“All of Zenón’s varied projects have seemed propelled by a singular quest, and with this magisterial chamber music outing the alto saxophonist grabs hold of the grail as never before. Becoming in effect a fifth member of the Spektral (string) Quartet, Zenón derives from the folkloric genres of his native Puerto Rico a strikingly individual musical hybrid, fluid and poetically expressive, yet unrelenting in its technical demands.”
”Miguel Zenon featuring Spektral Quartet: “Yo Soy La Tradicion” (Miel Music). In 2016, alto saxophonist and MacArthur Fellowship winner Zenon partnered with Chicago’s enterprising Spektral Quartet for the world premiere of his suite “Yo Soy La Tradicion” (“I Am Tradition”). Commissioned by the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, the piece wove the rhythms, cadences and song structures of Zenon’s native Puerto Rico into a sprawling work that intertwined classical, jazz, blues and folkloric vocabularies. By turns complex and accessible, historic and contemporary, “Yo Soy La Tradicion” represents a major contribution from composer Zenon, in an uncommonly sensitive collaboration with the Spektrals.”
“A CD debut concert at First Church of Boston on November 15th found the MacArthur-certified genius and Guggenheim Fellow Miguel Zenón alongside the magnificently flexible Spektral String Quartet, playing live, the music on his 11th ground-breaking album “Yo soy la tradiciòn.”
The group began the night with “Rosario,” ushered in by the cello’s low throaty pitch, reflective of a folksy, somewhat spiritual sounding church prelude. It is inspired by a Catholic Holy Rosary, traditionally played on folk instruments at funerals or other occasions. It is immediately interrupted with soulful, virtuosic alto saxophone lines. It beautifully juxtaposed 200-year-old classical music traditions and rule-bending modern jazz influences. Miguel Zenón and Spektral Quartet dove deep inside the musical/cultural history of Puerto Rico, but also looked towards Western music to uncover the wisdom behind the tradition. Tradition is, after all, nothing more than a “corpse of wisdom.” Miguel naturally challenges it with his exceedingly outgoing personality, extending it with his rich musical vocabulary of contemporary jazz. What is the point of a set-in-stone (musical) tradition if the wisdom behind it is not present anymore? It truly is a brave composition that connects The Catholic Church representing Holy Rosary’s musicalized order with a refreshing impressionistic texture, jagged rhythms, syncopated phrases and intense vibrancy that shines through Spektral’s musical delivery.”
On November 3rd, we met over fifty music fans at 6:30am (!!!) at the Berger Park Cultural Center to usher in the sunrise together.
We lucked out with idyllic weather, and the crowd was open-eared and surprisingly bright-eyed given the hour. We began with a group vocal meditation, led by our friend Charmaine Lee, performed two movements of the Ravel quartet, and then shifted into an improvisation to greet the rising sun.
“The saxophonist had written for string quartet before, but in preparing to work with the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet — Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violins; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rolen, cello — Zenón decided that he wanted true interaction between his alto and the quartet. “I wanted to feel [that I was] part of the ensemble,” he says. “I didn’t want this to be the kind of thing where the strings just play little [backgrounds] for me to play on top of. I also wanted to balance improvisation with what was written out.”
Yo Soy La Tradición was actually recorded as Hurricane Maria was battering the island nation. A year and a day later, Zenón held a release concert in Chicago on September 21, as a benefit for Chicago’s Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. “That was the quartet’s idea,” he notes. “They saw me on the phone, trying to speak to my family, watching the news while we were making the record. They said, ‘We really want to do something.’”
“This beautifully constructed chamber set takes a different tack by complimenting Zenón’s dry tone, acute intellect and inner fire with the tonal subtleties of the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. Zenón’s cool, rhythmically aware saxophone aesthetic is based on clean lines and obtuse harmonic angles and here they soar over, rummage in and merge with strings that draw on the full width of the contemporary classical canon.”
“It takes but a few bars of “Rosario”, the first chart of Yo Soy la Tradición, by composer and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón to realise that this music is special. By the time you get to the end of the recording – eight magnificently-sculpted works performed by Mr Zenón with the Spektral Quartet – you will be in absolutely no doubt that this is his magnum opus. There are several reasons why; not the least among them is that this work for solo alto saxophone and string quartet is one of Mr Zenón’s most impressionistic works, full of shimmering and diaphanous textures that recall not only Debussy but also an extraordinary celebration of the alto saxophone played in a classical music style. Mr Zenón’s playing is so flawlessly pure and there is a wholly natural feeling to the way he executes the climaxes and sudden changes of direction in this perfectly judged performance. Moreover the saxophonist and the Spektral Quartet parlay so subtly and seamlessly that one senses musical dialogue is taking place between old friends deeply immersed in tradition.”
“Five years ago, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón was performing with his quartet at a club in Chicago when he was contacted by Julien Labro, a French accordionist based in Canada. Labro was in town making a record with Spektral, a Chicago-based string quartet that specialises in contemporary music. He had arranged a piece by Zenón, a racing tune called ‘El Club de la Serpiente’, for the session, and wanted to know if he would have any interest in recording it with them. Zenón went to the studio, and instantly clicked with the quartet. ‘The guys from Spektral were really on top of the music, which made the session very fun and easy,’ he told me. (‘El Club de la Serpiente’ appeared on Labro’s 2014 album From This Point Forward.) When the Hyde Park Jazz Festival commissioned Zenón to write a work for local musicians, ‘naturally I thought of Spektral.’
Before I say anything more about this breathtaking album, let me emphasise what it is not: jazz-with-strings, the archetypal middle-brow, mid-20th-century genre in which a jazz soloist improvises over an orchestral backdrop that would otherwise be of scant musical interest. No insult intended: I rather like jazz-with-strings, especially if the soloist is Charlie Parker. But the strings in jazz-with-strings seldom did more than create a lush ambience – an aspirational signifier of class and refinement at the time, now a quaint signifier of the time and its aspirations.”
This Friday, October 5th, we bring you Tonia Ko’s Plain, Air…a riveting encounter with the Lake Michigan shoreline ecology that received its world premiere just three weeks ago at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.
We’ve fallen head-over-heels for this string-quartet-and-electronics piece, and to this day, we’re fielding exuberant emails and text messages from concertgoers, eager to tell us about their personal reverberations following this unique experience.