Saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

On Yo Soy La Tradición (I Am The Tradition), his first full album featuring a string quartet, Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón re-imagines Puerto Rican musical and cultural traditions utilizing the tools of European classical music and jazz.
It´s an intriguing proposition — just don´t expect musical postcards from home.
Zenón is a creator and an explorer, not a nostálgico. He brings to his searches an intense, serious-minded curiosity that tends to give his work a sharp, probing edge.
It´s demanding music, deliberately constructed and surprisingly emotional, but the rewards are worth the effort.

The new work, a suite-like collection of eight independent pieces, was commissioned by the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago. It is the latest installment in a series of recordings, spanning more than a decade, in which Zenón has been methodically examining and reframing Puerto Rican musical traditions. It includes jíbaro (country) music (Jíbaro, 2005); plena (Esta Plena, 2009) and Puerto Rican songcraft (Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, 2011)

His re-engagement with the music he once heard at home “has been a process,”  he says.

“Jazz music was what made me want to be a musician. If I hadn’t gotten involved with jazz, I would probably be doing something else now,” Zenón told me in an interview from his home in New York City. “But the more I got into it, the more it made me think about my early connections with music […] and how when I listen to [Puerto Rican] music, it speaks to me directly. It’s a direct connection, whereas jazz for me it’s like a second language.”

As he reconsidered the music of his childhood, he realized that back then, “I didn’t really think much of it. I didn’t think it was anything special. This music was just there. I would listen to it and I knew the songs and I knew the rhythms, but I couldn’t really explain it the way I could explain a blues because that’s what I had studied formally,” he says. “So I really wanted to do the same thing with my music. I wanted to study it formally, understand it better, and be able to explain it to other people.”

He has written for strings before (Awake, 2008), for this project and in preparing to work with the adventurous Chicago – based Spektral Quartet — Clara Lyon, violin; Maeve Feinberg, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rolen, cello — he “got more serious about it.” He set out to study the masters — he names Beethoven, Bártok, and Ginastera — but also contemporary references such as Philip Glass. “And I also listened to the Spektral Quartet’s music,” he adds. “They have a very specific repertoire and a way they work things out. They were a great help, also. They would say ‘this works,’ or ‘you might want to change this and make it a little different. It’ll make it easier to play’.”

Having said that, he also notes that, when wading into musical territories with which he is “not totally familiar,” he sets himself limits. “I try to be economical about it. I don’t push it too far. I say: ‘This is something that works for me and I can use it.’ For this project, I found things that I could work with and worked around that, and took my time with it.”

Two guiding principles for his writing concerned the interaction between the saxophone and the quartet and finding a balance between the written score and improvisation.
“I wanted to feel part of the ensemble,” he says. “I didn’t want this to be the kind of thing where the strings just play little pads for me to play on top;” as for improvisation, “obviously [the members of the quartet] are not as used to be improvisers as I am, […] so I created sections for them to improvise based on information they were comfortable with, and they get to improvise in some of the pieces as well. “

While in previous recordings in which he has explored Puerto Rican musical traditions, Zenón has addressed one specific genre at a time, in Yo Soy La Tradición he casts a wider net.

He revisits jíbaro music (in the translucent filigree of “Yumac”) but also explores deeply rooted religious traditions such as el rosario cantado, a sung Holy Rosary. On “Rosario,” Zenón tells a story in changing moods and tempos, from somber and solemn to agitated and playful. Meanwhile, the tradition of la promesa, by which a promise is made to a Catholic saint in return for a favor, is the source for two pieces: the elegant “Milagrosa” (the title is  a reference to La Virgen de La Milagrosa, “The Miraculous Virgin”), and the sober “Promesa, ” which feature Zenon’s most extended playing. In contrast, “Cadenas,” which refers to a traditional dancing in chain-like arrangement, has a bouncing, playful groove with a Minimalist approach; and in “Viejo” and “Villalbeño,” Zenón tenderly explores the aguinaldo, a Christmas tradition, in a couple of country variants.

It is a loving tribute to the cultural traditions of Puerto Rico, created and released at a time of unimaginable destruction and pain in the island nation.
The album was recorded as Hurricane Maria was battering the island. A year and a day later, Zenón and Spektral Quartet held a release concert in Chicago on September 21, as a Benefit for Chicago’s Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. “That was the quartet’s idea,” notes Zenón. “They saw me on the phone, trying to speak to my family, watching the news while we were making the record. So [when it came to presenting the album] they said ‘We really want to do something.” Adding to the suffering, the anniversary was marked by a bitter controversy about the Administration´s response and the updating of the death toll, from the initial 64 to an estimated 2,975 by the Governor of Puerto Rico.

“The aftermath of the hurricane basically has created this black hole that has a lot to do with Puerto Rico’s status political status, which basically takes away a lot of power not only out of our government but out of the people,” says Zenón, who had just returned from a visit to the island. “How do you deal with the fact that Puerto Ricans are actually American citizens and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States — but it’s not a state? So we are in this weird kind of limbo. That’s an issue that has been brought up to the surface by this crisis, and it’s going to be a while before things get fixed. Right now the people are scrambling, just trying to find a way to keep their heads above water. They are just barely making it. It’s a crisis. I mean people are resilient and they’re doing the best they can, but it’s a heavy, heavy situation.”

Meanwhile, Yo Soy La Tradición represents a peak in what started for Zenón as a search to learn more about the music he knew growing up. But hearing him discuss his passion for these traditions and his history of discoveries suggests that this is not a closing statement but just another jumping off point.

“The more it all started making sense, those sounds from my childhood and my upbringing became information that I could use,” he says. “And the more I delved into it, the more I said: ‘OK this is something else that I could do.’ So you get to that corner and then you see the next corner — and there’s something else out there.”