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 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?

Miguel Zenon's "Identities are Changeable" art cover

“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 work very well: The approach was “a series of interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. He then identified key excerpts from the interviews and grouped them six thematically related clusters: national identity, home, blackness, language, the next generation, and music. 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), along with 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, as does Zenón when he conduct the group live”, states the press release.

“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, but all with different formats and with 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. The music is complex, perhaps the most challenging composition of Miguel’s career so far. 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, and the fact they were conducted in the homes or work spaces of the interviewers captured them relaxed and reflected their true environment. 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.

What I wonder is why Miguel chose not to add more Puerto Rican musical rhythms to the music, as the theme is about the Puerto Rican identity. There is 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.

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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