Zenón’s Inner Soul Shines in Angola
It was 46 minutes into the first of two concerts on July 20–21 that saxophonist Miguel Zenón began speaking to the audience.
“We aren’t presented with many opportunities to visit the African continent with our music,” Zenón said softly, speaking in Spanish to a roomful of listeners at the Hotel Trópico in Luanda, Angola. “It’s a bendición—a blessing—to play for you.”
It was a blessing for audience members, too. Jazz fans in town had been looking forward to the concert for weeks. Despite a population of approximately 5 million people in greater Luanda, there is still no local jazz club. Ten years into a tense domestic peace, the capital city is experiencing an oil boom while crawling out from under the devastation of 42 years of war. Cranes are everywhere, condos are going up, the connected are making money and the traffic is chaotic. Tickets for Zenón’s concert were $60. That’s cheap in Luanda, but it’s more than double what the audience at New York’s Jazz Standard paid to see the quartet play in 2011.
Out in the musseques—the unpaved, trash-choked slums—people partied to the electronic music that dominates the streets. But in the asphalt city, the cosmopolitan elite sat enraptured, taking in Zenón’s nearly 75-minute set with almost religious respectfulness. Produced by Jerónimo “Gégé” Belo, who for four decades has been an advocate for jazz in his city, the concert served as a teaser for the annual Luanda Jazz Festival, which was set to begin the following week.
Zenón and his quartet were in Luanda for two days on a hop-down from Lisbon at the end of a European tour, playing compositions from the group’s 2011 release Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music). They’ve been concertizing these tunes since the album was released last summer, and the performances grow a little more every night.
The idea for Alma Adentro was simple but powerful: Play the Puerto Rican songbook as jazz. It requires no conceptual stretch, as these songs are as much jazz as the typical repertoire of standards. They’re durable tunes, rhythmically alive, loved by millions but fresh to most of the jazz audience. Alma Adentro consists of two songs each from Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Sylvia Rexach, Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso and Bobby Capó—all five of them doubly celebrated as composers and lyricists.
The title of Rexach’s “Alma Adentro” translates to “inner soul,” and the group played the tune like they meant it. After spending so much time working out on this vocal material, Zenón has developed a new level of lyricism in his playing, his improvisations developing organically from the tunes. Pianist Luis Perdomo was a perfect collaborator: His melodic and harmonic facilities are matched by his alert sense of time, both moment-to-moment and over the long arc.
The rhythm generally veered away from explicit Afro-Cuban tumbaos—a cha-cha-chá section here, a bolero beat there—but the music flowed like Latin music should flow. Bassist Hans Glawischnig’s standout moment was his arco-and-pizzicato, danzón-esque turn, à la Israel “Cachao” López, on Hernández’s “Perfume de Gardenias,” as the edge was supplied by the discursive, versatile drummer Henry Cole, who soloed with inspired intensity. But the overall effect from this ensemble of composers was the collective sense of shape from which these solos emerged.
The quartet played all 10 songs from the album on both nights. One highlight was Zenón’s ballad-tempo reading of Capó’s “Incomprendido,” which came pre-loaded with soul. All that gave way to the compelling present tense of the playing. As the music ended, I scrawled a note: “We were not in Africa, Portugal, Puerto Rico, or New York.” We were just there, in the music.