Miguel Zenon performed at Lisbon’s famous jazz club Hot Clube during the album tour of ‘Sonero’, released in September 2019. My musician friend Serdar Barçın and I joined forces again and sat down for a very enjoyable conversation with the magnificent Zenon.
Firstly I would like to congratulate you about Sonero. It is an amazing album. It caused a lot of commotion among critics, musicians, audiences and the media. On the other hand, only a short period has passed since your previous album. It isn’t easy to make a new album so soon after that since they both consist of original pieces. How do you manage to be this creative, prosperous, productive and yet planned down to the minute? Let’s say you are all of those, because they are innate characteristics, but time management is an entirely different thing?
This was an exceptional situation. It isn’t usual to release two albums so soon one after the other. These are entirely different projects and bands. The previous one was a string quartet. These two projects developed simultaneously.
So they didn’t overlap since they were simultaneous.
No, they didn’t. The quartet I currently play with is my ongoing band and the oldest one as well.
One thing that is unusual about this quartet is the fact that you do all your tours with the same band. It isn’t easy to tour with the same band members, given the situations of our day, especially the financial ones. How do you overcome these?
As you said, it isn’t easy. It also isn’t the rule of the thumb. It used to be like that in the past but it is different in today’s jazz world. It is tough to keep a band together for a long time. It isn’t easy for a musician to make a living playing in only one band. You have to play in many different projects or play every single night if you play in a single band. But our situation this time is different because we have been playing together for a long time and are close friends. I am so lucky that people I love enjoy my music and I am with those whose music I enjoy as well. We get along well. It naturally happened. I never thought of doing something else. This is a good situation and I feel lucky.
Great. Then let’s start with El Negro Bembom.
This is a really old song. It became identified with racism. Things that are concerned with skin color. Negro means black, it concerns everyone in the Afrolatin-Caribbean area. It is beautiful music and thematically so as well. This song tells of something, half serious half jokingly, we don’t come across often in popular music. It is an old song I enjoy a lot. I really wanted to include it in the album.
Ismael Rivera’s music is seen as entertainment music but his life story is not entertaining at all. He had a tough life emotionally and economically. His music doesn’t reflect the realities of his life. How were you taken by his life story and how did yours reflect on Ismael Rivera?
Yes, Ismael Rivera had a typical tragic-genius life. There are many other examples like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, many musical geniuses like Bob Marley lost their lives at an early age and left big gaps in the world of music. His wasn’t different from that. He had a very productive life. Unfortunately his life didn’t end happily. It is sad that musicians like him are happy when they play and get devastated when they can’t. I took the positive aspects of this and interpreted his musical legacy in a way he would like. I focused on the positive sides instead of the tragedy.
This is heavily noticeable in the resulting music. Then let’s move on to Si te Contara. Its meaning?
‘Si te contara’ means if I could tell you. This song says “I wish I could tell you how much pain I am in.” This also is a very old song. Tito Rodriguez played the cover of this song before us. He is great. I remember hearing this song for the first time when I was a kid. That’s why I wanted to include it.
Rivera has a long playlist. How did you make your decisions? Couldn’t have been easy.
It wasn’t. There were a couple of songs I always liked and definitely wanted. This was one of those. I chose the others among the ones that reflect his musical legacy the best; they embody his special messages. I chose some among those that reflect my musical approach. I kept major scale and tempo in mind. Long story short, this is how it came together.
How long and how many rehearsals did this album take? I am asking this because the interaction among the band members is beyond amazing.
We play the music before making an album. Therefore I estimate that we have worked about 6-12 months on this music. So we were familiar enough with it. But we didn’t come together every day to rehearse or anything like that. I sent the music to the musicians. Everybody prepared for their own parts. Then we came together a couple of times to look at the forms and how to play the parts against one another. Our rehearsals usually take place during sound checks and concerts. We play the music when we feel it is ready and we are comfortable to play it. We played at Village Vanguard in New York and in Boston before recording, so we got to try it out in the States a couple of times and saw how it went.
Do you usually work like this?
Mostly. It definitely applies to this band. It certainly requires working a lot but it also is really about the musicians. We have been playing together for a long time. Everyone knows their part very well. If we ever feel like one of us isn’t ready one day, that means it is over.
Let’s continue with El Nazareno. I should have pronounced it as Nazarenio if there was an accent on ’n’?
