Jazz music, news and views

Friday, November 21, 2008

Miguel Zenón: Awake

Well, here's a post that's long overdue. A lot's happened for Miguel Zenón since the April release of his album, Awake. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Music Composition that same month, he was featured in June's issue of Downbeat, and he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in September. That's a lot of media attention, and I believe his work will live up to (and outlive) the hype. I'd only just heard of him when Jibaro came out back in 2005. That was an impressive record -- a great balance of virtuosity, control, innovation, and honesty. He makes complex ideas sound natural, even easy, and he plays with a palpable degree of confidence. He does it again on Awake, his third album for Marsalis Music and his fourth as a leader.

The first thing that struck me about this album is Zenón's compositional depth and breadth. Listening to "Awakening," the opener, segue into "Camarón," it's clear he has a gift not only for beautiful playing but also for different approaches to songwriting. Harmony, melody, and structure are all solidly conceived for every piece. His full-bodied, fluid alto sound blends wonderfully with a couple lush string quartet arrangements, and the headier numbers feature some incredible quartet interplay. Those familiar with Zenón will recognize Luis Perdomo's prodigious pianistics, and bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole create a bold, new universe of grooves with the leader's fertile compositions.

Even at his fiercest, Zenón's speed and articulation seem to come effortlessly. The propulsive rhythms of "Penta" and "Ulysses in Slow Motion" become a natural springboard for some creative solo statements, and he maintains a clear, almost liquid tone throughout. Perdomo deals in sonic colors as much as in chops, especially when he gets on the Rhodes for "Camarón" and "Lamamilla," giving each piece a dark kind of warmth. And I can't say enough how the bass and drums truly elevate the group in the most cathartic (and acrobatic) way. The aforementioned "Ulysses" is a real tour de force, in that respect. As for individual features, Cole sounds especially crisp on "Third Dimension" and "Santo" turns the spotlight on Glawischnig's melodic bass solo.

It's actually hard to tell what Awake's primary virtue is. Ensemble chemistry, crafty, catchy songs, and the strong soloists all make it a well-rounded album. Similarly, it's hard to say that Zenón has just one dominant, identifying characteristic. All areas of his musicianship are highly developed. And it's just as startling to think that even though he's earned so many accolades this year, he's only just begun.

Awake (Marsalis/Rounder)
Miguel Zenón (alto sax)
Luis Perdomo (piano, Rhodes)
Hans Glawischnig (bass)
Henry Cole (drums, percussion)

Also featuring:
Michael Rodriguez (trumpet)
Ben Gerstein (trombone)
Tony Malaby (tenor sax)
Orlando Wells (violin)
Marlene Rice (violin)
Judith Insell (viola)
Nioka Workman (cello)

Did you know you can also get mp3s of his live performances at his website? Also, note that Esta Plena, the work sponsored by his Guggenheim Fellowship will be premiered at the Jazz Gallery, December 4th through the 6th.

And speaking of well-deserved press, by now you've probably seen this clip of the Colbert Report? ("Excuse me! It's not 'genius'-level jazz if it sounds like music!")

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