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Jíbaro by Miguel Zenon

Though born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Miguel Zenón focused his attention on the more popular bomba and plena musical forms more closely associated with its African origins. Less widespread, even in Puerto Rico, is the Jíbaro subgenre, which developed among plantation workers and in the countryside of the island. In fact, the term of "Jíbaro" developed the additional meaning of describing a Puerto Rican from the countryside, and by extension, someone of 100% Puerto Rican ancestry. Jíbaro, the musical form, had developed to the point that it was expected to be performed always by voice accompanied by the cuatro (guitar), guiro and bongo. As is true of many other musicians after moving to another country, such as Danilo Pérez, advanced studies led Miguel Zenón back to a re-appreciation of the music of his native land. The complex simplicity couldn’t be fully understood until Zenón has raised the complexity of his own playing and the depth of his musical understanding. After studying at Berklee and in New York, Zenón could consider Jíbaro from a fresh perspective influenced by jazz but also from the profound understanding of someone who grew up exposed to the music, though he learned to value it years later.

Consisting of much more difficult compositions than Zenón’s previous Marsalis Music album, Ceremonial, his newest CD offers two major discoveries: (1) the originality of the music that continues to surprise and delight the listener with sinuous intertwining lines, sudden stops and starts and polyrhythmic intensity; and (2) the impressive talent of the 28-year-old Zenón, whose playing is not only a powerful technical achievement but also attains a feel for the music and an obvious affection for the culture from which it arose. Shrewdly enough, Branford Marsalis signed a rising star who is likely to grow, quickly enough, to become one of jazz’s leading saxophonists. Jíbaro certainly confirms that.

In addition, Zenón’s quartet consists of musicians who possess the same feel for the music. The fact that they can stop of a dime or create opposing yet complementary rhythms attests to their camaraderie when performing Zenón’s music. Zenón says that he "sometimes write music that is too difficult to play," and indeed it’s hard to imagine other alto saxophonists playing his music with the same level of verve and dynamics, performing it as an exercise instead of as spiritually based folk music that it is.

Zenón’s music darts and weaves and jabs, often contrasting with the lines of the bass and piano, as if they were going in different directions, though they’re connected motivically and rhythmically. And the Jíbaro structure appears to consist of building upon a single melody, as such as that of "Llanera," as that melody, at first simple enough, undergoes alterations and improvisation that mirror and then transform the original song. "Enramada" is a bravura performance as Zenón plays an urgent free-rhythm introduction, to which pianist Luis Perdomo applies calmness and beauty after it settles into its main theme. "Seis Cinco" sets up rumbling piano lines under Zenón’s pointillistic dotting of the melody. Then "Jíbaro" appears to consist be a song of two influences, the rippling jazz-based introduction by Perdomo leading after an understated treatment of the melody into Zenón’s Jíbaro- based element of repeating the motive until the rippling, jaw-dropping conclusion of the chorus.

Paying homage to Jíbaro rather than duplicating it, particularly due to the fact that a horn is never used to play its music (until now), Miguel Zenón has written ten pieces that cover the various facets of the subgenre, thrillingly at that. In the process, he infuses the centuries-old traditional music with a fresh perspective while bringing it to the attention of a world of listeners who had never before heard Jíbaro.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Miguel Zenon
  • CD Title: Jíbaro
  • Genre: Latin Jazz / Latin Funk
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: Marsalis Music
  • Tracks: Seis Cinco, Fajardeño, Punto Cubano, Aguinaldo, Chorreao, Enramada, Villarán, Llanera, Mariandá, Jíbaro
  • Musicians: Miguel Zenón (alto saxophone), Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass), Antonio Sánchez
  • Rating: Five Stars
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