Certainly. That’s how it is in Spanish. Nazareno traditionally are songs written for Jesus. But this piece is inspired by an experience Ismael had in Panama as a semi-spiritualist. Again, it is concerned with racism. El Nazareno is the name of the black Jesus statue in the Roman Catholic church of Portobelo. This song tells about his story. It is a very famous song and the favorite of many Ismael Rivera fans.
You are very successful in adapting your country and culture to the NY sound, or more generally put, to American jazz. Everybody tries this but you have a unique talent that distinguishes you among your contemporaries. How do you achieve this?
This isn’t something I specifically programmed myself to do. You know, I was born in Puerto Rico and attended Berklee in 1996. As you also said ‘nobody wants to leave their country’ but I wanted to receive an education on jazz and went to Berklee because I was told it was good. All I wanted to be occupied with was jazz. Nothing else interested me. The same applies to Puerto Rican music. I only wanted to play jazz. But I started to look into my past and roots, people in it, and how I am as I lived far from home as I delved deeper into it. I have been living in the States for 23 years now and this is longer than the time I spent in Puerto Rico. This way, music became my connection to my own culture, country and folklore. Everything developed organically. It became something that I thought I could do to combine various elements. Things that can coexist together. I don’t think I feel differently when I am playing American jazz. There are also other people who make music the same way that I have to mention. Danilo Perez, a pianist from Panama, and Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez are very influential to me. I saw that they achieved what I wanted to succeed in when I looked at their works at an older age. What I transformed into in America was to become a Latin American jazz musician. To bring together all the sources of influence and structures together through jazz. And I started to do this more naturally the more I played. I saw musicians from other parts of the world want to come together and do the exact same thing. What is for certain is that I have to walk hand in hand with traditions. And this applies to any tradition. You cannot simply stay on the surface. I feel more relaxed the deeper I go.
What is the meaning og Colobo?
Colobo is a neighbourhood in a town called Loisa. Loisa is the home base of African communities of Puerto Rico. For example, Louisa’s population consists 95% of blacks. African culture is dominant there and Ismael spent a lot of his time there, especially in his later ages. That’s why he dedicated this song to the people of Loisa.
How is the political situation in Puerto Rico?
Very unstable. There are a lot of changes happening. The government in Puerto Rico resigned due to country-wide demonstrations, thankfully. Puerto Rico’s economy was affected by the three big hurricanes a few years ago. Everything is unstable because you never know which direction it will go in. Puerto Rico is a political purgatory. It is free but it is also governed by the USA in some aspects. It is like a modern colony.
Can we call it autonomy?
Yes. Actually, not exactly. We have a government but it is managed by a financial committee, which is managed by the USA. There is always that purgatory. However, I think the new generation will take things to another direction and things will progress differently than they did in the last 100 years. They have to. Everything seems to be getting worse. In every aspect, everywhere. Culturally, financially, structurally… Some things will change. I visit often. My family is there. My wife’s family is there. We have close connections. And we feel as if we are there. It is hard to talk about where the country is headed.
You use polyrhythmic forms incredibly in your music. These are very unexpected. How do your country and culture affect your understanding of rhythm?
Latin American music is very rhythmic; rhythm constitutes a big part of this genre. That’s definitely why. However, I have always been influenced naturally by rhythm. It has been like this for as long as I can remember myself in the world of music. Rhythm is beyond a complete experience, there is a conceptual and intellectual side to it that I have always been interested in. I have always been drawn by the idea to bring together numbers and writings with a new identity through rhythm. I really enjoy this inclusive experience. You could say somethings are more conceptual or even complex. I like applying this complexity to my music.
Was Sonero released only on digital platforms?
Digital and physical.
Did you release LPs?
No, not yet, I have been working on that. I hope it happens. I do everything independently. I have my own company. I don’t have a distributor but I am the production company. It is great that this is the way it is but decisions do take time. You have to keep a lot of things in mind. But there is something for certain; you aren’t the first person to ask about this. Even I am saying the same thing. It will most likely happen in the upcoming few months.
Yes, maybe a limited run. But I should ask this at this point. You released the album in CD format but you don’t have a distributor, how do you distribute the rest?
Actually, I do the distribution myself as well. It is distributed through my company. I do the distribution physically and digitally.
For example, is it possible for my friends in Turkey to find the album?
