By Izzy Yellen
This past weekend, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point held their 24th Annual Jazz Festival. Much like Lawrence University’s Jazz Weekend, the festival was built off the university’s ensembles, visiting high schools and a guest artist. This year’s guest artist was the Miguel Zenón Quartet.
Miguel Zenón is a multiple Grammy Nominee alto saxophonist who is known for blending Latin American music and jazz. He grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico and attended high school with Lawrence University’s José Encarnación, Instructor of Jazz & Improvisational Music.
Zenón released an album near the end of last year with his quartet—Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Henry Cole on drums. The album is inspired by the national identity of the Puerto Rican community in mainly New York, but the rest of the country as well. Many of the tunes he played were from this album.
The quartet’s sound overall was very rhythmic-based and grooved well. Many of the pre-composed melodies were simple, but still outlined the chords under them and were catchy. Zenón often repeated the same rhythms from the melody many times but with different notes to develop it while improvising. By having all the members focus more on rhythms rather than notes, the quartet was able to create complex polyrhythms that always kept the listener guessing.
In addition to the rhythmic emphasis, the feel and style also changed a lot. This was mostly due to Cole’s drumming techniques. He almost never stayed in the same feel or style for more than two bars, changing the texture and sound constantly. This gave the overall sound a fresh, interesting aesthetic. The drumming had the erratic nature of doing things other than just playing a beat, while still keeping a strong sense of time. This type of playing made it enjoyable to listen to while also complimenting the simple melody well.
Zenón’s melodies and improvising would not be nearly as effective if they were not supported by his commanding yet laid-back sound. The rhythm section set a background for him while he soared over it with his bold playing. At many times, it sounded quite spiritual, like John Coltrane on “Love Supreme” and his other notably religious-based albums from that time. His warm sound was resonant, filling the room while also being agile and exciting.
Listening to old jazz records is vital in order to learn the art and really appreciate it. But it’s equally important to hear contemporary voices like Zenón pushing the music forward in the right directions. Voices like these make sure the art form doesn’t die out or stay dormant, which is good news for jazz listeners and players.