Scene & HEard

Zenón explores Puerto Rican culture in Newport

Jimmy Katz

Miguel Zenón — the 37-year-old alto saxophonist, composer, New England Conservatory professor, and MacArthur “genius” fellow — has always had a great sound: big, bold, and fluid, his attack alternating bite and flutter, with requisite harmonic agility and melodic inventiveness. But what’s become apparent over time is how key rhythm is to what he does. In fact, rhythm animates the central metaphor of his most recent work, “Identities Are Changeable.” The 75-minute piece, which is due for release as a CD on Zenón’s own Miel Music label in November, will get an airing next weekend at the Newport Jazz Festival.

In “Identities Are Changeable,” he grapples with his own identity as a Puerto Rican: an American citizen, but also “foreign,” Spanish speaking. The saxophonist, who came to study at Berklee in 1996 and then moved to New York in 1998, found that to identify as “Puerto Rican” can mean many different things. He discovered native New Yorkers who identified themselves as Puerto Rican even though they had never been to the island and spoke no Spanish — who called it “home.” And he found Puerto Ricans who identified more with African-American than Hispanic culture.

To convey that multiplicity of identities, Zenón created a large-scale work for a 16-piece band that includes his core quartet of the past decade: pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole. Throughout the piece, Zenón stacks contrasting rhythms — 5 against 7, 3 against 2, 5 against 3. As he and the other soloists take their turns, background patterns shift through different meters. Even with the complexity of those unfolding polyrhythms, the groove never stops.


Zenón has explored the specific strains of Puerto Rican music in past works, like the Grammy-nominated “Esta Plena” (2009) and “Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook” (2011), but there’s nothing in “Identities” that you could pick out as specifically Puerto Rican. As Zenón told the Globe last year before unveiling the piece at Jordan Hall, “It’s a project about Puerto Rico, even though it’s not Puerto Rican music.” And yet, those grooves have an elemental, body-moving thrust that seems rooted in folkloric dance.

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Zenón says his rhythmic conception is indebted to the influential alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, whom he calls “a pivotal figure in modern music.” Coleman has worked deeply in all manner of world music to come up with his own distinctive language. “It was his attention to detail and the ability to translate something that was coming directly from a traditional or very folkloric point of view to a more modern point of view,” says Zenón. “Being able to understand it deeply, but [also] to be able to translate it into your own point of view and have it be something with a more modern spin.”

Coleman may have provided Zenón with a methodology, but the sound is his own. That may account for the dreamy permutations of the “My Home” section of “Identities Are Changeable,” in which the saxophonist spins lyrical lines as the brass plays odd-metered patterns in soft pastel harmonies. Despite its complex rhythmic underpinnings, this is not math music — it moves and sings.

“Identities Are Changeable” was originally inspired by the book “The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning,” by cultural theorist Juan Flores. That book comprised multiple interviews. For his own project, Zenón interviewed seven Puerto Rican New Yorkers, including his sister Patricia, the actress Sonia Manzano (“Maria” on “Sesame Street”), and Flores himself. The CD includes snippets of those interviews, and the full staging of “Identities” (as it was presented at Jordan Hall in 2013 and at about half a dozen other venues) is a multimedia presentation that includes video. Zenón hopes that by the time of the CD’s release, the work (which was commissioned by Montclair State University) will be available in multimedia form on the Web.

At Newport the work will be played in its instrumental form, with the full 16-piece band that includes saxophonist John Ellis and trombonist Tim Albright along with Zenón as soloists. On Sept. 27, Zenón and his band will play the annual free BeanTown Jazz Festival in the South End. That performance, he says, will probably also include sections of “Identities.”


For Zenón, it seems the piece represents a kind of breakthrough. “Even though this music is not coming from a folkloric root, it’s still Puerto Rican music. For me at this point, it’s unavoidable for my music not to be Puerto Rican. The music that I make now is always going to represent this part of me. Whether I mean to or not. There’s still going to be something there that comes from that side, because it’s just what I do. It’s what I am.”


Miguel Zenón’s “Identities” big band is just one element in an extended full day of programming for “emerging artists” at the Newport Jazz Festival this year. Both Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society orchestra and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa will be presenting new work, the latter with a piece based on the music of Charlie Parker. Other Friday highlights include indie-jazz subversives Mostly Other People Do the Killing, in an expanded lineup that includes Steven Bernstein and Brandon Seabrook; Jon Batiste and Stay Human; trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s quintet; indie-pop-jazz collective Snarky Puppy, and breakout star singer Cécile McLorin Salvant (who is also in the Saturday lineup). But the big deal Friday will be John Zorn’s three-hour Masada Marathon, in which 10 different configurations will play Zorn’s multifarious output — with its affinities to everything from klezmer and classical chamber music to punkish skronk, including the Masada Quartet, with Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas.

The rest of the fest covers a broad range, from the Friday night show at the Newport Casino with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater to Dr. John at Fort Adams State Park on Sunday.

Jon Garelick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.