Jazz Plaza 2020: Speaking in Tongues

Miguel Zenón presenting Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera

Two other memorable concerts took place on January 17th. The first was a brilliant one entitled “Concierto Cubop” a tribute to two great bassists and composers from Cuba and the United States- Cachao and Charles Mingus. The baton for the tribute was in the hands of the magnificent young bassist and composer, Guanabacoa’s own Ángel Gastón Joya Perellada –simply known to the world of music as Gastón Joya and featured his group – Elegbara Roots – and this was held at Teatro Nacional, Sala Covarrubias. Unfortunately Danilo and I were unable to cover this event, and so the intrepid global shortwave radio personality, and incomparable Chicago-based producer of Cuban music, Bill Tilford helped us out with the following reporting and photography:

Gastón Joya. Teatro Nacional. Photo credit: Bill Tilford
Gastón Joya & Elegbara Roots. Sala Covarrubias, Teatro Nacional. Photo credit: Bill Tilford

Gastón Joya is one of Cuba’s most important living contrabassists, with both his concert and recorded work displaying what the bass can do as a melodic as well as a rhythmic instrument. As a sideman, he has worked extensively with the López-Nussa family among others, and in frequent years, he has led many concert sessions featuring the best of the new generation of Cuba’s jazzistas. His recording Mama Ina (Unicornio, 2018) demonstrates what the Cuban bass can do as a lead instrument.

This wonderful concert tribute to Cachao and Charles Mingus honored two of Mr Joya’s favorite bassists and brought together Adrián Estévez on Piano, Mario Salvador Rodríguez Morales (tres), Marcos Morales (drums), Delvis Ponce (saxophone), Alejandro Delgado (trumpet), Iván Frias “El Menor” (percussion), Yoandy Argudín (trombone) and Eme Alfonso on vocals. By design, this was not an attempt to cover the works of these bassists-as-composers note for note but did fully capture the excitement and spirit of their works. Like Cachao, Mr Joya uses the bass not merely for the instrument’s notes but as a percussion instrument, and one of the highlights of the concert was an exchange between bassist, who bonds with his instrument while playing it [in a] slap bass [style] together with the percussion colours of Iván Frias.”

The second concert took place at Fábrica de Arte and featured the great Puerto Rican composer and alto saxophone virtuoso, Miguel Zenón. Mr Zenón had joined Ned Sublette that afternoon in a panel discussion to discuss his latest, critically acclaimed recording project Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera. Later that evening Mr Zenón took the stage with Venezuelan piano maestro Luis Perdomo, bassist Matt Brewer and Puerto Rican drum wizard Henry Cole in an explosive concert featuring music from that [new] recording project.

Miguel Zenón at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Miguel Zenón at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

“But make no mistake; as much as this is a celebration of the great sonero (Ismael Rivera), this is Mr Zenón’s music”

With the music of Sonero and his declared intention to pay homage to the cultural icon Ismael Rivera, every star in Mr Zenón’s musical constellation seem to have come into perfect alignment for one reason and one reason alone. This is what has come to pass: in playing this repertoire Mr Zenón seems to have reincarnated himself in the quintessence of his horn and he appears to have poured his very soul into the alto saxophone, emerging from its bell embodied in the voice of the sonero, the very one whom he has set out to celebrate. Or put another way: Mr Zenón has blurred the line between his instrument and the human voice to such an extent that his lines are no more played, but instead they are sung by him on the horn. The result is music that is dazzlingly secure and fearlessly focused through a consistency of intensity and firmness of tone, one that dispatches each song towards a mixture of dance and soliloquy with svelte elegance, completely becoming of the idol – Ismael Rivera – whom he sets out to celebrate.

But make no mistake; as much as this is a celebration of the great sonero, this is Mr Zenón’s music. His playing is sensitive and polished throughout, and he draws sumptuous velvet sounds from the horn. His version of “El Negro Bembón”, for instance is exquisitely accented, perfectly describing its melody and conveying an architectural sense of line. Just a bit earlier, on “Las Tumbas” the ensemble presents music with a tremendous sense of space, colour and character – and [pianist] Mr Perdomo plays a large part in this – as Mr Zenón draws from his intimate knowledge and mastery of both his instrument and the depth of his grasp of the Afro-Caribbean cultural topography of both the music of Mr Rivera as well as that of Puerto Rico. There is not a moment when one feels the absence of a voice because Mr Zenón achieves something unique in delivering these melodies as if by “singing” them as Ismael Rivera might, except that Mr Zenón does so by means of his magical “horn-vocalastics”.

Miguel Zenón Quartet at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Miguel Zenón Quartet at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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