Miguel Zenón’s rhythms follow a changing culture

Boston Globe, February 21, 2013

The saxophonist Miguel Zenón came from Puerto Rico to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music in 1996, and fast emerged as a major creative voice in jazz, with a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008 to attest to it. In his young but prolific career, he has made Puerto Rico one of his work’s running themes, exploring in several recent albums, with his quartet, its classic song canon and folkways.

With his new project, which he brings to NEC’s Jordan Hall Friday, Zenón follows this logic but takes a new tack, shifting his focus from the island itself to those who left it to come work in the United States, and their descendants. In the multimedia performance “Identities Are Changeable: Tales from the Diaspora,” he takes on a question that has fascinated him ever since his own move to the mainland.

“The first time I moved here,” says Zenón, who now lives in northern Manhattan, “it quickly became evident to me that people of Puerto Rican descent in the United States were different – that they weren’t ‘regular’ Puerto Ricans, like in Puerto Rico.”

“There was something there, something equal to us but different too. This sense of pride in being Puerto Rican jumped out at me. People identified with Puerto Rico even though a lot of them hadn’t been to Puerto Rico, or didn’t speak Spanish.”

As source material for a jazz project on diaspora Puerto Rican-ness, Zenón could have taken on key works of what is affectionately called Nuyorican culture, like the salsa of Héctor Lavoe. He chose a different path, bypassing music made by the diaspora in favor of raw material – video interviews with seven diaspora Puerto Ricans, edited and woven into the show through presentation on a large screen and the insertion of snippets into the music.

“It’s a project about Puerto Rico even though it’s not Puerto Rican music,” Zenón says. Instead, the quartet, together with a large horn ensemble (which at tonight’s show will feature NEC students), develops new compositions by Zenón that interact with the interview footage and additional video creations by the artist David Dempewolf.

The project premiered at Montclair State College in New Jersey last year; tonight is only its third-ever performance. Each of its segments explores a recurring topic that the interviews revealed: the question of language, for example, or the tensions and bonds between Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in daily life and political struggle.

“I asked the same basic question: ‘What does it mean for you to be Puerto Rican?’ ” Zenón says. “They went into language, culture, being more attached to Puerto Rico than New York or vice versa. And what was most interesting and surprising to me was how much the answers were varied. I had a general vision of what a Nuyorican would be, but this was something richer.”

In writing music to complement these testimonies, Zenón followed a core principle. He rendered the idea of dual and shifting identities by layering two rhythms in each section.

“I created these metric patterns that are pretty different but coexist with each other,” he says. “There’s a pattern with five beats and a pattern with seven beats, going back and forth. Sometimes you feel the five a little stronger, sometimes the seven.”

Each of the six main compositions in the performance contrasts two rhythms in this way, Zenón says. He wrote the music first for his quartet, then orchestrated it for the large ensemble – his first time writing for a big band, he says, since college assignments.

For the video art, with its stark, abstracted treatments of urban landscapes, Zenón turned to Dempewolf on the recommendation of pianist Jason Moran. Dempewolf, who previously created the video components of Moran’s multimedia project on Thelonious Monk, “In My Mind,” came up with a unique approach for Zenón’s piece.

“I asked him to gather a list from the interviewees of places that had a good deal of psycho-geographic influence on them, and send me an address,” Dempewolf says. “I went to all of them – these little field trips around Manhattan and the Bronx – and found textures from all these places.”

“I wanted to pull it away from the expected, not do music-video clichés. I shot in the fall and winter. The video performs the tension that the interviewees talk about, through the architecture of the city, the look of a hard New York winter.”

Zenón teaches at NEC, and he says he’s excited to conduct several of his students in the large ensemble for tonight’s show. As for his interviewees, they won’t have the chance to see the project until it gets its first New York City date later this year. Zenón hopes to record the project as an album, but the logistics haven’t worked out yet.

But he’s thrilled to be making work that stretches his own boundaries into large-ensemble and multimedia while treating questions about Puerto Rican identity – of the diaspora, and ultimately his own – that have gnawed at him for many years.

“I was thinking about this idea and basically waiting for the right opportunity,” he says. “When I got home after the premiere and realized we’d made it, it was beyond happiness.”