Hurricane Maria Gave Composer Miguel Zenón's 'Yo Soy La Tradición' Emotional Urgency

Oct 8, 2018
Originally published on October 8, 2018 7:50 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Just two days before saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenon went into the studio to record his new album, Hurricane Maria hit his native island of Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "ROSARIO")

CHANG: During session breaks, Zenon called family and friends for news about the devastation back home. NPR's Michelle Mercer says the resulting album "Yo Soy La Tradicion" - or "I Am The Tradition" - has the MacArthur genius's trademark originality, but the natural disaster also gives it emotional urgency.

MICHELLE MERCER, BYLINE: Miguel Zenon had already planned for his 11th album to shed light on Puerto Rico. He's recorded many adaptations of its folk music in the past. In this new eight-part suite for saxophone and string quartet, he showcases a different cultural tradition in each piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "ROSARIO")

MERCER: This one, "Rosario," is inspired by a holy rosary, traditionally played on folk instruments at funerals and other occasions. Zenon is always a soulful player. But with the hurricane hitting so close to the session, his performance here with the Spektral Quartet took on special feeling. They play his adaptation's intense rhythmic interaction and soaring melodies as a fervent prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "ROSARIO")

MERCER: Zenon is blurring lines here between jazz, classical and Puerto Rican folk music. For that name, he finds much affinity with Spektral, an engaging quartet well-versed in contemporary music. Zenon's classical minimalism can be complex. With such skilled musicians playing their hearts out though, even dense ideas unfold in a graceful dance. Here's "Cadenas."

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "CADENAS")

MERCER: The most bucolic song on the album "Viejo" is based on a type of rural folk music. Zenon's saxophone goes cinematic here, gliding above the strings and sweeping down to move among them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "VIEJO")

MERCER: It's as if he's intreating us to take a closer look at Puerto Rican culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "VIEJO")

MERCER: With "Yo Soy La Tradicion," Miguel Zenon isn't just waving a musical flag for Puerto Rico. He's composed it's deep traditions into new musical landscapes. And recording so soon after Hurricane Maria hit, the resulting album is an imaginative and heartfelt tour of his homeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON'S "VIEJO")

CHANG: The album by Miguel Zenon is "Yo Soy La Tradicion." Our reviewer was Michelle Mercer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.