I was cleaning up after a recent interview with Miguel Zenon, and happened upon some quotes that didn’t make the final edit. The beauty of a blog is that you can offer interested parties a bit of lagniappe. Here’s Branford Marsalis and Zenon himself getting their pundit on. Nice that the new Steve Coleman disc, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi) is dropping in early June. Zenon will have some more black science to absorb.
What made you want to have Miguel on the label in the first place?
I tend to think of jazz in populist terms. I’m not one those people who believes that the key to making jazz relevant is to start playing Radiohead tunes. It ultimately doesn’t work, because the people who like Radiohead don’t want to hear instrumental versions of those songs, and jazz people want to hear jazz. As I looked around, I saw that of all those guys who had the advanced thinking, the ones who tended to succeed, were the ones who understood the simple things, the populist things.
One simple thing is: melody reigns supreme. You can’t treat it like an afterthought. Melody is the most important part of a song, even more important than your solo. Bird understood that, Armstrong understood that, Bechet understood that, Coltrane understood that. Sonny Rollins understands that. And of the new crop of guys, Miguel is the guy who actually naturally understands that.
When did you first hear him?
I heard him with David [Sanchez], on the record Melaza. During his first solo I said “God damn, he’s been listening to Steve Coleman. Trends come and go, but a good musician is forever. Musicians, unfortunately…we gravitate toward the things that will insure us the greatest level of success with the largest amount of relative ease. These days it’s easier to play “Giant Steps” than it is to play that Steve Coleman shit because [Steve’s stuff] forces you to rethink your approach to music. So someone said [Miguel] is like Steve Coleman, and I said “Yeah, but the shit is actually grooving and swinging, even sometimes more than what Steve got to, and Steve got pretty damn far. [Miguel] has the ability to grab complex things and make ‘em musical. A lot times in modern society, complex things are complex at the expense of everything else.
The other thing that colored my thoughts about Miguel is from an interview I once did. The guy asked me “Why don’t you play the pop tunes of the day?” I said, “They’re not applicable.” He says that’s what Charlie Parker did, and I said “No, he didn’t have to negotiate Prince tunes – that shit is different. He said “How is it different?” I said “Can we talk about this tomorrow, cause I need to think about it. I know it’s different, but I can’t intellectualize it. I need 24 hours. About eight hours in it came to me, and when he called I was ready. I said “Okay, when you look at the Broadway show tunes, almost all the people writing those songs had a very vibrant folk music they came from. It happened to be Jewish folk music, stuff that was played in celebrations, in temple, bar mitzvahs, but folk music nonetheless. Almost all the musicians that played the stuff were classically trained. And on the black side it was the blues. Ellington, Fats Waller, Morton and the blues. In the Broadway sense, great Jewish folk tradition, almost all the guys played piano and they made their living writing songs for people other than themselves to sing, so the songs had to have a universiality. In modern pop, the kids grow up completely secular with no folk traditions whatsoever. They all play guitar, which is an instrument that has bends and all these other things the piano doesn’t have. And they write songs to sing themselves, so the songs are more highly personalized. So if you take the average pop song, with the exception of a guy like Billy Joel or a guy like Elton John, it’s really difficult to play those songs on instruments and make it work, and the style of the songs have changed so much, the chord structures don’t really lend themselves to solos. So the thing that was hip about hearing Miguel was the fact that he was kinda a like a return to the days of Gershwin or Basie. He grew not only listening stuff in church, but surrounded by an incredible folk music, matter of fact it would three or four folk musics on one island. You have bomba, plena, and the jibaro from the hills. They learn it as kids, like nothing, it’s just there. Like growing up in New Orleans, same thing, you just learn the folk stuff, you sing along. You’re not going to a class – you learn it in the streets, man. So for all of that right brain shit that Miguel has, he’s got this counterweight of the left side that a lot of the modern guys don’t have. That’s what hit me.
When I hear Miguel’s band play, there’s something to the heft of what they’re doing. He could go onstage and do a stereotypical jazz set. “How High the Moon” and all them tunes – and play the hell out of it. He listens to musicians and internalizes. Other guys lean more on harmonic information. Their problem-solving is based on whether this scale works on that chord. Miguel knows that stuff. He gave me some stuff I’m trying to tackle – I’m not technically minded like that. I’m not one of those guys, but I’m trying to address that part of my playing. But when he plays it doesn’t sound mathematical. He uses dynamics. I hear a difference between guys who transcribe by ear and the guys who don’t .
You’re a big Charlie Parker nut. You’ve transcribed lots of his solos?
Lots. And once I moved to New York and started hanging with Steve Coleman – he’s the biggest Parker freak around – I got into it even more.
Coleman’s strategies have become a big influence for some players.
Some people couldn’t hear it at the start. I was hooked right away. First disc I got was Black Science. I had no idea what was going on in the music, but it sounded so hip. So different, so powerful, so well made…I was in Puerto Rico, it was. ’93 or so. When I finally met him I was like a groupie. “Do you remember when you made…” The great thing is that he’s really into sharing information. The guys from my generation take that M BASE stuff as a heavy influence. You talk to Vijay, Rudresh, Dafnis, Steve, they’ll tell you. And they all express it in a different way. Use different aspects of it. Steve is a serious guru figure.
What other alto players are you taken with?
Cannonball Adderley – the first solo I ever transcribed was Cannonball’s “Freddy Freeloader.” Wow. I remember that vividly. I went through a heavy Lee Konitz phase. Super heavy. I never told him. When I see him it’s like seeing Bird. Like, “Man that guy was around when Bird was around, and he’s right there in front of me.” It’s like a walking legend.
Who else of your generation is making moves?
Too many… Kurt, Mark, Brad. The Smalls guys: Jason, Myron. When I moved here checked ‘em immediately. I’m a huge fan of Steve Lehman. Younger guys, Robert Glasper, Aaron Parks. Lots of talent around right now.
It the traditional language of swing fading away these days. You go to see Lou Donaldson and his ease sounds almost foreign. Tunes and rhythms are becoming more elaborate, complex – what are we losing?
There are two sides. The language of swing is the foundation for anything happening now. It’s important to know it cold. I’m not trying to be all traditionalist here, but you’ve got to check Lou Donaldson and you’ve got to hear him swing, and you should be able to swing if need be. If you can’t play changes and time and melodies, you’ve got some work to do. It’s amazing stuff. You need to be able to play in that language. It’s the foundation of this music, and all music really. But it’s important to be honest. Even though I respect that music, it’s really not what I hear when I write. Even though I play with the guys from the SF Collective, a we’re playing something with that feel, I try to be true to that feel, not just do my thing. But if I’m writing my own stuff I don’t feel like I have to swing just to prove I’m a jazz guy or whatever. Again, you could hear it in a real ground breaker, like Wayne Shorter. He’s breaking ground, but he’s swinging hard, no doubt.
Miguel Zenon plays at the Jazz Standard from June 10 – 13