The last handful of releases from Puerto Rican jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón have featured peculiar but intriguing album covers, typically revealing something about the inspiration or story behind the record. The cover for his new release, Típico, features a retro photograph of a Puerto Rican string band, seemingly signifying that this album is intended to celebrate some aspect of Zenón’s home country, whether it be the feeling of national identity, as was the primary theme on his previous album, 2014’s Identities Are Changeable, or its rich musical culture and history, which was pertinent to the backstory of the composer’s 2011 record, Alma Adentro. Of course, much of Zenón’s back-catalogue draws inspiration from the saxophonist’s motherland, but instead, Típico is an honouring of sorts for the Miguel Zenón Quartet, who are celebrating 15 years of work in the jazz industry. Típico also marks Zenón’s 10th album as a band leader, furthering the cause for celebration. This shines a new light on the album cover, which seemingly seeks to capture to intimacy and camaraderie between members of a musical group. The eight original compositions from Zenón that appear on Típico are dedicated to his quartet and are inspired by each member’s individual playing style and personality. The members of the Miguel Zenón Quartet include pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Henry Cole, as well as, of course, Zenón himself. One significant exception in the tracklisting, however, is the opening composition, Academia, which was inspired by Zenón’s time teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music, particularly the way in which his students challenge the musician to ruminate about his approach to music and how this is best conveyed. Jazz is a genre known for thriving from musicians testing and inspiring one another, with many of the greatest band leaders bringing out the best in their musical colleagues by studying and understanding each of their individual approaches to music and seeking to enhance their unique attitudes as much as possible. In the liner notes, Zenón explains that collective identity is the main focus of this album, and this certainly shows, with the quartet’s latest effort being amongst their tightest and most focussed projects to date. Zenón comes across less like a band leader on this release than he does a mediator working between the members of the group, ensuring that their roles and abilities are used to their full effect. The result is an effort from the band that is as challenging as it is reflective, and demonstrates the collaborative capability of the group whilst also highlighting each individual member’s talent in their respective fields.
Academia opens the album up with a display of both Zenón’s impressive meeting of different approaches to jazz, as well as the spotless musicianship and interconnectedness of his band. This piece flows fluidly through many intricate passages that evoke elements of many different jazz stylings, with the group’s Latin jazz roots present as always, although they seem to be slightly less at the forefront on this track, acting more as the foundation than the most prominent feature. Zenón’s saxophone soloing is wacky but perfectly clear, played with an intense amount of precision that makes even the freer passages highly accessible for fans of straight-ahead acoustic jazz. Glawischnig and Cole immovably maintain the erratic rhythm of this piece, with Zenón allowing them both enough room to embellish where they see fit. Perdomo’s piano acts as the bedrock of this composition, but he also provides a lovely loose solo that breaks up the unpredictable nature of the piece nicely. To top it all off, Academia closes with a fast section, consisting of straight crotchet notes in the rhythm section with Perdomo’s piano following suit, as Zenón provides a jumpy melody that sounds akin to a crazy fairground tune. In this sense, this track finishes on an almost comical note, but it nonetheless proves to be a composition that is both eccentric and easy to get into. Indeed, Academia reflects the extent to which Zenón enjoys the challenge of teaching advanced students, and the idiosyncratic and complex piece that he uses to demonstrate this must have been quite the task for his band, further fortifying the lasting jazz sentiment that courses through this record’s veins.
Cantor is dedicated to pianist, composer and frequent Zenón collaborator, Guillermo Klein, and this shows in the arrangement, which features many of the subtle intricacies that Klein has incorporated into his works with the saxophonist. The piece’s eerie tango foundation provides lovely counterpoint to Zenón’s beautiful melodies, as well as Perdomo’s mellow and seductive piano flourishes. Ciclo is a piece that also stands out as a result of its exotic introduction, which features Zenón’s swirling and echoey saxophone complemented by strings and woodwind providing a mocking accompaniment. The main body of the track boasts some of the most explorative applications of melody on the entire record, especially from the piano’s perspective, with Perdomo providing some calm and collected piano runs that adorn the front-end of this piece. Shortly after, Zenón joins in as the piano and saxophone work as partners to carry the central melody of this composition, which is amongst the most memorable on Típico. Indeed, it is clear that every piece on this latest effort from Zenón retains some sort of unique quality, and this continues onto the title track, which perhaps holds its position as the central track on the record as a result of the way in which it meets so many of the quartet’s structural stylings so well. Latin jazz is married with elements from North American and Caribbean jazz persuasions, and to a great deal of success. The result is an indulgent and vibrant piece, brandishing an impressive array of stylistic influences even within the context of Latin jazz, displaying elements of everything from Zenón’s home nation’s ballroom dance genre of danza to the Spanish folk dance genre of bolero. Although this album’s main focus is on the identity of the Miguel Zenón Quartet, the group still proudly flaunt the cultural experimentation that has been a staple on their last handful of projects and has provided for much of the appeal of their music.
Típico displays Miguel Zenón and his quartet as focussed as ever, perhaps even more so than the already high-standards they have set for themselves. The melodic and rhythmic explorations on these eight pieces are arguably even more diverse than usual for the group, and result in some fantastically dynamic pieces that stand out amongst much of their recent material and show that the Miguel Zenón Quartet don’t find the restraints of any one style of jazz to hinder their sound and experimentation. As bandleader, Zenón does an admirable job of capturing and conveying not just the musical togetherness of his band, but also the impressive way in which they embody the spirit of jazz by evidently working off one another and mutually inspiring each other. Overall, Típico is a jazz highlight for me thus far this year and is one of the most creative jazz albums I have heard recently, acting as a fitting celebration of this composer’s band’s continued innovation over their 15 years of collaboration and friendship.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10