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Miguel Zenón Quartet explores the Americas on its bracing new album

Miguel Zenon Quartet
Adrien Tillmann
/
The Miguel Zenón Quartet: Henry Cole, Zenón, Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig.

"The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing," observed the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano just over half a century ago. "Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations."

Galeano was writing in Spanish: those are the opening sentences of his book Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent), first published in 1971. And if that sounds like an unusual source of inspiration for a jazz artist, you may be overlooking the recent works of Miguel Zenón.

Miguel Zenon
Adrien Tillmann
/

An alto saxophonist, composer-bandleader and 2008 MacArthur Fellow, Zenón has long drawn inspiration from the cultural histories and legacies of his homeland, Puerto Rico. His angle of approach has sometimes favored the folkloric, and sometimes tacked more cerebral — but what always holds true is the laser focus of his inquiry and the intense clarity of his execution.

During the pandemic slowdown of 2020, Zenón redirected some of that energy. He still managed to release new music — notably a gemlike duo album, El Arte Del Bolero, that he and pianist Luis Perdomo originally performed as a livestream at The Jazz Gallery — but he also stepped up his research on the indigenous peoples and colonial powers of the early Americas. That story resonated with Zenón's perspective on Puerto Rico, and led him to create a new book of music.

The resulting album, Música de Las Américas, is yet another reminder that the Miguel Zenón Quartet — with Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole — should be considered one of the finest working small groups in improvised music. They kick off the current leg of their tour this Thursday at Esperanza Arts Center, before continuing on to dates in New England and the Midwest.

As is usually the case with Zenón's music, an idea mutates through musical expression. One case in point is the composition "Venas Abiertas," a direct reference to Galeano's book, which begins in a low, murmuring register and gradually assumes a 7/4 pulse. At 3:20, the band shifts again, into a pointillist funk groove, as Zenón reels off a solo.

Among the other sources informing this music is an anthropological study by Sebastian Robiou Lamarche, titled Taínos y Caribes: Las culturas aborigenes antillanas (Taínos and Caribs: The Aboriginal Cultures of the Antilles). As Zenón notes in press materials: "They were the two predominant societies but were very different: the Taínos were a more passive agricultural society while the Caribes were warriors who lived for conquest." He evokes that dualism, and an air of conflict, in the album's thrilling opener, "Taínos y Caribes." (Listen closely to Perdomo, who's on fire throughout the track.)

The quartet has played Philadelphia just a handful of times over the years — at the Clef Club, the Painted Bride, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And this week's show has a particular resonance for the group. "We've been looking forward to our concert at the Esperanza Arts Center for a while," Zenón tells WRTI. "They’ve been doing great things for the community in Philly and we're all very excited to get to share our music there."

The Miguel Zenón Quartet performs at Esperanza Arts Center on Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m.; find tickets here. Música De Las Américas is out now; buy it here.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.