Miguel Zenón

“I was kind of blown away by the idea of someone being able to play their instrument so well while they were improvising, basically coming up with ideas in the moment. And I was really curious to learn how they did it…” – Miguel Zenón

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Miguel Zenón is fast making the transition from being not only the musician’s musician but is now being widely recognised and spoken about as one of the most influential saxophonist of his generation. The multiple Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow has not only managed to marry traditional Jazz identities with more innovative modern-day ideas, but is also stretching the boundaries as a composer and conceptualist, infusing his Latin America essence throughout both his live and studio recordings; a fact starkly reflected in his latest album ‘Identities are Changeable’ Michael J Edwards got a clearer insight into Mr Zenón’s musical vision when he sat down with the softly spoken hornsman during rehearsals with the Bobby Avey Quintet at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Bar.

Michael J Edwards: Miguel Zenón, where did it all kick-off for you with regards to Jazz music and the saxophone as your preferred instrument of choice? Was music a major part of your childhood experience?

Miguel Zenón: A little bit, I’m from Puerto Rico originally; I’m born and raised there, so there’s a lot of music going on all the time. It’s kind of embedded in everyday life there. Like in a lot of places in the Caribbean Latin American music is kind of a part of the culture. So there was a lot of music around. There weren’t really a lot of musicians in my family, but I was interested in music early on. I’d say i started studying music formerly when I was about eleven years old, mostly classically formation on the saxophone. And then in my teenage years I got interested in Jazz and eventually moved to the States to study Jazz.

Michael J Edwards: And that’s when you enrolled in the various different colleges?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Miguel Zenón: Yeah, I went to Berklee College of Music and then Manhattan School of Music in New York; and then the United States of New York after that.

Michael J Edwards: Is it true that when we you go to these type of institutions that they delete what you learnt up until that point and re-educate?

Miguel Zenón: I think the experiences different for everyone. For me it was very important, especially with my first experience at Berklee; that was my first encounter with any sort of formal Jazz educational. I had had musical training, articles or classical, but that was the first time anyone sat me down and talked to me about Jazz harmony or Jazz language, or Jazz history etc, in a formal way. So for me it was an important encounter and time in my life, just to be able to get that.

Michael J Edwards: When did you pick up the saxophone for the first time and did you graduate to it via the recorder or clarinet?

Miguel Zenón: I did a little bit of recorder when I was very young, but when I started studying music formally, I started soul-searching, reading and learning more theory at first. Then when it came time to pick an instrument, I was actually interested in the piano, but on the first day of school, when you’re supposed to pick the instrument – when I was going to music school in Puerto Rico – I was a little late. So most students want to play the piano too, and there weren’t any more spaces to enrol as a piano student. So someone in my family already had a saxophone, so it just seemed like an obvious choice.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: And you how old this time?

Miguel Zenón: I was about eleven or so. You know, I was more interested in music in general idea than as an instrument per se. The saxophone just happened to be there and of course it grew on me eventually, but I was always more interested in music in general. It wasn’t about an instrument; it was more about learning music.

Michael J Edwards: When did you start being influenced by various saxophone players?

Miguel Zenón: It took a little while at first, because my training was mainly Classical and the stuff that I did outside of Classical was mainly popular music, like Dance music and Salsa and stuff like that. When I was about fifteen/sixteen I discovered Jazz for the first time, through friends and radio. Artists like Charlie Parker and the usual suspects.

Michael J Edwards: And you were living where at this time?

Miguel Zenón: I was living in Puerto Rico still. I was kind of blown away by the idea of someone being able to play their instrument so well while they were improvising, basically coming up with ideas in the moment. And I was really curious to learn how they did it. So that was kind of like what planted the seed for me, and the more I got into it the more interested I got. Actually, before I got into Jazz, I mean I liked music, but I had never considered music as something that I was going to for a living. It wasn’t until I discovered Jazz that I said, “Okay, so this is really what I want to do.”

Michael J Edwards: If not music, what alternative career would you have gravitated to?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Miguel Zenón: I was really interested in design and natural science, mathematics. I was really interested in that, so it would have probably been something on that note.

Michael J Edwards: One of the bands that you’ve been an integral part of is The SF Jazz Collective whose members over the years have included Joshua Redman, Charlie Hayden and the great Bobby Hutcherson. What was it like playing alongside him?

