At the relatively young age of 37, saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenon has established an artistic identity that is at once stunningly complex and surprisingly comprehensible. In his music, Zenon seamlessly weaves the traditions and culture of Puerto Rico with the sophistication of modern jazz, a combination that goes hand-in-hand with his personal biography.
Born in Puerto Rico, Zenon arrived in Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music as a teenager in 1996. Two years later, he relocated to study at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, where he has lived ever since. From his stint in fellow Puerto Rican David Sanchez’s band to co-founding the SFJazz Collective on the West Coast, Zenon has always incorporated his island roots into his work. A specific breakthrough occurred with the release of 2005′s “Jibaro,” for which Zenon wrote original jazz songs based on the string-oriented jibaro music of Puerto Rico.
In 2008, Zenon was awarded a prestigious “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, which provided $625,000, no strings attached, over a five-year period. That same year, he earned a Guggenheim Fellowship for musical composition that enabled him to make Esta Plena, another project where he wrote original modern jazz informed by a specific musical style — in this case plena — from Puerto Rico. In the summer of 2011, he released Alma Adentro, on which he covered classic songs from the top composers in his native country. Two years later, Zenon released a blistering concert disc, Oye!!! Live from Puerto Rico.
Now comes Identities Are Changeable, the highly ambitious new installment of Zenon’s cultural journey, exploring the impact of Puerto Rican culture on second and third-generation Americans with Puerto Rican heritage living in and around New York City.
How was the Identities Are Changeable project initiated?
This idea of Puerto Ricans in the United States and the idea of national identity among the community has been evolving for awhile. I have some family here. My father lived in the United States, in New York specifically, before he passed away, and I have siblings, nephews and cousins I used to visit.
And then a few years ago I read a book by Juan Flores, called The Diaspora Fights Back. What he did was interview a bunch of individuals from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean who were born outside of the United States, lived here, then went back home. I thought that was interesting.
Around that time, I was approached by Peak Performance at Montclair University in New Jersey to commission a piece. I thought it might be interesting to put something together where I would conduct interviews in a similar way to what Juan had done in the book, and then use those clips to write music around them.
What makes it really interesting is how Puerto Rico is unique in its relationship to the United States. Native Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship but not all the perks enjoyed by other U.S. citizens. It’s a complicated relationship. Growing up in San Juan, what did you think of the United States? Were you told you were a citizen? What did you make of the relationship?
I wasn’t aware of it at all. When I came over here, it was just to visit my family in the Bronx, so I was in a really familiar environment: Everybody spoke Spanish, there was the same music, everybody ate the same food, all those things. All the customs were the same, it was just in a different place.
As I grew up, the idea came into my mind how much this place did involve me and my family in Puerto Rico. This is very common: People born in my parents’ generation, around the 1950′s, moved to New York for work. When my mother’s family was around five or six, they moved to Queens, and she always talked about that period being very formative in her life. There is a deep connection between Puerto Rico and New York City specifically, that goes back generations.
When you talk about “changeable identities,” does that have to do with the quote you cite from Juan Flores, that the people are able to have “more than one cultural self”? Or does it have to do with the fact that Puerto Ricans in the United States can almost choose how much they want to assimilate or not assimilate because of this unique relationship?
It is both. Of course the title [of the record] comes from the quote in Juan’s interview, but one of the most powerful things that I got out of the people I interviewed was the idea that they had a choice. They had a choice of what their identity was going to be, and those choices would change at different points, depending upon their experiences and their lifestyle. I thought that was really powerful. Because there are individuals that connect to their Puerto Rican roots, and they didn’t have to do that. They could have chosen another role.
And that is obviously a tribute to the richness of the Puerto Rican culture, that these people you interviewed, who were born in the United States, would relate to it so strongly.
There has got to be a reason why those traditions survive in a foreign land for so long. Also, I think there are a lot of political factors, too. This whole thing about Puerto Rico not being a state, but also not being free of the United States — that controls how people think about politics. You are either pro-statehood, pro-independence, or you want it to stay the way it is now. And I think, especially for the communities living here, they have this feeling of nostalgia for not being at home. Most of the people who came over were working class people. They experienced cold weather for the first time, they heard people speaking a different language. They were proud to have what they had, but they became tied to the pro-independence movement because they felt that what they had [back home] really was special, once you see it from this side of the ocean.
Your personal biography comes at it from the other side. When you arrived in the United States, did you have any idea how fundamental that change would be for you?
No, not really. I came to Boston before I came to New York. I moved there when I was 19 to attend the Berklee College of Music. I was kind of taking it step by step. When I finished at Berklee, I was 21, and it was like, “So what do I do now?” So I went to grad school in New York and started to play more and getting more a feel of the city. Then it kind of made sense to just stay here a little longer. Once I experienced the [Puerto Rican] community and the jazz community and realized that [that] was what I really wanted to do, it was pretty obvious that [New York] was the place for me to be.
But it doesn’t seem like you had a lot of confusion in terms of your identity. You had relationships and mentorships with both Puerto Rican musicians and those who weren’t from the island. Even on your first record, there are songs from Puerto Rican composers and other material woven through it. Has bridging the divide been as easy for you as it seems?
In the case of national identity, I think it is very different for Puerto Ricans born on the island. The Puerto Ricans who are born here, the second and third generations, they’re born into [essentially] a foreign environment. I lived in Puerto Rico until I was 19, so my identification came through that. A lot of the ideas about how I wanted to represent myself and my music happened here [in the States]. Once I started to ask myself what I wanted my music to sound like, I started going back to when I was in Puerto Rico and what I went through there. It didn’t happen overnight. It took a little while for me to realize what I wanted to express, as a Puerto Rican jazz musician. The records I make kind of document that process.
