Transforming Music through Cultural Fusion: An Interview with Miguel Zenón
We’re excited to host this world renowned saxophonist who is transforming the jazz tradition by infusing it with Puerto Rican folkloric music: Miguel Zenón, a Puerto Rican native, will debut his newest album, “Típico,” at our Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. This multiple Grammy nominee, Guggenheim Fellow, and MacArthur (Genius) Fellow, is not only a master of balancing and blending musical traditions into a new and innovate sound, but he has also been called a global “cultural ambassador.”
The creator of the Carvana Cultural Program in Puerto Rico, Zenón strives to make global connections through music and artistic education. With roots in Puerto Rico, Boston, and New York, Zenón has grown as a musician through playing with and learning from other world-class musicians and he understands the importance of these interactions. His inventive and unwavering dedication to his craft has earned him the respect of audiences and other renowned musicians everywhere. We had the pleasure of speaking with Zenón to learn more about his passion for music, the evolution of his music, and the inside details on his new album.
1. Tell us about your first experience with the saxophone – how old were you? Did you ask to start playing the instrument or did someone else get you to start?
I started [playing saxophone] when I was about 11-years-old and went to [Escuela Libre de Música], a performing arts middle & high school in Puerto Rico. The first day I got there, I wanted to play the piano, but for some reason I was a little late and all of the piano spaces were taken already; so, someone in my family had a saxophone, an oboe and a guitar, and I chose the saxophone because I thought it would be temporary, but, obviously, it wasn’t temporary.
2. You’ve had an album nominated for a Grammy and you’re a Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellow; would you say that these are your proudest moments as a musician? Or is there another memory or moment that comes to mind?
[Those recognitions] have definitely been very important moments for me, not only because of what they represent but because they opened a lot of doors for me. But for myself, as a musician, I try to be my own judge in terms of progress. I always feel I can do better, and that’s what I’m always shooting for. I have to work on being a better musician on my own. One thing that’s always been really important to me besides these recognitions is being connected with your peers and receiving the recognition of your peers, that’s something that’s even more important to me. I feel I’ve been able to become a part of a community with my musical peers and I’ve been able to grow from those experiences. I’ve been able to play with some of my heroes, like Charlie Haden and Bobby Hutcherson, and when someone asks you to play with them that’s a sign of respect; I feel good that I’ve been able to connect with these musicians and learn from people I admire.
3. You’ve studied jazz in Boston, San Juan, and New York City – how would you say these places have influenced your musical style?
My experience in San Juan was a little different, it opened doors to music but I never really studied jazz in PR. It’s one of the reasons I had to study abroad, because I wanted to study jazz. I didn’t get my first experience with jazz until I studied at Berklee College of Music and it was the most important period for me as a musician even though I was only in Boston for 2 and a half years. I was able to learn from other students the same way I was learning from teachers and I was being challenged by all of those amazing musicians. [Moving to] New York was just an extension of that, it opened the door to a lot of things professionally.
4. You’ve said that you’re “always on the lookout for things that makes you feel that the music from all these different countries and cultural expressions is somehow connected,” how do you think this idea helps you compose your music?
As I got a little older and then a little further developed as a musician, I got really interested in what my music would sound like. I started studying the music I learned about in Puerto Rico, and then I found a way to use that as a vehicle to display my personality as a composer; and after doing that it brought me to a lot of the music from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Eventually, [all of] that gets mixed up into a lot of the music that we have here in America, a lot of jazz music and music from Puerto Rico. This idea of these styles of music coming from the same place and being connected in many ways, it’s really the most interesting for me; realizing these connections is what drives me. I feel it’s important for me, as a Puerto Rican and Latin American musician, to understand and display what this represents. I strive for carrying that message of “this is what represents me” and making that feel natural.
5. You’ve been playing with your band for more than a decade, but what were you looking for when forming the quartet (I,e. a specific sound? A personality type? etc?) and how has this helped your development as musicians?
