When a jazz artist makes a commitment to Latin Jazz, they build a connection to Caribbean and South American culture that they can explore on several levels. For some musicians, the simple insertion of rhythmic patterns underneath jazz harmonies constitutes Latin Jazz. They may not understand the cultural context of those rhythms or even associate them with a specific country, they simply appreciate the Latin implication. Other artists dig a little deeper and discover dance rhythms from the Caribbean and South America, usually introduced by the most popular artists from those regions. In addition to integrating these rhythms into their repertoire, they might build a stronger connection by introducing common forms into a jazz context. Artists with a stronger bond to the Caribbean or South America often diversify their approach with folkloric forms or arrangements of traditional songs. This approach more closely aligns jazz with cultural traditions, respecting both the context and function of the music in a given country. When an artist digs deep into the culture and actually researches the history, tradition, and social context of a musical style, their resulting product can be breathtaking. After receiving a substantial grant, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón dived deeply into the island’s rich folkloric tradition, plena. The combination of his discoveries with his already refined modern jazz technique shine brightly on Esta Plena, a brilliant combination of cultural ideals.
Vocals In The Forefront
Several tracks on Esta Plena feature vocals in the forefront, connecting the music to the plena’s folkloric roots. Hector “Tito” Matos introduces the main lyrics unaccompanied on “Esta Plena,” before Obanilu Allende and Juan Gutierrez join him and the panderos start a strong pulse. A spacious instrumental melody supported by aggressive rhythm section kicks leads into a colorful improvisation from pianist Luis Perdomo who creates distinctive melodies with modern chromaticism. Zenón cleverly darts around the plena rhythm, infusing blistering runs, rhythmic emphasis, and screeching high notes before the vocalists return for an uptempo coro-pregon section. Matos leaps an energetic melody that laments the questionable future of Puerto Rico on “Qué Será de Puerto Rico?” before the rhythm section joins the driving plena groove of the panderos. The vocal comes to an abrupt stop, opening the door to a impassioned improvisation from Zenón, who flies through the changes with a determined strength. Matos spins poignant pregones between wild unison melodic flights from Zenón and Perdomo until drummer Henry Cole stretches the limits of the rhythmic structure with a smart unaccompanied solo. The panderos ring through the sound of a New Year’s Eve celebration on “Despedida” until Zenón inserts pieces of “Auld Lang Syne” over an aggressive rhythm section groove. The vocalists return for an upbeat lyric that describes a wild party while the rhythm section keeps the music interesting with a variety of texture changes. As Zenón races into an intriguing statement filled with a modern jazz vocabulary the rhythm section jumps into swing, eventually changing gears one more time for attention grabbing percussion solos. Zenón pulls the plena’s folkloric roots together into a symbiotic mixture on these tracks, placing his dual influences together in a complementary way.
Weaving Vocalists Into A Jazz Tapestry
On other pieces, Zenón weaves the vocalists into the jazz tapestry, finding an even balance between the two worlds. Matos provides a searching vocal melody with the support of Allende and Guitierrez on “Oyelo” while the rhythm section places a minor harmony beneath them. Perdomo and Zenón take a unison journey through a winding melody that leads into a searing improvisation from Zenón who pushes a strong theme through every register of his instrument. Perdomo takes his time building an understated idea with an introspective feel before the vocals join the group for a return to the main melody. An upbeat melodic line from Zenón sends the group into a minor vamp on “Pandero y Pagode” until the vocalists enter with a richly harmonized melody. A beautifully executed vocal leads into an improvisation from Perdomo, who plays off the rhythmic momentum of the band with a lively inertia. Zenón quickly kicks things into high gear with cutting lines that wind through the group’s sharp collective hits and inspire active commentary from Cole. These pieces hold onto the folkloric nature of the plena vocal, but place that element in a modern jazz context that adds color and movement to the style.
Placing Plena In Instrumental Pieces
Zenón also spends time focusing upon instrumental pieces, keeping the plena rhythm as an essential element. An extensive break leads into a blistering plena groove on “Villa Palmeras” until Zenón jumps into a long melody filled with several interesting themes. The combination of the rhythm section and the panderos create an unstoppable momentum behind Zenón, who virtuosically spins a theme full of racing notes, sharp rhythmic accents, and a effectively wide register. Perdomo follows Zenón’s lead with an energetic solo that races through a wildly logical development before the group hits quick breaks for pandero improvisations. After a rubato introduction from Zenón, bassist Hans Glawischnig establishes a medium tempo plena that moves forward with a bluesy strut on “Villa Coope,” allowing Zenón to explore an open melody. A dramatic stop break provides a space for Zenón to introduce his initial idea before he charges into an angular improvisation that climbs into fervent climax. Perdomo’s running lines overflow with a swinging sensation, pushing the groove into a swaggering movement that captures the connection between jazz and plena. A flying melodic line from Zenón that sits somewhere between Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter introduces “Residencial Llorens Torres” before Perdomo joins him in a blazing melodic race through an uptempo plena. The rhythm section maintains the fiery tempo as Zenón soars into a focused improvisation that builds into an intense energy with quick note flurries and screaming pitches. Perdomo maintains the fierce drive throughout his statement, using long streams of notes that run across the stretch of the piano and rhythmic chordal stabs. Glawischnig creates an unaccompanied solo that resonates with defined development and a bluesy undertone before leaping into the main line on “Calle Calma.” Zenón and Perdomo travel through a moody melody that benefits from a rising and falling shape and drastically effective dynamic changes. There’s a sense of reflective calm throughout the piece as the musicians repeat the melodic ideas against the plodding pandero rhythms. These pieces find Zenón integrating the plena rhythm into a jazz context without loosing the authentic flavor of either genre.
The Potential Behind Meaningful Cultural Connections
Zenón displays keen insight into the cultural traditions of both plena and jazz on Esta Plena, creating a product that authentically respects both musical worlds. As a composer, Zenón utilizes a thoughtful musical process that digs deeply into the connection between the two musics. He integrates two groups – a trio of percussionists playing traditional plena on panderos and a modern jazz quartet – and his challenge lies in the complementary relationship between them. There are moments when they take the basic route to collaboration: having the panderos provide a constant plena behind modern jazz improvisation or re-harmonizing more traditional plena structures. Still, Zenón takes every step to make sure that these connections work. He builds complex bass lines that sit comfortably against the plena while moving through chord changes. He develops intricate rhythm section arrangements that wind through the plena while leaving open space for improvisation. He never sacrifices his contemporary jazz sound, leaning towards Coltrane and Shorter even where the plena begs for more basic harmonies. Zenón’s improvisations seem inspired throughout the recording, as he solo with a passionate vigor that gains momentum with each track. Perdomo also delivers an outstanding performance, supporting the plena structures with style and ease while infusing his own personality into each improvisation. Zenón’s worked hard researching and deciphering plena before creating Esta Plena, and the results teach us a valuable lesson about the potential behind meaningful cultural connections.
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