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Miguel Zenón: Alma Adentro – The Puerto Rican Songbook

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Miguel Zenón - Alma Adentro

That Miguel Zenón has been recognized as one of the most exciting young alto saxophonists to break into the scene has been known for several years now. So it should come as no surprise when he released a third album, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, in a loosely constructed trilogy that also included Jibaro (2004) and Esta Plena (2009). While these are all truly fine albums, this last one breaks the mould in both style and substance. First there is the sophisticated playing by the young saxophonist; something that is reflected in the gumption of his viscous ideas that devolve into fires that are fanned by both the jazz and Latin idioms. These cover everything from binary, to secondary and tertiary rhythms, fraught with electrifying, complex structures and there is the small matter of polyphony that turns simple melodies into something so exquisite and breathtaking that a shocking gasp seems to be a regular response solo after solo—from saxophone and piano.

Miguel Zenón: Alma Adentro - The Puerto Rican Songbook
Miguel Zenón: Alma Adentro – The Puerto Rican Songbook

Then there is the inspired arrangements of reeds that penetrate the near impervious fabric of the melodies like the tones of water colours spreading not only on the paper score, but on the entire musical canvas as well. The ingenuity of Guillermo Klein is the most important reason for this—if not the only reason for this. Yet this is not a matter of who came up with the idea of such an imaginative underscore, but how well the two men have articulated the invention. And this is why it is important to posit that both artists have played a role in the magnificent score no matter that Zenón is leading the charge.

His voice is powerful, completely self-assured, like a good generalissimo who is fighting a good fight to save his beloved homeland and its art. He is commanding and humane; singing musical orders in a throaty fashion, yet with a warm, gentle vibrato that turns sharp lines into filigreed curves at almost every end. His soli are graciously ushered in by sweeping swathes of notes that crush the melody into a million bits only to produce innovative interpretations of the narrative, brokered by lush harmonies. The inflections in his voice are perfectly sung—clear and bold as the brass with which his instrument is constructed. “Juguete” and the masterly “Silencio” are exquisite examples of such playing. Moreover, Klein’s swerving, parabolic harmonic inversions encircle the music with such gentility that the music becomes enshrined in a majesty all its own. If it is momentarily forgotten that the music rises out of the folk tradition, then it is entirely forgiven as this music unfolds like an epic, almost heroic poem that creates a mythology all its own. Here too, Klein plays an important role: he finds ways to bring a magisterium of sonority to the horns and flutes that is unsurpassed by much of the use of such instruments used in such beautiful consonance as is done here. To hear the full impact of such a masterful touch the inner ear must simply open to the heartfelt harmonics on “Incomprendido,” “Temes” and “Alma Adentro”.

Finally, there is the matter of sure-footed pianism from Luis Perdomo, absolutely breathtaking bass playing by Hans Glawischnig, who has long since harboured a not-so-secret Alma Latina. Add to this the polyrhythmic ingenuity of the young Henry Cole and the myriad other reasons for this albums success increase exponentially. There have been few albums as memorable as Alma Adentro in the last couple of years at the very least.

Tracks: 1. Juguete; 2. Incomprendido; 3. Silencio; 4. Temes; 5. Perdón; 6. Alma Adentro; 7. Olas y Arenas; 8. Amor; 9. Perfume de Gardenias; 10. Tiemblas.

Personnel: Miguel Zenón: alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo: piano; Hans Glawischnig: bass; Henry Cole: drums; Guillermo Klein: conductor; Nathalie Joachim: flute; Domenica Fossati: flute; Julietta Cuerenton: flute; Romie de Guise-Langlois: clarinet; Carol McGonnell: bass clarinet, clarinet; James Austin Smith: oboe; Brad Balliett: bassoon; Keve Wilson: English horn; Jennifer Kessler: French horn; David Byrd-Marrow: French horn.

Released – 2011
Label – Marsalis Music
Runtime – 1:11:02

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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Featured Albums

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

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Roberto Jr. Vizcaino, Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaino Guillot - Photo Nayeli Mejia
Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot - Photo: Nayeli Mejia.

Listening to the music of Siempre Más Allá, it certainly seems that the young French pianist, Adrien Brandeis has strengthened the belief that he is a proverbial citizen of the Afro-Caribbean universe. To be clear Mr Brandeis still loves all music and swings as hard as any pianist who loves Black American Music – that is, music that you can sing and dance to. But also continues to be beguiled by the rolling thunder of Afro-Caribbean music. The wild call of the rhythms and the joie de vivre of the questing melodies and harmonies not only appeal to his ear, but also speak to him in the hidden parts of his heart.

