Review by Brad Walseth
Puerto Rican-American alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is one of the most highly regarded young musicians on the scene today. The list of artists he has performed with is stunning: David Sanchez, Charlie Haden, Branford Marsalis, Bobby Hutcherson, Danilo Perez, the Mingus Big Band, Ray Baretto. Zenon is also a member of the famed SF Jazz Collective (with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas and more). A multiple award winner, Zenon has released three prior albums to much acclaim.
"Awake" is an especially unusual departure for Zenon because he has added a string quartet on two tracks. The sound is also given a different color through keyboardist Luis Perdomo's use of a Fender Rhodes electric piano at times. Rounding out the core quartet is rising star NYC bassist Hans Glawischnig and powerhouse drummer Henry Cole. Tenor sax, trumpet and trumpet are added on an interlude, but the album is primarily Zenon's show and he makes the most of it. His alto is more bittersweet than sweet with a seemingly Brecker-ish disdain for the trite and maudlin. Instead, he infuses his lines with a thoughtful strength and interesting twists and turns, even when the music moves into a Latin melodic vein (as on the outstanding "Penta").
The NYC/Latin connection seems to be producing some of the most original and interesting music of this year, and Zenon's "Awake" falls right into place with recent releases by Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Arturo O'Farrill. The rhythmic intensity of the Afro-Cuban sounds fit like a glove with the harmonic complexity of the NYC jazz scene and is producing some of the most compelling music around. The compositions on Awake are dense and reward by revealing surprises with repeated listenings. "Camaron" is rhythmic heat and soaring lines, "The Missing Piece" slows things into a atmosphere of regret and longing. "Ulysses in Motion" lives up to its title with some fantastic fiery modern post bop and some of Zenon's most amazing playing, while the "Awakening Interlude" is aggressive freeform blowing at its best.
There does seem to be a connective thread running through all of the pieces to create a symphonic sort of feel that relates to Zenon's life experiences, past struggles and current hope and joy. The expansive "Santo" moves from quiet melodicsm (with Glawischnig on bowed bass) to an explosive swirl of pure joyous energy (and back). The contrast between the strings and Perdomo's electric piano is most evident on the haunting, but largely unsentimental love song to his wife, "Lamamilla," but the textures are emboldened by Zenon's unusual note and rhythm choices on "Third Dimension." This satisfying song sets Zenon at his melodic best against a bedrock of undulating Latin rhythm, with abrupt shifts and breaks.
This new album shows Zenon to be a young artist who is experiencing an awakening of his own as he opens his eyes to a new level of creativity.