Miguel Zenón: Well, I worked with Bobby first when we were in the SF Jazz Collective, which is sort of like a band which puts together many different musicians, people like Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, different people you know. And Bobby was there when I first joined up on the band is about eleven years ago. And of course Bobby was like the legend in the band, the guy that everybody looked up to because he was from the older generation, and everybody was asking questions and stuff. Then he called me a couple of times to play in his own band. Bobby, he is of course an amazing musician, a ridiculous player, but just an amazing human being, amazing to be around and like a really beautiful guy, a beautiful person, very caring. The first thing he does is give you a hug, even if he doesn’t know you, he’s all about love. He’s a really beautiful person.

Michael J Edwards: What does SF stand for?

Miguel Zenón: San Francisco. SF Jazz is an organisation in San Francisco that’s been going on for thirty years. They put together the San Francisco Jazz Festival and now they’ve built their own facilities, The SF Jazz Centre in San Francisco, where they put together concerts. Sort of similar to what the Lincoln Centre does the New York.

Michael J Edwards: How long have you been playing with them?

Miguel Zenón: I’ve been playing with them for the last eleven years; I’m still part of the band. What we do is we get together every year, and work on a new repertoire. So we get together in San Francisco to residency and put together the repertoire. It involves original music and arrangements, music by (Thelonious) Monk and (John) Coltrane etc. And then we do tours throughout the year and record music. Every year we do the same thing, and it’s been like different configuration along the way.

Michael J Edwards: How many albums have you released prior to your new album, ‘Identities Are Changeable’?

Miguel Zenón: ‘Identities…’ is actually my ninth!

Michael J Edwards: You are already amassing a wide repertoire, have you been able to perform your new album ‘Identities Are Changeable’ live, given the complications of using recorded interviews? How has it, or will it work on stage?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Miguel Zenón: Actually the first couple of times that we played the piece, we played it with a full band and with the video and the interviews, because that is how it was perceived. We paired it s down depending on the situation just with the band and without the interviews. Most of the time’s that we’ve played it; we’ve played it with the interviews. We have the video guy that puts out stuff together; we have an audio guy that works on that – it’s the whole kind of multimedia bit. So, we’ve done it maybe six or seven times.

Michael J Edwards: Is it easy album to tour then?

Miguel Zenón: It’s not easy to tour no; it’s been like here and there. We’ve done it in New York Carnegie Hall, we did it at The SF Jazz Centre, and we did it in Boston and a couple of other places in the states.

Michael J Edwards: Is it one of your most challenging pieces to date?

Miguel Zenón: It’s challenging musically definitely! But it is also challenging to put together because it is such a big project.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Evidently it’s something that’s been on your heart, the focus being on Puerto Rican people living in New York?

Miguel Zenón: Of course! It’s all about trying to find another way to identify myself with what being Puerto Rican means and exploring a little bit of this phenomenon of the Puerto Rican community in the United States and specifically in New York City. So that’s kind of how the project started.

Michael J Edwards: Why the title ‘Identities Are Changeable’?

Miguel Zenón: It’s a quote from one of the gentleman that I interview on the CD, and specifically in this part of his interview he’s talking about the idea of identity being something that could change throughout your life. For example, I’m Puerto Rican, but someone was born in the States and had Puerto Rican heritage, he could have chosen to acknowledge that heritage or not. He could have chosen his Puerto Rican side, because that’s part of him or he could have chosen the United States side, because that’s also part of him. So in this case identities can be multiple too; it could be like two roads you can choose to change to throughout your life. So I thought that was a good portrait for what the project meant to me.

Michael J Edwards: Who are your influences/inspirations on this wonderful instrument, the saxophone?

Miguel Zenón: If I had to mention one person it would be Charlie Parker, he’s the first saxophone player that really got to me; but there are many others of course, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, a lot of modern players – too many to mention.

Michael J Edwards: In fact I was curious, what modern-day musicians or saxophonists stimulate you at the moment?

Miguel Zenón: Cheney Garrett, Steve Coleman, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis – there are a lot of amazing players around.

Michael J Edwards: What advice would you give to wide-eyed and hungry young musicians coming into the business?

Miguel Zenón: I would say to remember to keep working on your craft.

Michael J Edwards: What plans do you have for the future with regard to this new album and other projects?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Miguel Zenón: This record that has just come out I will continue to tour the states with, and then hopefully bring it to London next year (2015). I’m also still writing some music for my quartet, but right now I’m concentrating on this i.e. playing with Bobby Avey.

Michael J Edwards: Excellent Miguel, I’ll let you get back to the rehearsals. Thank you for your time.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Website:
http://www.miguelzenon.com/
http://www.sfjazz.org/sfjazzcollective

Essential Albums:
Identities are Changeable (CD 2014)

Essential Recordings:
http://www.miguelzenon.com/recordings.php

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

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