When I last heard the music of Puerto Rican composer and saxophone player Miguel Zenon, he and his horn were backed by a string quartet in an interesting and somewhat avant-garde piece called Yo Soy La Tradicion. A year later we have Sonero, which is a tribute to legendary singer Ismael Rivera. Rivera lived not too far from where Miguel Zenon grew up, a place where “Maelo,” as Rivera is called, was considered a local hero. More than 30 years after Maelo’s death, Zenon has composed and arranged this album for one specific reason: “I want everyone to know about him.”
Miguel Zenon is far from a typical saxophone player from the Caribbean. He’s always had a taste for ambitious projects, and he’s interested in so much more than playing the type of Latin jazz that you might hear in a popular downtown nightclub. Sonero is the term for a singer who improvises over the beat, and to be called a sonero is considered an honor, a mark of the highest levels of artistic expression. When Ismael Rivera was becoming popular in Puerto Rican clubs in the 1960s, the music being played was influenced by the Cuban themes of the day. In just a few years Rivera and his contemporaries had introduced Puerto Rican folk traditions to these same clubs in a style that became known as Afro-Rican. Miguel Zenon’s goal is to teach this lesson to a new generation of Latin music fans.
Rivera was also innovative when it came to composition and arrangements, and these tracks pay close attention to the way Maelo approached uncommon time signatures. As Miguel Zenon explains, Rivera was “putting phrases on top of phrases…but I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about that. He was just thinking about the way he felt it.” To play these difficult arrangements, Zenon relied upon his longtime quartet which includes pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole. Sonero is focused on the interactions between these four men, and how they move smoothly between the classic melodies and the risks that always pay off.
In other words, Miguel Zenon’s Sonero isn’t for casual fans of Latin jazz, even when the music turns breezy and light and occasional moves southward toward Brazilian folk music. Like La Soy la Tradicion before it, Sonero is full of ideas, some of them complex, some of them requiring a great deal of concentration on the part of the listener. It can be enjoyed on the fly, but its depth is revealed only when you consider the innovations Maelo brought to Puerto Rico, and how younger musicians such as Miguel Zenon introduce these innovations to future generations.