New Latin (and world) jazz from a quartet led by a devout 27-year- old Puerto Rican alto saxophonist whose shaved head is going to become quite familiar to jazz fans -- that's a quick take on the second CD of Miguel Zenon.
This is "not the old Latin Jazz of standards-with-congas" says Fernando Gonzalez of JAZZIZ, and it's true. More adventurous than someone like David Sanborn, Zenon samples from a wider range of influences. He opens with Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez Dominguez's "Leyenda" -- less plaintive than John Coltrane's various spiritual yearnings on tenor, but more melodic. "Ceremonial" -- the first of seven original compositions by Zenon here -- showers alto notes over a Latin beat; Luis Perdomo's repeated piano chords and percussionist Antonio Sanchez's cowbell suggest what the liner notes call "Ghanaian rhythms." A ballad dedicated to Zenon's girlfriend, "A Reminder of Us," pays tribute to Ravel and Debussy ("Impressionist harmonies") while devoted mostly to a piano-sax duet.
So much of the album is mellow and restrained that listeners might want a saxophonist of Zenon's obvious talent just to let it rip. On "Mega," even though Sanchez pounds out a rock beat, Zenon releases some long runs without ever really letting loose. "Transfiguration," featuring ethereal vocals and "based on a mathematical formula," is the most aloof track. Surprisingly, the intensity finally arrives during a tour de force called "Morning Chant," beginning with a syncopated five-note figure introduced in order by alto, piano and Hans Glawischnig's bass; followed by throbbing piano chords and drums gone wild; and ending with Tibetan monks chanting under a wailing alto. And despite its smooth jazz refrain, Zenon and Perdomo develop "440" -- the Hertz frequency of the A note -- into something approaching hard bop.
In his 2002 debut, Looking Forward, Zenon fused jazz with Latin, classical, folkloric and Christian influences. Concluding this CD with a cover of the traditional hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," he initially pauses for bass riffs, as if the promise weren't quite yet fulfilled. After Perdomo's luminous piano solo -- and just as in "Ceremonial" -- Zenon follows silences with quiet bursts and half-phrases, each like a little resurrection. His final solo proceeds from reverential to ecstatic, dissolving into meditative piano chords and resolution. "Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow," one of the hymn's verses goes, and that summarizes the outlook for Miguel Zenon.