By his own admission Siempre Más Allá took root during three tours to Mexico undertaken under the aegis of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises du Mexique. The virtually all-Afro-Cuban repertoire of the album radiates charm at every turn. These disarmingly natural and eloquent performances bring out the music’s inherent drama and penchant for tumbao with a deft touch while indulging Brandeis’ lyrical instincts to the full. Meticulously balanced, the four quartet pieces, the trio and duo pieces feel as if they are chamber works. Brandeis’ astonishingly insightful playing is musically captivating and technically blemishless. Each phrase rings so completely true that one can’t imagine the music played any other way.

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

The album features Mr Brandeis and a group of very accomplished musicians. These include the celebrated Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot [on two tracks] and his son Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Mexican drummer José Loria Triay make up the wall of percussion. The Brasilian bassist Giliard Lopes brings his distinctive veritas to the whole rhythm section. The big surprise here is, perhaps, the presence of the great Cuban Horacio “El Negro” Hernández sitting in the drum chair on La buena vibra.

Siempre Más Allá is an affirmation of Brandeis’ enduring love and natural affinity for Latin music. Not surprisingly the music seems to echo the famous Latin American phrase: “¡Que rico bailo yo!” [which, in English, exclaims: “How well I dance!”]. This is no hyperbole as the music – in its pulses and rhythms show as Brandeis traverses the rhythmic topography of the Caribbean and Latin America. Along the way Brandeis plunged into the world of changüí, the chacarera, Brasilian gaucho music and the ancient melodic thunder of bàtá drums.

From the get-go listeners will find themselves immersed in quite another world of rippling percussive grooves. The track Ek Bakam, for instance, conjures the intricate architecture; the line and flow of an epic Mayan civilisation located in the Yucatan. Narratives from the Latin world abound – often paying homage to famous traditional musicians. Pancho’s Power is one such chart inspired by the vivid world of the legendary trio Los Panchos. Brandeis gives his percussion section a lot of space when he puts the spotlight on them on Tierra de Oportunidades – a wistful memory of the pianist’s three tours to Mexico, which is also incidentally the popular provincial slogan of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Huachi-Huachi Brandeis digs deep into the epicurean delights of the only Latin country in North America with this song in praise of a kind of gourmet Mexican fish: the huachinango.

Brandeis then celebrates his association with percussion colourist Roberto Vizcaíno Jr. with the extraordinary music of Vizcaíno Blues, a piece unique with its exploratory chromaticisms and elegant sonorities that beautifully capture the eloquence of the percussionist in whose praise the music is written. Mindful of the fact that Vizcaíno is Cuban but makes his home in Mexico, Brandeis shapes the rhythmic and harmonic palette of the piece accordingly. On La Buena Vibra Brandeis delivers astonishing pianistic fireworks in the piece’s melodic and harmonic lines, played at a frenetic pace, to mirror the style of its dedicatee, Michel Camilo. The pianist demonstrates an authentic home-grown grasp of Cuban music as he reimages Voy a Apagar la Luz, by the legendary and late-singer Armando Manzanero, here adapted as a wistful solo piano work. Meanwhile on the dizzying ride of Humpty Dumpty the pianist pays homage to another idol: Chick Corea, by revisiting the sparkling composition of the recently-deceased piano maestro.

It is hard not to be mesmerised by this spirited and finely nuanced music artfully crafted in an album by Adrien Brandeis, a pianist who is about to take the world by storm with a recording that is going to be one of the finest by any musician located outside the Latin American sub-continent.

Deo gratis…

Tracks – 1: Huachi Huachi; 2: Alegría; 3: Pancho’s Power; 4: Ek balam; 5: Un peu d’espoir; 6: Vizcaíno’s Blues; 7: Tierra de oportunidades; 8: Humpty Dumpty; 9: La buena vibra; 10: Voy a apagar la luz

Musicians – Adrien Brandeis: piano; Giliard Lopes: contrabass; José Loria Triay: drums; Roberto Vizcaíno Jr: congas and bàtá drums. Featuring Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot: percussion [1, 6]; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: drums [9]

Released – 2022
Label – Mantodea Music Productions
Runtime – 58:25

YouTube Video – Adrien Brandeis – Siempre más allá (EPK)

YouTube Audio – Adrien Brandeis – Vizcaíno’s Blues

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