No list of today’s major young jazz talents can exclude alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón embarked on his journey as a jazz musician at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, moved on to the Manhattan School of Music, and took the jazz world by storm. Before long he was receiving not only tremendous acclaim, but tremendous institutional support for his musical explorations of jazz and the various facets of his native Puerto Rican music—-including a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship and, that same year, the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant.” His newest recording with his quartet, Alma Adentro (Marsalis Music), expands his scope from the folk traditions of Puerto Rico to its canon of popular songs. Ahead of the quartet’s performance tonight at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Zenon spoke with Arts Desk about his experiences with music in Puerto Rico and the States, and life as a MacArthur fellow.
Washington City Paper: Let’s talk about your explorations of Puerto Rican music. Is this a long-term project?
Miguel Zenón: Yeah, it’s long in the sense that I do it out of personal interest, and it evolved into the traditions of my country and the history and all that. But I have to say that the fact that I did a couple records on that subject wasn’t really planned that way. It’s kinda just been happening as I get more into it and find more things that I want to go deeper into. They kind of turn into projects themselves, just because I spend a lot of time listening to the music, and researching and reading and talking to people about it. But yeah, I mean, it’s sorta what I am now, though I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be on this road. I don’t think it will be forever but it’s definitely the road I’m on now.
WCP: You’ve done two different folk aspects and now the popular songbook. Are there many other aspects you want to explore?
MZ: Well, there are a lot of other aspects of Puerto Rican music and Puerto Rican history and Puerto Rico in general to explore. Yeah, of course. There are things that I know a little bit of; there are a lot of things that I know nothing of. So there are a lot of possibilities, although I’m not gonna say I’m going to explore everything there is. But there’s definitely a lot of things that interest me.
WCP: You weren’t really a jazz musician before you went to Berklee in Boston. Before that, were you planning to become a musician in more traditional Puerto Rican styles?
MZ: Well, yeah. I got my initial training in Puerto Rico at an arts high school, and it was mostly classical to start out on. I started playing my first gigs when I was 14 or 15, and it was all basically dance gigs or folk music. I never really played any jazz in Puerto Rico until after I graduated from high school, and then I played a little bit with friends because I was interested in it. Even now, there’s very little accessibility to recordings and shows there. So I didn’t really get an experience with jazz until I moved to Boston, even though I was very interested in it from the time I was in high school.
WCP: Was it that interest that led you to apply to Berklee, which is primarily known for its jazz program?
MZ: Exactly. That’s exactly the reason that I applied to that school. My decision to become a musician came kind of late in my teenage years; for a while I wasn’t really sure. But I was pretty sure that if I was going to try to get on that road, that I definitely wanted to play jazz. That was the music that called me. And I felt at the time, from talking to people and reading whatever I could get my hands on, that Berklee was a good place. It was the place I wanted to be.
WCP: Who were your mentors there?
MZ: I had a lot of mentors there. Bob Moses, for example. And Danilo Perez was probably my biggest influence. But to tell you the truth, the things I got the most out of the experience came from my peers. People my age who were interested in the same things that I was, and for the most part were way ahead of me, more advanced. But mostly I learned a lot from just interacting with people who were in the same boat as I was.
WCP: You said your original training was classical, which is interesting because you show glimpses of that on your albums Awake and Alma Adentro. Is that another avenue you’ll pursue?
MZ: I would love to. I was trained classically, and I’ve always loved classical music, including contemporary classical. It’s something that really interests me, but if I’m going to get into it, I’d like to get into it having a bit more knowledge about it than I do now. And I have been taking composition lessons, and orchestration lessons. Like everything, it’s got to be done with patience, but yes, it’s something that’s very interesting to me, very inspiring.
WCP: I’d like to ask you about working with Guillermo Klein [the Argentinian pianist/composer who orchestrated Alma Adentro]. How did he come to be associated with your new album?
MZ: I’ve been working with Guillermo for a very long time—I’ve played in his bands for more than ten years—and he’s one of my best friends. I guess part of it was an interest on my part to try to incorporate him in some way. He’s one of the greatest musical figures out there right now. He’s an incredible voice, and I’m inspired by everything he does. So I was interested in trying to bring him into one of our projects, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. He’s worked with large ensembles before, and this is a woodwind ensemble, and it seemed like something that wouldn’t give him any trouble.
But also, I feel that Guillermo is not just a great composer, but a great songwriter—he’s deeply connected to the aspects of song, of what a song is. He’s one of those guys who thinks of song first, and then he builds from the ground up. And I thought this project would call to him in a very natural way. So that was kind of the idea; what he did was orchestrate the arrangements that we already had for quartet. He expanded those into the woodwind ensemble, and incorporated his own language into everything.
WCP: It’s a very distinctive language; at times it even sounds like Klein’s own project!
MZ: Well, the idea was to give him an opportunity to liberate and express himself. He wasn’t a pen-for-hire; I wanted him to be free, and he basically built everything he wrote around what we did as a quartet, so we still have room to do everything we chose.
WCP: Talk about life and work since becoming a MacArthur Fellow.
MZ: It’s a very positive thing. In many ways I feel that the biggest impact it’s had in my life is that it’s given me a really incredible sense of freedom with what I want to do with my own time. With having this support I can choose what I want to do, who I want to play with, if I want to go on the road or stay home and practice or write music. It’s given me a lot of freedom and a lot of power in terms of what I want to do with my time. I’m working not to pay my bills, but for the sake of getting better and growing, and doing what I want to do.
WCP: Are you taking less gigs, or freelancing less, as a result?
MZ: I wouldn’t say I’m taking fewer gigs; I love to play with other people. That’s why I got into this—I love to play! But I would say that I’m balancing it out. The amount of time I spend on the road, for example, and the amount of time I stay at home. I’m trying to take more time to stay at home working on things, and being with my family of course.
WCP: So is there a next project in the pipeline for you?
MZ: Actually, yeah, there’s another project coming up in February, that also has to do with Puerto Rico although not to do with Puerto Rican music per se. It’s a project that explores the concept of national identity, specifically Puerto Ricans who were either born or raised in New York. Some people call them “Nuyorican.” And I’ve conducted interviews, talking to people who fit this mold, and I’m using the audio and the video from those interviews to build compositions that explore what it means to be Puerto Rican in different ways.
This is a commission that I got from Montclair University, and we’re going to perform it there in early February. It’s a group of compositions for quartet plus big band, and there’s some multimedia elements—we’ll use some video in the compositions, and some of the audio from the interviews. And also, there’s a video artist who’s going to create an installment around the music as well.
WCP: Will there be a CD, or DVD, or both?
MZ: That’s probably somewhere for the future. Right now I’m working on getting the music down first. I’d love to do a CD or DVD of the project, of course, but everything kind of has to come together while taking our time and seeing where it goes.
The Miguel Zenón Quartet performs at 8 p.m. at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. $40.
Photo by Keith Sirchio