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By Jeff Cebulski

Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet rejoin to garner support for Puerto Rican musical arts.

Chicago jazz fans will have a chance to express their support of the ongoing cultural reconstruction of Puerto Rico by attending a benefit concert featuring the heralded saxophonist Miguel Zenón performing his commissioned work Yo Soy La Tradición with local string ensemble the Spektral Quartet on Friday, September 21, at the Belvis Cultural Center, beginning at 7 p.m.

All proceeds from the concert will benefit the Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts, initiated by the Center to support professional artists affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria, not only in supporting them on the island but also in bringing them to Chicago to visit and perform.

The concert will also serve as an album party of sorts, too; the CD version will be released that weekend.

For Zenón, this effort, among others, is clearly personal. “I’ve been following the crisis in Puerto Rico very closely,” he said during an online interview. “My wife is from Puerto Rico as well and most of our family members are in the Island still. They’re all safe, but the situation is very grim. My main concerns are that the country’s infrastructure has not been able to deal with this crisis and that our political status is making it very difficult for our nation to get its head above water. Realistically, there need to be very drastic changes there for things to start moving in the right direction.”

Zenón, whose reputation as a deft cross-cultural alto player who is generous with his time to support and inspire jazz development lends ethos to this effort, has been involved with Caravana Cultural, a project to bring classic jazz performance directly to Puerto Ricans. The latest hurricane will not stop the project, but it has gotten in the way. He stated, “We decided not to have a concert this year because the conditions in the Island were so unstable. But we’re planning to get it going once again in 2019.”

The benefit performance will be the second time the commissioned piece will be played in total in Chicago; it was premiered at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in 2016. Of interest to people who wonder how a string ensemble and an alto sax work together in such a collaboration, Zenón and the Quartet will appear at Constellation on September 20. This unusual appearance will feature one section of the concerto.

Spektral Quartet with Miguel Zenón Spektral Quartet

“We’ll basically play just one piece, then break it down for the audience in sections,” he explained. “Then we'll play it again at the end. This is part of a series that Spektral has been putting together for a while, as a way to give the audience a bit more insight about the music.”

The work emanated from a request from the Logan Center and the Hyde Park festival. “I’ve had a long relationship with Kate Dumbleton [of the Art Institute] and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. I played a solo saxophone concert there in 2012 and we’ve collaborated on many occasions over the years. She reached out to me about writing a commission for the 2016 festival, something that incorporated musicians from the Chicago area. I thought about Spektral since we had worked on another project around that time and because writing for a string ensemble is something I had always wanted to explore.”

The finished piece, eight sections with an organic mixture of jazz, classical, and folk elements, took around six months to complete, starting with a two-month research period. “One of the main challenges for me was getting used to writing for this specific instrumentation, so I looked at a bunch of different scores and tried to find things in there that I could work with,” he said. “Another thing that took a little bit of time was figuring out a balance between the improvised sections and the sections that were written out more specifically, plus balancing out the sax with the strings so that my part wasn’t just floating on top of the orchestration, but more tucked in within the ensemble.”

Zenón first met and worked with Spektral back in 2013. “I was in Chicago that fall playing with my quartet at the Jazz Showcase and was contacted by an accordionist and composer, Julien Labro, who was in Chicago making an album with Spektral and had arranged a piece of mine for the session. He invited me to come in and record the piece with them, which turned out to be a lot of fun. I keep them on my radar after that and eventually this opportunity for a collaboration came up.”

While his familiarity with the Quartet had to have helped in his musical conception, one wonders if writing for strings is significantly different from writing for jazz players. Zenón responded, “I guess writing for strings is no different than writing for any other instrument. In this case what took a little time was for me to do a bit of research in terms of register, orchestration, etcetera, just to figure out what would best for the music. The guys and gals from Spektral were very helpful in this regard too, always pointing me in the right direction.”

As it turns out, string ensembles (or at least this one) CAN improvise. “I do most of the improvising on these pieces, but there are definitely a few sections where members of Spektral get to improvise as well. The violin cadenza towards the end of “Yumac” is improvised…so is the cello intro to “Promesa”…and there’s a section towards the beginning of “Villalbeño” where they all improvise collectively, right before the saxophone entrance.”

Those who hear the collection for the first time won’t have much trouble noting the influences. “The seeds for all these compositions come from very specific traditions from Puerto Rico, some of them musical, some of them cultural traditions. My intention was not to write music that sounded traditional or folkloric, but instead to use those sounds and ideas as inspiration to write these pieces.

“Having said that, this music is heavily inspired by other things besides my country and culture. I was able to expand on various harmonic and rhythmic concepts I’ve been working on for a while, plus there are lots of ideas in there that I grabbed from chamber pieces I’ve enjoyed over the years and, of course, tons of folklore from all over the world.”

Photo by Mark Corroto

Currently, Zenón is riding high after the release of Tipico, with his quartet of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole, that has established him with a well-earned distinction for creating a unique, organic Latin/Puerto Rican jazz niche.

But he has earned his straight-up merit badge with his involvement with the SFJAZZ Collective, a group of Bay Area musicians that dedicates yearly concerts to the memory of famous jazz artists. Meanwhile, this clearly-energized artist has other projects ongoing.

“I’ve been working on a lot of music for large ensemble lately. Wrote something for Sean Jones and NYO Jazz, which they premiered at Carnegie Hall and have been touring around Europe this summer. I also wrote a few pieces recently for both the Wind Ensemble and the Jazz Orchestra at MIT, and I’m starting to put together a commission for the Hewlett Foundation, to be premiered in early 2020.

“On top of that I’ve been playing a lot of sax/piano duos, mainly with Fred Hersch and Dan Tepfer. Those will both be documented sometime soon.”

So, artistically and altruistically, things have come together for Zenón. “I’ve organized four benefits already: one in the Bay Area [CA], one in Boston, and two in NYC. Aside from any funds we can raise with these benefits, I feel that the most important thing is to keep the Puerto Rican crisis in the conversation. With so many things going on in the world right now, it is easy for things like this to be put at the end of the line and eventually be forgotten about. We don’t want that to happen.”

His concern is deep. “I feel that, in general, people see the situation in Puerto Rico as a tragedy and are very supportive. But most people don’t realize that this crisis was not caused by a hurricane. This is something that has been building up for decades, getting worst and worst until is now finally, and unfortunately, out of control.”

He is aware of negative criticism the Puerto Rico administration has been subject to recently. “Our government has not been up to the task, and it can be expected that, during a crisis like this one, things like corruption and mismanagement will be rampant. But I don’t think it would have been much better with someone else in power. Puerto Rico is ruled by a Fiscal Control Board, not elected by the people but instead appointed by the US Government. At the end of the day they make all the decisions, not for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people, but with the intention of restructuring our foreign debt –a debt that many consider illegal, by the way. Like I mentioned earlier, our political status and the fact that our hands are tied in terms of making crucial decisions makes things even more difficult.”

Consequently, this seemingly tireless musician and composer moves forward, carrying the weight of family concern, cultural pride, along with public sentiment and criticism, on his back and in his heart. A nice crowd at the Belvis Center would be an honorable and timely response to his cause.

The Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is located at 4048 West Armitage Avenue. For ticket information

Constellation is located at 3111 North Western Avenue. See Spektal Quartet's Website for more information about the appearance on September 20.

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