Miguel Zenón ‘Típico’ (Miel Music) 5/5

Saxophonist / composer Miguel Zenón is one of a select group of musicians who over the years appear to have found the perfect balance between innovation and tradition. Considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential saxophonists of a generation, Zenón has developed a unique voice as a composer and conceptualist, concentrating his efforts on perfecting a fine mix between Latin American folkloric music and jazz. Born in Puerto Rico, Zenón has recorded and toured with a wide variety of musicians including Charlie Haden, Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner, Bobby Huthcherson and Steve Coleman and is a founding member of the SF JAZZ Collective.
“Típico” is a celebration of Zenón’s longstanding quartet. And for my money, this is exactly how a quartet should sound. It’s inventive, exciting, powerful, intriguing and thoughtful in turns. The band seem to employ their own unique musical language, creating a distinctive feel and sound through the obvious kinship and music they are performing. The quartet have been playing together for over a decade now and this album is, perhaps, the culmination of their collective skills. Pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Hans Glawischnig have been with Zenón since the turn of the millennium and drummer Henry Cole joined the band in 2005. And this recording can be easily summed as this; thoroughly fluent, mouth-watering modern jazz.

The album features eight tunes, and opens with the brilliant “Academia”. As soon as the tune begins, with its stirring piano intro, and the drums, bass and sax all kick in with a blistering pace, I knew I was listening to something special. Over the years, so many technically gifted musicians have left me feeling a little cold, despite their undoubted musical prowess, but not here. Yes, these guys are technically at the top of the tree, but their music comes hand in hand with an emotional power that truly engages the listener. A wonderful example of this can be heard on “Cantor”, a tune that honours Zenón’s friend and frequent collaborator Guillermo Klein. There’s a lovely, personal and intimate feel to this composition that just sings out with its own touching and charismatic beauty. This is a graceful piece that features a gorgeous solo from Perdomo before a change of pace allows Zenón to let go in an almost spiritually Coltrane-esque kind of way. “Ciclo” and “Típico” explore what it is that gives a particular song a folkloric feel. The opening to “Ciclo” employs a quintessentially Nordic feel before driving headlong into the American jazz tradition, reminiscent perhaps of a Michael Brecker or Kenny Garrett piece. “Típico” employs the Latin tradition in a far more obvious way, with Perdomo’s infectiously rhythmic piano countering Zenón’s soft and sweet melody. “Sangre De Mi Sangre” is a balladic tribute to Zenón’s daughter, Elena, and was written before her first birthday. The composer recalls: “I was sitting in this park with her. She was playing around and I sat down and sketched out the song on my notepad.” Zenón wrote the tune first with lyrics, then orchestrated it for the quartet, featuring Glawischnig’s bass both on a sprightly introductory melody played in unison with Perdomo, and on a solo that successfully conveys a singing quality. One of the many fascinating things about the music being performed here is the quality and ease with which the quartet are able to strike a change of pace seemingly with such consummate skill. “Corteza” offers the perfect example of this, with the tune twisting and turning intelligently between ballad and bebop. The Perdomo feature “Entre Las Raíces” (Amongst The Roots) is perhaps the most challenging piece on this session, with its Ornette Coleman-like intro making way for some fiery avant-garde interplay from all four musicians. Sometimes the most difficult tracks on an album can be the most rewarding, this track being a case in point. Cole’s drumming is simply awesome and once again Zenón’s quick-fire alto playing leaves me breathless. The final three tracks, with “Las Ramas” (The Branches) being the album’s closing track, are all named for parts of a tree. As Zenón explains: “I was thinking of the band as a tree. And thinking of myself as the watcher. I mean, I’m part of it also, but mostly I’m observing these amazing musicians night after night, and how together they kind of make up this living organism.”

“Típico” is an excellent album of the highest quality.

Mike Gates