The young alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón brings the mathematical rigor and certainty of an engineer, which he nearly was, to his jazz compositions and performances, which are also informed with searing emotional intensity, technical mastery, and a Caribbean spice that recalls his native Puerto Rico. The winner of numerous accolades—including both a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a MacArthur Grant in 2008—Zenón has been in great demand, playing with a jazz Who’s Who (David Sanchez, Danilo Perez, Charlie Haden, Steve Coleman, and Branford Marsalis, among others), composing and performing as a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, and leading his own accomplished quartet.
In the midst of this success, which in a lesser artist might encourage complacency, Zenón undertook an examination of his artistic identity, “looking in to what I was doing as a musician and what I was creating,” he says.
His latest, acclaimed release, Awake (his third for Marsalis Music), reflects Zenón’s personal discoveries, and his quartet—with Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Henry Cole on drums—will share that music at the Outpost on Thursday.
The Systematic and the Random
Though he had a full scholarship to study engineering, Zenón instead chose to pursue a less certain musical path, studying at both Berklee and the Manhattan School of Music. While the ordered mind of an engineer has served him well as a musician, Zenón began to feel “very dissatisfied with certain things,” he says. “I was getting stuck basically, using the same kind of ideas and the same kind of approaches, specifically as a composer. I wanted to find other roads.
“I’ve always been a very systematic thinking kind of guy,” he says, “and of course, that has translated into the music that I’ve made. I try to avoid randomness or stuff that’s unplanned.”
He felt that his “disregard for the random” was limiting, and he searched for ways to change that.
The search coincided with the production of Awake. “By the time it was finished, I had come to peace with a lot of things.” He found that he could strike a balance between his systematic approach and “things that come out of the blue.”
Complex and Moving
Zenón’s systematic mind has devised some compelling structures on the Awake, like “Penta,” which is based on a 15/8 time signature, which is further subdivided among the quartet into threes and fives.
One thing that keeps such complex structures accessible is Zenón’s compositional emphasis on rhythm. “I almost always think of rhythm first,” he says. Caribbean breezes blow through most of his compositions, and Zenón’s cat-and-mouse games with rhythm—now pushing, now pulling at the flow—constitute an integral part of his musical personality.
His newfound openness to out-of-the-blue elements is demonstrated on the incantatory “Santo,” which developed from a call-and-response melody Zenón heard when he surfed into a Catholic mass on a hotel room TV.
“They were singing like this Gregorian chant over and over again,” he says. “I really liked that melody, so I wrote it down, and I was thinking about ways of using it. Basically, that melody kind of just developed into this tune, kind of organically. . . . I was really trying to capture that feeling I got when I heard it first—almost like a sacred [thing].”
Some of that feeling comes straight from Zenón’s tonal quality, which alone carries an extraordinary amount of information. Warm, open, and tender one moment, his tone can turn dense and piercing, as the moment demands.
A player who demands much of himself, Zenón offers listeners deeply personal music that draws from intellect, heart, and a healthy respect for the unexpected.