 album Jibaro explores jibara, a folk music from Puerto Rico's rural inland areas. His 2009 album Esta Plena explored plena, a dance music associated with working classes and satirical songs. Alma Adentro (2011) was inspired by the work of top Puerto Rican composers such as Bobby Capo, Tite Curet Alonso and Pedro Flores.
"I am a big fan of folkloric music's earthy sound," he says. "This quality of folk music that you can't find in other types of music, because it's music that's coming from the ground up. It is a goal to have my music have that feel, even if it's complex or coming from an intellectual place."
For his latest album, Tipico, Zenon focused on writing music specifically for his quartet and highlighting its strengths. For most of the past 15 years he's worked with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole, who also is from Puerto Rico. Most of the album's eight tracks are long, graceful compositions, patiently weaving in solos and occasional Latin rhythms. The album ranges from "Academia," inspired by Zenon's work teaching jazz, to the folkloric "Ciclo," to the beautiful "Sangre di Me Sangre," which was inspired by Zenon's young daughter.
Zenon looks forward to returning to New Orleans and is interested in its ties to Caribbean cities.
"I have been to New Orleans many times," he says. "I love it. The thing that is really interesting to me is the identity of the city and culture there when you compare it to other places. How Havana (Cuba) influenced New Orleans. How Haiti influenced it. How things came together in different ways in these cities."