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Alto Saxophonist Miguel Zenón Evokes Folkloric Melodies On 'Típico'


This is FRESH AIR. Puerto Rican alto saxophonist and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenon has recorded 10 albums of his own with various ensembles, including the acclaimed "Identities Are Changeable," which explored what it means to be Puerto Rican in the greater American context. The core of Zenon's larger groups is typically his long-running quartet, whose new album is called "Tipico." Kevin Whitehead has a review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Miguel Zenon with Hans Glawischnig on bass. There are a lot of sides to Zenon's music that only begin with the complex insider-outsider status of the Puerto Rican jazz musician. He can write fiendishly intricate music, but he can also evoke old folkloric melodies as if such tunes poured out of his horn.


WHITEHEAD: Miguel Zenon's song for his young daughter, "Sangre De Mi Sangre," "Blood Of My Blood." Zenon gets a warm, alluring sound on alto saxophone, where he brings those two sides of his personality together. He plays intricate music that sounds like it comes from the heart. Zenon has a rhapsodic, lyrical, Stan Getz-y (ph) side that jazz can always use more of.


WHITEHEAD: The new album, "Tipico," is for Miguel Zenon's quartet, a band he's led about 15 years with only one personnel change. This time out, he wrote each sideman a piece based on the way that man plays within the band. Zenon would take one of his players' pet licks or an extract from one of his solos and build a composition around it. His tune for pianist Luis Perdomo incorporates a fast passage he'd improvised one night. It's not always easy learning to play something you'd improvised. John Coltrane once looked at a transcript of one of his solos and said, I can't play that. Zenon plays that solo line along with the piano, which is only fair, but he also had to make the end product sound like a real composition.


WHITEHEAD: Miguel Zenon builds pieces around the way his musicians play for the same reason Duke Ellington did - to make his band sound more like itself. That encourages the players to step up with their own ideas in ways of dealing with the material. On the title track of "Tipico," Henry Cole's drum solo sneaks out of the ensemble instead of announcing itself as a drum solo.


WHITEHEAD: For a bandleader, it's a luxury to have a stable lineup to work with and write for. Since Miguel Zenon's music has a lot of different aspects, he needs players with quirky skill sets similar to his own. If you're a leader and you can find such people and you like them and the way they play and they make you sound better, you want to hold on to that.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Tipico," the new album by the Miguel Zenon quartet. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Trump, Putin and the new cold war. My guests will be David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and Evan Osnos, who covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. They collaborated on a new piece in The New Yorker about what lay behind Russia's interference in the 2016 election and what lies ahead. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.