When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, Miguel Zenón knew that he was going to have to reschedule an important trip to his birthplace. “I knew right away,” says the 41-year old saxophonist, bandleader, teacher, composer, and MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow. “I knew because of the damage that this was unlike anything that’s happened before — at least for hundreds of years.”
Now living in New York, Zenón found out quickly that his and his wife’s family — all of whom live in or around the capital of San Juan — were safe.
The January trip was supposed to include the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of music director Fred Harris. There would be concerts, but also visits to local schools, where the MIT musicians could offer tutoring in their specialties of math and science, as well as music.
But with Maria clearly making the January trip impossible, says Zenón, “It was on to Plan B.” That would be two benefit concerts: March 2, at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, and March 3, at Hunter College’s Silberman Auditorium in New York. The latter, says Zenón, is “smack in the middle of Spanish Harlem” and New York’s Puerto Rican community. For the Cambridge concert, Zenón hopes to include players from this area’s Puerto Rican community.
Both shows will feature, among other Zenón originals, a new piece commissioned by MIT, “En Pie De Lucha,” which Zenón translates roughly as “getting back up for battle,” and is dedicated to the resilience of the Puerto Rican people. Zenón will be a featured soloist, along with MIT faculty member Evan Ziporyn, an esteemed clarinetist and composer in his own right. The proceeds from both concerts will benefit the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund.
Besides raising awareness of a situation that remains dire, as well as important funds for relief efforts, Zenón says the concerts will “keep the students connected to what’s happening.”
Zenón’s first extended trip to the US mainland was to attend Berklee College of Music in 1996. He soon earned a reputation as a charismatic performer, an imaginative improviser with an alto saxophone sound that combined steely ferocity and pliant lyricism. As a composer, he’s forged a unique voice that fuses Puerto Rican folk forms, jazz, and classical modernism. With 10 CDs as a bandleader, he has garnered multiple Grammy nominations as well as that MacArthur, in 2008.
Zenón has had two previous residencies at MIT. A 2015 piece composed for the 50-piece MIT Wind Ensemble, “Music as Service,” was based on Zenón’s interviews with MIT student musicians about various public service projects they were engaged in, from climate change to education, homelessness, and food insecurity.
That “Music as Service” concept has proved to be a thematic precursor to “En Pie De Lucha.” The featured pianist in the new piece, Peter Godart, is an MIT PhD candidate who has been working on a process that would produce fuel from scrap aluminum. Or, as Godart puts it: “How do we extract energy from things we no longer need?” It’s a project that Godart is now fashioning specifically for the purpose of disaster relief.
In the tradition of adept polymaths everywhere, the 25-year-old mechanical engineer is equally accomplished as a musician/composer, and he was a standout on the MIT Wind Ensemble’s recording “Infinite Winds,” on the Sunnyside label, where he played eloquently on Chick Corea’s MIT-commissioned piece “From Forever.”
Meanwhile, Godart has revised his energy-producing project. “I submitted a proposal a while ago for a Puerto Rico-specific pilot project,” he says, also citing the worldwide need for disaster preparedness. “These storms are going to get more frequent and become more powerful.”
Musically, Godart cites Zenón’s masterful weaving of rhythms as a special challenge in “En Pie De Lucha.” “There are all these intricate grooves, so that you’re not sure where the downbeat is in each measure,” he says. “It’s almost hypnotic.”
Harris concurs that the piece is “a wonderful mix of complexity that sounds organic,” and describes the varied folkloric grooves as resolving into an adamant march rhythm, with the student performers stomping their feet, as if ready for battle.
Harris hopes to reschedule the Puerto Rico trip for next year. It was originally an opportunity to “offer something beyond music” both to the students and to the people of Puerto Rico. The upcoming performance, he says, is equally “much more than a concert,” and it will be complemented by the participation of various advocacy groups and speakers.
For Zenón, the concerts are a way to maintain public consciousness about an issue that is no longer front-page news. “People need to be aware,” he says. “It’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening.”
Miguel Zenón and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble
At Kresge Auditorium, Cambridge, March 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $15-$20, 617-452-2394, www.mta.mit.edu