At New York's Jazz Gallery in December, Puerto Rican-born saxophonist Miguel Zenon had a roomful of normally laid-back hard-core jazz fans standing up and stomping. They were grooving to "Despedida," a rustic folk song about a Christmas party in Zenon's hometown of San Juan, which he sang with a trio of pleneros, percussion-playing troubadours who accompanied his regular jazz quartet.
This marrying of the traditional folk music of his island with an American legacy that was his first musical love came just weeks after Zenon had received a MacArthur Foundation grant, or "genius award," as it's commonly called.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Miguel Zenon: In an article in Friday's Calendar section about the musician Miguel Zenon, the title of his upcoming album, "Esta Plena," was misspelled in one instance as "Esta Plana."
But the journey to this triumphant premiere of "Esta Plena," a cycle of 10 songs that fuse furious jazz improvisation with the choral lyricism of percussion-driven plena, was somewhat tortuous. Raised in San Juan's Luis Llorens Torres housing projects, Zenon attended Escuela Libre de Musica, where he was classmates with reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, and began playing salsa dances as a teenager.
"I grew up listening to Puerto Rican music like everybody else," said Zenon, 32, who comes to Los Angeles for a run of shows at Catalina Bar & Grill tonight through Sunday. "But when I listened to Charlie Parker for the first time, I said, 'How does this guy play so fast?' We had a little band that played Latin jazz, like Tito Puente, Hilton Ruiz, but then we got into Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball. I wasn't thinking about any kind of fusion at all for a long time."
After graduating, Zenon attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and smoothly transitioned into a world of high-profile gigs and critical acclaim. He played with Ray Barretto and fellow saxophonist David Sanchez. In 2001 Zenon formed his own band; he has recorded four albums for Marsalis Music. In 2004 he became one of the founding members of the SFJAZZ Collective, with whom he will appear at Catalina.
"He is the absolute bedrock of the collective," said SFJAZZ executive director Randall Kline. "He is respectful of the members' prodigious talent and bold in creating challenging music."
Playing with the collective, which features Joe Lovano and Robin Eubanks, is something Zenon cherishes. "For me it is a really good opportunity to play with other people that are very conceptually strong," said Zenon. Each year the collective performs the works of a jazz giant as well as original works. This year's featured artist is pianist McCoy Tyner.
"The song I arranged is called 'Four by Five,' " said Zenon. "It's from this classic Blue Note record called 'The Real McCoy,' and it gave me a certain rhythmic idea that I wanted to play around with." Ironically, two fellow band members opted for more Latin-flavored Tyner tunes -- Lovano chose "Ole Coltrane," and Dave Douglas arranged "Peresina."
Still, Zenon found a way to connect his work on "Esta Plena," which will be released on Marsalis Music, with the Collective's repertoire. "I wrote a tune that came from a rhythmic idea that happens at the end of 'Villa Palmeras,' " a song in "Esta Plana" named after a working-class neighborhood in San Juan, Zenon said. "Me and my bass player [Hans Glawischnig] came up with this two-dimensional rhythmic connection that ties that idea, a 7/8 figure, to a 4/4-based groove that sounds like a samba. It's called 'No Filter' because that's the nickname we have for Hans. He doesn't like to censor himself."
Zenon, who once considered studying engineering, likes to use a mathematical approach to build a bridge between Latin and jazz music. On his 2005 album, "Jibaro," he focused on the medieval Spanish poem form called decima, which is found in Latin American folk music and always uses 10 lines. For "Esta Plena," he wrote rhythms, harmonies and melodies based on the number three, the number of pleneros that accompanied his jazz quartet.
"Even though there is randomness and improvisation in my music, I want to have some concrete idea that I can hold onto," said Zenon.
But while his method may seem coldly systematic, Zenon's tribute to the plena reflects the warmth and love he has for traditional culture. "By talking to the older guys down there, you start realizing that people started migrating from other places to San Juan from towns like Mayaguez, Ponce, Humacao, everywhere, to work and tell a story."
To help develop the project, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship he earned in early 2008, Zenon enlisted Hector "Tito" Matos, leader of the urban plena group Viento de Agua. Matos, a plena revivalist in New York and Puerto Rico, put Zenon in touch with old masters such as Ramon Lopez and Ismael "Cocolai" Rivera.
"I didn't realize until we started rehearsing that he was using me to tell the story of the plena," said Matos, who lives in San Juan. "The 'Despedida' song is about the party I have at my house every year. He recognized my love for the music, how I put all my being into playing my instrument."
Zenon may have also been inspired by Matos' quest to bring the plena to a mass audience by playing free outdoor concerts. Zenon already has a plan for the MacArthur grant money.
"I've always thought that jazz needs to be heard by a wider audience in Puerto Rico," he said. "I want to put together a series of free concerts in the small towns -- one with Miles Davis music, another with bebop, maybe Duke Ellington. I want younger people to see what is possible."
Miguel Zenon and SFJAZZ Collective
Where: Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 and 10 tonight and Saturday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Price: $25 to $37
Contact: (323) 466-2210, www.catalinajazzclub.com