Arts beat: Miguel Zenon’s lessons go beyond music

Miguel Zenon listens as the Jazz Lab Band I rehearses his music.

By DAVID DUPONT

BGSU Independent News

Jazz composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenon had a lot to teach students during his residency this week at the College of Musical Arts.

He had technical lessons about chord substitutions and keeping time.

Miguel Zenon

The biggest lesson, though, students may have come away with is how to be humble. Zenon was never less than gracious and appreciative whether dealing with a local writer or the audience that attended the Thursday night concert that culminated his two-day visit. He thanked the audience for coming, appearing genuinely touched by their interest in his work.

And this from an artist who has been, informally at least, designated a genius. Back in 2008, Zenon received an early morning call informing him that he’d been named a MacArthur Fellow, known in the press as the “genius award.”

The award bestows more than an honorific for the Puerto Rican native, but a generous annual grant intended to allow the recipients to pursue their passions without strictures. Zenon said the person who called to inform him of the prize said this would probably be the last time he’d hear from the foundation.

And what Zenon has chosen to do with part of his fellowship also imparts an important lesson. He has founded Caravan Cultural.

Zenon spoke of the project and his life to a class in Hispanic Culture taught by Francisco Cabanillas. His lecture was in Spanish but he switched to English to answer questions in deference to jazz students who joined midway through.

Caravan Cultural presents jazz concerts in locales throughout Puerto Rico. In one location the locals restored a hall that had been home to the local concert band specifically for the visit. Zenon brings a band. The musicians teach local youngsters who then have a chance to join them on stage.

These are youngsters like himself. He grew up with little money, but was able to attend a performing arts school starting when he was 11. There he learned alto saxophone. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he discovered jazz. He became passionate about the music’s practice of spontaneous composition. He studied its history, and then moved north to attend Berklee College in Boston and then Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

The concerts also emphasize the history of the music. Each focuses on the work of a certain composer, such as Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and Bill Evans.

When Zenon decided to blend the music he grew up hearing in Puerto Rico with his adopted musical language, he found himself studying that music with the same intensity.

That attention to detail in study was evident when a student asked him how he approaches practicing with an ear to keeping his music fresh.

When practicing improvising on a tune, he’ll set parameters. He may only play in a certain register, or to avoid playing a certain rhythmic patterns.

The proof was in his blowing. That intellectual approach was evident in his improvisations but was delivered with passion, even ferocity. His tone is piercing, all the better to dissect the intricacies of the music. And there are plenty.

One of the benefits of these jazz residencies is that the students get to tackle the music of the visiting artists, and Zenon’s stretched the band with its tightly woven, pulsating rhythms. When the saxophone section got a break as Zenon soloed, they looked in awe at what he conjured.

It took a certain musical bravery then to step to the microphone and offer their own improvised contributions as he stood by, appreciating their work.

The power of his improvising, though, was most on display Wednesday night when Zenon joined the jazz faculty at Bar 149 downtown for their weekly session. While the concert with the big band featured his music, here the repertoire were the standards that he and the others – David Bixler, alto saxophone, Jeff Halsey, bass, Ariel Kasler, guitar and electric keyboard, Dan Piccolo and Olman Piedra, drums and percussion – cut their teeth on.

Zenon’s intensity was on full display, especially on the closer. It was “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” a blues by Charlie Parker, Zenon’s musical idol. He blew one chorus after another, shards of Parker’s licks refracted through his cascading melodies. Each chorus flowed from what came before, each heading off at a different angle. Every note driving forward with heightened passion. When he finished, there seemed little left to say. Zenon acknowledged the applause modestly, then stepped aside to let the others have their say.

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