Miguel Zenón’s Jazz Story of Puerto Rican Diaspora

In “Identities are Changeable” Miguel Zenón uses jazz and voices to tell the story of the descendants of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City.

Although Puerto Ricans are the specific subject of Miguel Zenón’s musical documentary in this his 9th recording, he addresses a topic applicable to all Latinos (and perhaps all immigrants) living in the United States.

The Concept of “Identities are Changeable”; the Puerto Rican Diaspora

The idea of “Identities are Changeable” is centered around a question Miguel asked himself: what does it mean to be Puerto Rican in 21st-century New York City? This is an interesting question and I think it’s not much different the questions of what does it mean to be a Mexican in Los Angeles or Houston, or a Cuban in Miami?

"Identities are Changeable" addresses the Puerto Rican diaspora.

“Identities are Changeable” is Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon’s 9th recording.

Miguel Zenón’s press release from Braithwaite & Katz describes the creative process for this album. The approach was “a series of interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. Then, he identified key excerpts from the interviews and grouped them in six thematically related clusters. These are: national identity, home, blackness, language, the next generation, and music. Finally, as he began writing instrumental music to support the voices, those clusters became six fully elaborated musical movements.”

For “Identities are Changeable” Miguel Zenón (composer/alto sax) used his long-time cohesive quartet of Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass), and Henry Cole (drums). Additionally, he also used what he calls the “Identities” Big Band of five saxophones, four trumpets, and three trombones to add a full sound to music.

“Zenón explains ‘all of the compositions explore the idea of multiple rhythmic structures coexisting with each other (e.g., 5 against 7, 3 against 2, 5 against 3).’ Drummer Henry Cole has his hands (and feet) full holding down the simultaneous time streams. The same goes for Zenón when he conducts the band “live”.

“Identities are Changeable”; a Necessary Musical Documentary

Innovative Theme – Miguel Zenón’s creativity continues to impress me. He comes up with innovative themes for his albums, all around his experience as a Puerto Rican. However, all his albums have different formats and thrilling jazz compositions.

Jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenon with his quartet and big band.

Miguel Zenón with his quartet and “Identities” big band play a complex jazz music.

Music as co-Star – in “Identities are Changeable” the music shares the staring role with the interviews. In addition, the music is complex, perhaps the most challenging composition of Miguel’s career so far. As a result, it touches on various rhythms, with elements of jazz and of a musical soundtrack.

Well Organized Social Themes for Latinos in the U.S. – the honesty of the interviews comes through in the recording. Perhaps this is because they were conducted in the homes or work spaces of the interviewers. As a result, they captured them relaxed and reflected their true environment. Finally, the interview themes clusters are well organized and the music interfaces flawlessly with the conversations.

Missed Opportunities for “Identities are Changeable”

Puerto Rican Latin jazz sax player Miguel Zenón photo.

Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón is a multiple Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow.

In a innovative musical work of this magnitude, I honestly don’t dare to point out missed opportunities. I would think the only missed opportunity would be if you don’t give this album a good listen.

However, I wondered why Miguel chose not to add more Puerto Rican musical rhythms to the music. I say this because the theme is about the Puerto Rican diaspora and its identity. There is only one song with very subtle elements of “bomba”, but that was it.

A Unique Musical Documentary

Miguel Zenón’s “Identities are Changeable” is a unique musical documentary of a contemporary social theme, which uses jazz composition of a larger ensemble around the voice of the interviews. The result is a fascinating mix of music and documentary that makes an interesting listening experience. As an add-on, you can read more on Miguel’s music and the Puerto Rican identity in my blog HERE.

Video of Making “Identities are Changeable”

In this video, Miguel Zenón walks us through some of the behind the scenes of the making of this seminal work.

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