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Exclusive First Listen: Miguel Zenon, 'Esta Plena'

Saxophonist Miguel Zenon's career has taken a relentlessly upward trajectory over the past decade. He's a 2008 winner of the prestigious Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, as well as a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective. All the while, Zenon has investigated his Puerto Rican roots with a quiet resolve. On his new recording, Esta Plena, he's distilled his musical history into a clear conception: a cultural exchange between jazz and the folkloric form known as plena.

Plena is a historical contemporary of jazz, but developed independently. Spanish narrative song and African rhythms from the island's Southern coast contributed to early plena. It was performed by everyday people — some who migrated into urban centers like San Juan and Ponce, others who moved to New York. Songs can express a periodical news item, and social commentary is not uncommon ("Que Sera de Puerto Rico?"). Of course, sometimes the purpose is simply to party ("Pandero and Pagode," "Despedida"). As a feeling, plena is still part of the modern Puerto Rican identity.

The style also boasts a unique rhythmic component: three hand drums called panderos. The seguidor (bajo) is the largest, and it sets the bass notes with an insistent pattern on the downbeat. The segundo (punteador) plays another steady beat in counterpoint. The requinto is the smallest drum, and it is the lead improvising voice over the groove created by the two larger drums.

In this collection of all original material, Miguel Zenon methodically bridges plena to the language of mainland modern jazz. He takes the concept of three panderos as an organizing principle: variations of three, six, and nine are recurrent motifs in the form, phrasing, and intervals of Zenon's compositions. His working quartet for five years — Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and fellow Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole — pushes insistently on instrumental fare like "Villa Palmeras," "Villa Coope," and the blustery "Residential Llorens Torres." And Zenon is an extraordinary saxophonist: solos pour urgently out of his alto saxophone.

The jazz combo melts into a texture when his three panderos take the lead. Hector "Tito" Matos, the requinto and lead vocalist, is a commanding presence. A member of Los Pleneros de la 21 and his own Viento de Agua, Matos sings with obvious pride. On "Oyelo," or "Listen To This," the pleneros sing, "Y tu no me puedes negar que mi plena te llega hasta el alma." ("And you just can't deny that my plena goes straight to your soul.") They're right.

Like many modern jazz improvisers from Latin America, Miguel Zenon is reaching into his culture to open a musical dialogue. But on Esta Plena, he may have stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone for modern jazz: a distinct, bilingual and personal stream of notated language. Oyelo.

Copyright 2009 WBGO

Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.