Thursday, March 9, 2017

Miguel Zenon Quartet gives a lesson in musical stretching and consolidating at the Jazz Kitchen

Miguel Zenon has carved a niche for himself in jazz partly because he both honors his Puerto Rican roots and declines to embed his music in the tradition of Latin jazz.

Luis Perdomo (from left), Miguel Zenon, Hans Glawischnig, Henry Cole.
This would be a laudable project on its own terms, but what makes it significant is that, over the past decade or so, he has turned it into something that can be considered almost a sub-genre. It's Zenon music, expressed around a core of musicians who have been with him for about 15 years: drummer Henry Cole, pianist Luis Perdomo, and bassist Hans Glawischnig.

The alto saxophonist was on hand with this ensemble at the Jazz Kitchen for the first time Wednesday night. In the set and a half I heard, the group offered a wholehearted demonstration of the leader's focus on themes, often modal, that hang together through simple patterns that invite spur-of-the-moment complication in both solo and ensemble episodes. Repeated fragments tend to take on stature through variation of both texture and intensity. There's often a whirlwind coda to wrap things up in astonishment.

The music was drawn from Zenon's most recent CD, "Tipico" (Miel Music). Formally, it offers an individualized departure from the head-solos-head structure of so much small-group jazz from bebop on. Not only that, the way soloing emerges from the texture differs both from mainstream jazz and from various fusion styles, where a band's characteristic sound defines what the repertoire is all about. At the same time, this ensemble is immediately identifiable, because each player stands out from the norm on his instrument — even at the highest level. Zenon music is a self-contained rebuttal to the charge that jazz today has settled into grooves that have become ruts.

The internal rapport is a constant feature. It could be appreciated in how perfectly matched Cole's drumming was with Perdomo's piano solos. The pianist, who has one of the most fluid and inventive single-line styles among jazz pianists at the top of their game, has attractively layered chordal playing, arpeggiation, and trilling upon it, on the evidence of Wednesday night. Like his colleagues, Perdomo operates at a level of virtuosity that avoids mere busyness. Cole, to offer another instance, placed his soloing at a steady tempo, tucking his hard-hitting inspiration within it, not just splashing around in a percussion wading pool. He made the solos seem a logical outgrowth of his accompaniment duties.

Glawischnig opened one piece with a lengthy unaccompanied cadenza that made sense retrospectively, after the group opened up the elaborate figures the bassist had already laid down. His solo early in the second set, both fluttering and funky, was a highlight of the gig.

Topping the expert group, of course, is the alto-sax virtuosity of the leader. His tone was always full and balanced; at the top end of the horn, he allowed some rawness to intrude, but never overindulged it. His facility is unmatched among current players on his instrument. Phrases that go out on a limb never lose their balance. The tone is rich but not overladen, and the rhythmic profile is always self-assured.  Zenon sounded both daring and graceful, often at the same time: he's the Roger Federer of alto saxmen.

His debut at the Kitchen was a great milestone, and his fans are sure to be among those attending the appearance of the SFJazz Collective, of which Zenon is a founding member, when the West Coast band comes here April 22.