Saxophonist Miguel Zenón has long been occupied with finding common musical threads in the North American jazz tradition and the music of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America, and his newest project, Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico, is his latest triumph in this quest.
Taking a break from recording with his usual quartet, Zenón’s own Miel Music is releasing a live recording with The Rhythm Collective, a group that first came together in 2003 to participate in the Jazz Ambassadors Program, sponsored at the time by the U.S. State Department and The Kennedy Center.
“We made that trip about ten years ago and got the opportunity to tour several countries in West Africa for about a month and a half,” said Zenón in a news release. “All the music on this album was either developed during that trip or inspired by the experience.” The Rhythm Collective is comprised of Tony Escapa on drums, Aldemar Valentín on bass, and Reinaldo de Jesús on percussion; all of them native Puerto Ricans and some of the most coveted musicians in their respective fields. Recorded in 2011 at Taller Cé, a short-lived performance space in San Juan, the album is a riveting, dynamic shift from much of Zenón’s previous work.
“I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the chord-less jazz trio, but I wanted to do something different with it and incorporate Caribbean and Puerto Rican music,” said Zenón. “The idea for this band was to focus more on the rhythmic aspects of the music. There are no chordal instruments used, in other words no pianos or guitars stating the harmony. This makes the music a bit more open harmonically, giving more importance to single melodic lines. But at the end of the day, the drums and the percussion are what drive these tunes.”
The palpable energy that emerges from the recording represents Zenón’s quest to bring greater jazz awareness to Puerto Rico. After winning the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as the “genius grant”) in 2008, Zenón has sponsored a series of concerts, which he calls Caravana Cultural (or Cultural Caravan) in small rural towns around the island designed to educate audiences about the music of jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. The stated goals of Caravana Cultural can be read on Zenón’s website (along with recent concert lineups and videos of past performances throughout Puerto Rico). Although the Rhythm Collective concerts were not part of that series, the shows captured here at Taller Cé were recorded in part with funding from the MacArthur Fellowship.
Rather than the hard-driving intensity of Zenón’s work with his regular quartet, the Rhythm Collective is sparer in approach, more about creating an atmospheric space where rhythmic pulses created by different members of the group could connect.
Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico fulfills the listener’s desire for a new spin on a familiar rhythmic tradition, from a loftier, improvisational perspective. As a live performance, the recording contains the energy created by the interaction with the audience, raised on Afro-Caribbean dance music, but yearning to break free to a new space.
“In this band, we all happen to be Puerto Rican and grew up around this kind of music,” said Zenón. “Even though what we’re doing here is centered around a rhythm thing, the experimental part was second nature to us. We are all already interested in fusions between material that could be considered edgy, so it was fairly easy for us to push things a little bit; just to see how far we could take the combination of all these elements while still feeling comfortable within our individual musical personalities.”