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Jazz-Plena fusion artist Miguel Zenon bridges worlds of music

A couple years ago I interviewed a hot name in jazz, Miguel Zenon, in advance of he and his quartet playing in Omaha.  This cat has major chops and I was a bit intimidated because I am far from a jazz aficionado, but he was great and if he detected my ignorance he didn’t let on.



Migul Zenon, ©photo by Daniel Sheehan




Jazz-Plena fusion artist Miguel Zenon bridges worlds of music

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


When the Miguel Zenon Quartet plays the Holland Performing Arts Center May 21 at 8 p.m., one of the world’s most acclaimed and decorated young artists will take center stage.

Leader-composer-saxophonist Miguel Zenon, a native of Puerto Rico now based in New York City, is a Grammy nominated musician, but the recognition goes well beyond that music award.

He’s been heralded by the Downbeat Critic’s Poll, Billboard magazine, the New York Times, Latin Beat, El Nueva Dia, the Chicago Tribune, Jazz Times, Jazz Improv and Jazz.com, among others.

Regarded as an innovator for bridging jazz with plena, the traditional music of Puerto Rico tinged by influences from Africa and Spain, he’s received major grants, including a 2008 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim helped fund a project that developed into his most recent CD, Esta Plena (2009).

That same year he received the MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant,” which recognizes individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” In his citation the MacArthur Foundation noted: “This young musician and composer is at once reestablishing the artistic, cultural and social tradition of jazz while creating an entirely new jazz language for the 21st century.”

The MacArthur prize includes a $500,000 stipend.

With so much that’s come his way so quickly — Zenon is only 30 — El Perico caught up by phone with the busy artist, who also teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, to talk about his red hot career and many accolades.

“I just feel very blessed by all these opportunities, They’re all very positive things,” he says. “They’ve all come in kind of a relatively short time and all very close to each other, and for me it’s just basically an incentive to keep doing what I’m doing and keep working hard and trying to move forward.

“These opportunities open doors to other opportunities and other roads. It’s truly the best thing you could ask for in terms of being a creative person — to have opportunities and people giving you the means to do what you want to do.”

One thing that won’t change is his work ethic.

“It’s just something that’s always been in my personality,” he says. “I understood early on in my development as a musician that in order to advance and move forward I just needed to be disciplined and focused and put in the work. It’s always been my main priority.”









His early musical foundation was laid at the San Juan performing arts school Escuela Libre de Musica, where he studied classical saxophone.

In the States his formal jazz training came at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Mass. He continued studies at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He’s learned too from all the gifted musicians he’s played with as sideman or leader.

“I think the big thing for me is to have this attitude of the eternal student and really trying to learn something from everyone and trying to be curious about things and trying to get something out of every experience,” he says.

Now, he’s the teacher.

“It’s something I enjoy very much. I learn a lot from my students and I learn a lot from myself. By having to pass on information and concepts and tools onto others, you sort of have to relearn them yourself. The whole experience and dynamic of being a teacher is a great learning experience for me in every way.”

Working with serious, highly motivated students is “my ideal situation,” he says, adding, “That’s when I feel I can give the most because I identify with that in many different ways.”

Honoring his heritage is a vital part of the music he shares with the world. He says his work is “an exploration of these two sides of me — of being a jazz musician and being rooted in this very strong Caribbean and Puerto Rican culture and trying to find something that connects both worlds.”

In Omaha, he says, “people can expect this sort of mix or fusion. The way I like to think of it is, I’m a Latin American musician that plays jazz music. I have many different things I like, many influences, just as anybody else, but I try to be honest and true to my background, my culture, my roots, and have that come out in a natural and organic way through my music. Hopefully, people hear that honesty and all those different combinations.”

His quartet will play original tunes from a new CD, Alma Adentro, set for August release on Marsalis Music. He says the label allows he and his collaborators great “freedom to do what we want to do.”

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