In retrospect it seems like Jibaro is a groundbreaking record in your catalog in your ability to simultaneously present yourself as both a Puerto Rican musician and a jazz musician. Did it feel that way when you were making it?
That was the first record I made in what turned out to be a series of records focused on a specific theme. After I made that record, I realized that way of looking at it worked for me. Going after a subject, kind of approaching it as a research project is something I have now done on other records, including this last one.
On Identities Are Changeable, it seems like you undertook a number of big challenges at the same time — doing interviews and synthesizing that oral history into your music, and then having that music be your first major work for a really large ensemble. Was that freeing or scary?
[Laughs] A little of both. Interviewing people was totally new for me. For the music, I had written for an eight-piece [band], and I’d done some big band writing in college. But I took this project as a learning experience. I thought, “I’m going to take my time, because I didn’t want to just jump into something I was going to regret.” But I found a way to do it that matched my experience — or lack of experience.
How long did the process take? When did you start doing interviews?
In early 2011, I started working on the interviews. I did the interviews first and then from listening to the interviews I created a narrative around what I thought the interviews expressed, finding themes. Then came tunes and [musical] ideas, and those ideas were then expanded for the larger ensemble. It took a while. The premiere was in February 2012, with big band and video and audio.
You’ve had the same quartet for a long time. Your drummer Henry Cole is Puerto Rican, the bassist Hans Glawischnig was mentored by Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto and pianist Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela. Is it important for the people you play with to be intimately in tune with your heritage?
I would say it is important for them to be familiarized with Puerto Rican music, or just a Latin American concept of what music is. The rhythmic thing and the phrasing — the more familiar you are, the better the music is going to sound. So it definitely helps. But aside from that; they are just good musicians. In the case of Hans, who is from Austria, who has played with Ray Barretto and David Sanchez, he’s just an amazing musician. You put something in front of him and he’ll check it out and do the research and basically make sure he is playing it right. There is this specific level of being a musician that they all have, which is really the reason I have been playing with these guys for 15 or 20 years. They are the backbone of what I do.
One of the people you interviewed in the oral histories was your sister. Is she older or younger than you?
She is younger. She just turned 30 and she was born in New York. I purposely interviewed people who had Puerto Rican roots, but who were born here. Some of them live in New York and some live around New York. A musician I interviewed, Camilo [Molina], a percussionist, his parents were also born here, so it’s his grandparents who provide that part of his identity. He is just an amazing example of what we are talking about, making choices about your identity. Camilo is as connected to Puerto Rican traditions and music — maybe even more connected — than a lot of the people I know back home. He speaks perfect Spanish, plays all the Puerto Rican music perfectly — he’s been playing that music since he was five years old. It is really powerful for him to say — and he’s a young guy — that the music is what really made him find himself.
When talking about identity and coming together, did the folks you interviewed go through periods where they rejected Puerto Rico or did not want to become part of being Puerto Rican in their identity?
Yeah, of course. Of the people I interviewed, a couple of them talked about certain periods of their life when it wasn’t really that important. A few of them said they grew up not speaking Spanish at home. They knew their parents were from Puerto Rico, but their connections to it came as an older person. Most of them wished they had been more connected as a child.
How are you going about it now? Do you have occasion to speak Spanish every day?
Me? Yeah, I do. My wife is Puerto Rican, so that helps [laughs]. And my daughter, who was born here, she is almost three and we speak to her exclusively in Spanish. So at home I only speak Spanish.
Is that because you want her to be bilingual and you know she will get English outside the home?
Of course. That’s our plan, anyway. She’s a New Yorker but we are trying to plant that seed. We want to connect her to the language and be as close to the culture as she can be. Eventually, it will be her decision. But we’ll play our parts and give her the tools to make that decision.
How do you respond to this latest wave of anti-immigration fervor? It has been a part of American history for centuries now, this idea of fearing people who are not like you. This nation has had a long history of simultaneously accepting and rejecting immigrants. As somebody in your position, which is unique in some ways, how do you shadowbox with that kind of stuff?
[Laughs] Yeah, well, of course for me it’s obvious, because my perspective is: I came here as a foreigner and I consider myself Puerto Rican. I don’t consider myself as from the United States, although I am a citizen. You know what I mean? At the same time, when I see how this country was formed, it is obvious to me that people [immigrating] here had a lot to do with it.
I understand when people get a little scared about certain things, but I would have to blame it on ignorance. I am pretty clear about the power of the immigrant community in this country, and it’s also evident by the many surveys and statistics that, you know, this is not going to stop. This is going to keep growing and at some point it might be that the foreign community is going to be larger than the people who were born here. And that’s cool! That’s what this country is.
Now that Identities Are Changeable is finished, how do you feel about this record? And where will you go next?
I am happy about the record, happy about how it came together. It was a long process, not only putting the music together but putting the record together. I was doing this on my own, and as you can imagine, there are so many things to coordinate and so many things that can go wrong. During the process you are saying, well it looks really bad now but at some point it is going to all come together and all this work and all this struggle is going to be worth it. And that’s how I feel now.
In terms of what this leads to, I’m really not sure. I am trying to write more music for the quartet; just dabbling with certain ideas and discovering things. So I will keep trying to find another road but at this point I am focused on finding ways to get this music across.