Saxophonist Miguel Zenón has taken on some interesting projects in his career. He's a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, a Kennedy Center jazz ambassador and the recipient of both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship.
He's also the founder of Caravana Cultural, a program designed to bring free-of-charge jazz concerts and educational presentations to rural areas of Puerto Rico. It involves both the best of New York's jazz players and young Puerto Rican musicians.
Zenón's latest recording "Identities Are Changeable" (11/4/2014 Miel Music) is inspired by the idea of national identity as viewed or experienced by the Puerto Rican community in the United States, specifically in New York City.
"I conducted a series of interviews with various individuals, all of them New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. And then I wrote music around the clips of those interviews," Zenón says.
'It's Part Of What I Am'
When interviewers (myself and others) point out that the music on the recording is not necessarily what most people think of as "Puerto Rican-style" music, he laughs.
"It's not folkloric music, no. It's original music; it has elements of jazz music and elements from other styles of music," he says. "But I kind of feel that, as a Puerto Rican musician, as a Latin American musician, it's hard for me not to include parts of that. It's part of what I am. It is Puerto Rican music, because I'm a Puerto Rican musician. And also the project is about Puerto Rico."
What He Learned About The Nature Of Identity
The music for "Identities are Changeable" was originally written for his quartet. Zenón then expanded the arrangements for the big band which recorded the CD. It has been presented live with the big band, videos and excerpts from the interviews. But the quartet version still represents exactly what he wanted to do with this project, he says, and, of course, it's easier to tour with four pieces rather than 16.
Here's what he learned from this undertaking: "I had never done anything like this before. I had never worked with the multimedia elements, conducting interviews...it was all very new to me. Even writing for the big band was new to me. The whole thing was a gigantic learning experience, in every way.
"In terms of the theme, the question, 'What does it mean to be Puerto Rican?' I found that, like most people, I have some preconceived notions about national identity: you have to be born somewhere, you have to speak a certain language, you have to have connection to certain things — and that really changed after this project. I feel that my definition, if I have a definition, is a lot wider now.
"The main thing I took away from the interviews and the question is that there's really not one answer. I came to understand that it's varied, depending on your personal experiences. It's basically very personal. And even within one individual, your perception of what your identity is could change within your lifetime. That was the thing that was most refreshing to me, to see how varied it was, and to really be OK with that. There could be so many different points of view about it."
Zenón was born and raised in Puerto Rico, so he sees his personal situation as different from that of his interviewees, who were all born in the U.S. But for his U.S.-born daughter, he's now thinking about how he wants her to be connected to the Puerto Rican identity.
"I'm excited to bring the quartet to Seattle, it's one of my favorite places. And I love the Earshot Jazz Festival, I've been there many times before, it's one of the greatest."
Zenón is bringing his quartet to the Earshot Jazz Festival on Monday, Nov. 10. He'll perform at 8 p.m. at the PONCHO Concert Hall at the Cornish College of the Arts.