JAZZ REVIEW; Inspired by the Complexities Of Back-Country Troubadours - New York Times

June 5, 2004
JAZZ REVIEW; Inspired by the Complexities Of Back-Country Troubadours
By BEN RATLIFF

The young alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon has shown a ferocious sense of organization in the past. His first album, ''Looking Forward,'' from 2001, was more evolved than most first albums: he already had a saxophone sound, strong and light, and his composing exhibited a broad intellect busily chewing up new jazz harmony and folkloric music of his native Puerto Rico.

Recently, he was awarded a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by the Jazz Gallery, to write new music and present it at that space. And where many bandleaders benefit from grants simply by doing more of what they're already doing and giving it a collective title, Mr. Zenon conceived a discrete, research-intensive project that has resulted in his best music yet.

''Jibaro Journeys: Music From the Mountains of Puerto Rico,'' which had its first performance on Thursday night at the Jazz Gallery, needs some more bandstand exercise. A greater sense of intuition and casual play will eventually seep in. But I've rarely seen a jazz composer step forward with a project so impressively organized, intellectually powerful and well played from the start.

Mr. Zenon examined his own musical roots, as so many new-world composers have, and found things he could use. He became entranced by the jibaro singers of Puerto Rico -- the back-country troubadours of the island. Their musical folklore is jammed with form, and one of its glories is the décima, a song divided into 10-line stanzas with a rhyme-scheme of ABBAA and CCDDC; each line has eight syllables, and the mark of a great jibaro singer is the ability to improvise the whole thing. Mr. Zenon has taken up the idea of the décima as well as that of the other song genres, the seis and the aguinaldo. Instead of traditional Puerto Rican string instruments, he's using a jazz quartet of saxophone, piano, bass and drums.

A composer's fascination with numbers isn't a graduate school contrivance. It's there in Steve Coleman's jazz (which is starting to shine more clearly as an influence on Mr. Zenon), in Puerto Rican mountain music, in Bach and in Pythagoras. Since the form of décima, in particular, is built around the numbers 5 and 10, Mr. Zenon took the concept further. He composed 10 pieces, 5 of them performed in each set on Thursday. He plugged the numbers into the music's harmonic material, using fifth chords. And in some pieces he followed the rhyme scheme of the décima, using mirroring musical phrases where a singer would use lyric rhymes.

For whatever reason, all this theory set Mr. Zenon on fire: the outcome was a direct, powerful music, balancing folkish melody and infernally complex rhythm. The pieces were thoroughly written out, even (and especially) for drums. The driving vamps, based in Afro-Cuban rhythm, were unusually accented, and the pianist Luis Perdomo, the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Antonio Sanchez played them tenaciously.

Mr. Zenon's own lithe, clean saxophone sound, floating in relaxed long tones over the crooked beat and then gnashing through tight chromatic patterns, has a human, casual quality; it counterbalances the impressive brain-stuff elsewhere in the music. The band played through this load of written music without faltering. But when it learns to relax and improvise within it, the achievement will be even greater.