A personality definitely. I was looking for people who I knew, who I liked as people but had a specific sensibility of certain things – jazz definitely, but that could also relate to this idea of Latin American music. So, it was personality most, in terms of who they are as people, but musically I was looking for something very specific in terms of how they relate to specific types of music because that’s where my music is coming from; it just makes sense to have people who can do that naturally and do it well. And now, we’ve been playing together for so long that I don’t have to think about it anymore.
I feel that I’ve grown both a player and a composer just by being around them. They’re all really some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with. It’s definitely challenging, not only because you have to make sure you stay on your toes as a musician but also because I had to find a balance in my composing. I try to display both their true personalities and mine; so when I’m writing I’m always thinking about how they’re going to play it and how it’s going to sound.
6. The final 3 songs on Típico are named for parts of a tree because you said that’s how you often think of your band, could you tell us more about that metaphor & your [band] dynamic?
I think of the band as a unit and I see myself as listening from the outside. The idea was to have this entity that was comprised of different parts – those parts are them – and I’m kind of the observer of the world. All three pieces are based on things each of them has actually played; I would use a specific phrase [for inspiration], so the approach was quite literal for those pieces. I was thinking of them specifically, but I was also thinking of us as a band and trying to display all of the things we can do well & we can do confidently.
7. You’ve described “Típico” as an album that “zeroes in on what makes your band unique,” so tell us about some of the characteristics that are brought out from each member of your band in the new album?
Luis Perdomo (pianist) and I have a lot of things in common. We’re very connected to Latin American Jazz music, it’s at the root of what we do; but at the same time, we’re very different by how we conceptualize our music. I’m very systematic and he’s the opposite – he works really well with things that happen in the moment and he enjoys that and it’s important to have someone like that in the band.
Henry Cole (drummer) is also from Puerto Rico and we’re very connected in that way because it’s where we come from. What makes Henry unique, specifically in this band, is that he has the ability to make something sound different. He is always going for the risk, trying something out and trying to see what happens. He’s very infectious and we feed off that as a band.
Hans Glawischnig (bassist) is, musically speaking, the way I am as a musician, [meticulous]. He’s Austrian-American and he’s sort of become the top bass players in this Latin American Jazz idiom and he has no connection to Latin American music at all. It’s part of him, he can assimilate anything, no matter the difficulty at an amazingly quick pace.
8. What drove you to debut the album at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts?
I’ve been talking to Elsa [IBA’s Arts Program Director] for a while about doing something, and it just kind of just worked out. [I have] so many connections there, so many people that I’ve had relationships with and I’ve had a relationship with the Center for a very long time. When I lived in Boston, I used to play in the the previous [Arts Program] Director’s, Alex Alvear’s, band (Mango Blue) all the time & do things for the community. So it’s really great to come back, I’m really looking forward to it.
9. You’re not only a successful musician, but also a highly sought-after educator; in fact, the opening song on your album, “Academia,” you said was inspired by your teaching; so, what advice do you have for the various artists and musicians of the Boston community?
Boston is a very special place because it’s a very student centered city. There’s all of these connections between schools, not just the conservatories. There is this community that is there – for the students. I feel like I used my time there well, and when you’re a student [you should] put in as much practice time as you can and put more focus into your development as a musician. The main thing is to be clear about what you want to do, what do you want to get out of your musical development, and make sure you are aware of what you need to work on. Most of the time those things are simple, but because we’re so connected now it’s easy to put those things in the background and forget them. Make sure you’re on top of your instrument and on top of your deficiencies so you can be ready for the opportunities when they come.
10. Lastly, as someone who is considered a “cultural ambassador” & the founder of the “Carvana Cultural” program in Puerto Rico, we know you agree with IBA’s mission to promote Latino culture through the arts, but how much do you feel it applies here in Boston and at this time in particular?
I’m an artist that believes culture is essential in any society, not only as an abstract idea but getting close to culture and having everyone in society get close to those things. It’s proven in many countries that it makes society better, and I think at this time … it’s important to have that there. If there’s one thing a society should have, it’s that. I hope with everything going on now that it’s something people will fight for.
You won’t want to miss this world class musician who’s transforming the jazz tradition. You can be the first to hear Zenón’s newest music at our Villa Victoria Center for the Arts on February 10th at 7pm. You can purchase tickets online now.