They should be, they really should be. I should get in contact with stores. It should be this way. Interestingly, some places in Europe, for example FNAC, still do distribution. There are no more LP stores in the States. Most people there don’t buy the albums in the CD format. Physical albums have become a niche interest.
Turkish jazz and classical audiences still are passionate and adamant about buying physical albums. I am one of those. There are a couple of big music stores that managed to stay independent, for example. We can’t say this has been easy for them but these are financial issues. What kind of a piece is Quita de la Via Perco?
The song is fun but its story is rather sad. The reason why we love this song so much and why we chose it specifically for my recording is that it is very famous. There was another musician and orchestra conductor who recorded this piece with another band. His name is Rafael Cortijo, a friend of Ismael, they grew up together. He is also an amazing percussionist. They made unreal music together. Firstly, their band consisted of black people. Their music and rhythm were black. It was something you wouldn’t often hear on the radio, stage or television. This was a first and they were the first band that opened these doors.
This question comes from my saxophonist friend Serdar Barçın in Istanbul, the one I mentioned before starting the interview. He is a classically trained musician who chose to play jazz, and he also plays with pop bands because he has to do this to make a living. Beyond that, he also is one of the best listeners in Turkey. He is one of your biggest fans. I called him right away when we planned this interview. He specifically asks this: You play all the notes from memory with SF Jazz or with any other band, in both big band and other formats. This is such a hard thing to accomplish and my friend says this is harder than memorizing sonatas. In summary, how do you do this?
The shortest answer to that would be to practice. I work a lot to memorize the music. On the other hand, it is easier to memorize certain things for certain people. I think it is easier for me than the other musicians I know. It is such personal thing. But as I said, I spend a lot of time memorizing the music. This doesn’t only mean that I take it home to just memorize it but also practice it and read it as a whole. And to feel that that part is ready. And that is how I slowly internalize music. And then I say, I can try to play it without reading it tonight. It is a slow process. It isn’t something you can do simply by working a lot on it like accounting. It is a combination of working on it and playing it a lot. Feeling the music. What makes it easier is listening to how the others play it and how your part fits in with that, instead of solely focusing on your own parts. You make it easier on yourself this way; the piano plays this, I play this part with the trumpet, etc., and everything fits into a bigger perspective and becomes more meaningful. I mean, instead of only memorizing your own parts.
You answered my next question because I was wondering about how memorizing affects your playing in a positive way.
This is a great question. I feel that it is an entirely different thing to play the music without being a part of it. Playing the music without reading it allows more space for improvization, it is an approach that allows more freedom especially while playing genres that require more improvization and trading. I think it brings awareness. To be aware of what you are playing and to be aware of what others are playing. We were talking among bandmates about playing the music from memory during concerts. We thought that this brings a special kind of energy. Because it is like jumping off a cliff. The rest is focusing; deeper and deeper…
I want to ask about Caravana Cultural as well. Quoting the passage on your website; this is a reflection on your commitment to education and your growing fame as a cultural ambassador. You continue to give jazz concerts and jam sessions in the rural areas of Puerto Rico. I don’t know if it is exactly the same, but it is similar to El Sistema.bilmiyorum ama El Sistema gibi.
I think El Sistema is a little different, it is openly supported by the government. But the ideas are similar. To use music as a glue. To use it to heal the community. Our working principles are pretty straightforward; we arrange these free concerts in areas that are devoid of cultural activities. Villages and rural areas. Every concert comes with an education platform. We talk about jazz, how prominent musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane lived and about their music. I make a short speech about improvization. Because people who attend these concerts have never been to any jazz concert before. Also, there are interested young musicians and they play with us. Some win instrumental scholarships. The main idea here is to use jazz as a healing cultural element.
Yes; it has a transforming mission.
Yes, and to make sure this cultural element is accessible to all. Because jazz and other genres, for example classical music, have a lot of potential. People think “This is not for me.” Or that it is too complex and that only educated people can listen to it. But I think the exact opposite. We need to make it accessible to everyone. Then they can decide if it is for them or not. The idea is this; we bring the music to people, and they can decide if they like it or not after listening to it. That they experience it. If I have to be honest, I do it more so to transform my own life through music. I haven’t worked on anything else other than music this much by far. I show people what it is and why it exists and make the connections that way. Connecting people with music with joy, independent of what is being played.