Miguel Zenon builds a bridge from his Puerto Rican soul to the world


Pianist Luis Perdomo and saxophonist Miguel Zenon shared an intimate experience of the deepest feelings and highest art. All photos by Jim Kreul courtesy Arts + Lit Lab


Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo

Arts + Literature Lab, June 13

As a critic, it is far from my wont to walk away from a concert with the utterance that tripped forth from my lips after a duet performance last week by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon and pianist Louis Perdomo. But I said it, “I think I just died and went to heaven,” the hoary cliché clunking about shamelessly.

And therein lies the rub, I’ve concluded. You see, I really was experiencing something deliriously pleasurable during this concert. No question, Miguel Zenon, a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, is a monumental artist. He has emerged in recent years exploring with ardent, rigorous intelligence and reflection the cultural and historical legacy of his native Puerto Rico and Latin America in music and song. His 2014 album Identities are Changeable won numerous awards including this writer’s best jazz album of the year, for its exploration of the permeable ways that Puerto Rican and other Latinx New Yorkers see themselves. As I commented in my Culture Currents, it explores the “increasingly bifurcated nature of racial and national identity in America, typified no more strikingly than in our Puerto Rican culture.” Zenon interviewed and recorded numerous people in New York City and Puerto Rico and their testimony about fluidity and duality of identity rings fresh and true. “I think more people are realizing that you can be more than one cultural self at the same time,” comments Juan Flores.

And last year’s Zenon’s Musicas de las Americas probed with fascinating depth the innermost byways of Pan-American culture, especially focusing on the consequences of colonization.

By contrast, the album performed at this month’s Madison Jazz Festival, El Arte Del Bolero, seems less ambitious but in the experience proved no less consequential, at least emotionally, psychologically, and perhaps spiritually. It’s an album of duets by arguably Zenon’s closest collaborator, pianist Louis Perdomo, and comprises songs traversing their lifetimes, “songs from the times of our parents and grandparents… As essential to our development as the music of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, or Thelonious Monk, but perhaps even more familiar,” Zenon explains in the liner. “When we play these songs, we can hear the lyrics in the backs of our minds – something that provides a very deep connection, one that is hard to replicate in any other situation. It is beyond familiar. These songs are part of us.”

The Arts + Literature Lab in Madison, where Zenon and Perdomo performed, is a multi-purpose art gallery/arts and literature workshop/concert space.

The effect, in a jazz sense, manifested the ease of musical quotation as natural as breathing for them, and best exemplified historically by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

So, if the songs seem simple compared to modern jazz that’s only a superficial quality. The musicians brought a lifetime of listening and music-loving to these, as elemental as their birthrights. The sheer beauty and ardent passion they infused them with captivated us. Many of these songs compared to the finest Tin Pan Alley melodies and one recalled “The Shadow of your Smile.”

Lyricism rarely gets much finer. That and the lack of drums lent an intimacy comparable to a hand laid in your own, or arms embracing, even a kiss. Yet for all the tenderness, the musicians filled their sweet cups with the protein of creative jazz. The mind was lit as much as the heart in song after song, which were mostly big hits in Latin America in their day.

Also, a dialectical power hovered that is almost excruciating, as exemplified by “La Vida Es Un Sueno,” written by Arsenio Rodriguez.

The title translates as “Life is a dream,” but that phrase is deceptive, snuggling up to bucolic notions. In a press release, Zenon explains that the closing lyrics of the song convey his sentiment as well as anything:

La realidad es nacer y morir
por qué llenarnos de tanta ansiedad
todo no es más que un eterno sufrir
y el mundo está hecho de infelicidad.

por qué llenarnos de tanta ansiedad
todo no es más que un eterno sufrir
y el mundo está hecho de infelicidad.

That translates into English as:

The reality is to be born and die
because filling us with so much anxiety.

everything is nothing more than an eternal suffering
and the world is made of unhappiness.

That, and the rest of the lyric, may be too bitter a cup to swallow for many comfortable gringos. But slavery, racism and colonialism have normalized that reality for countless Latinos, as well as African-Americans. And here Zenon’s horn let loose with utterly anguished moans, remembrance of deep-scared experience.

So, Zenon and Perdomo hardly diminish the pang of Rodriguez’s sentiments, but their playing proved as artful an anodyne as one could hope for, a salve to the suffering soul and, Lord knows, we all suffer, thus the universality of the music, even as it enlightened us.

Zenon possesses an alto sax tone all his own, though one can imagine a blend of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, the latter lending a dryness to the former’s “sweet rain.” His inventiveness seems as inexorable as a waterfall.

And pianist Perdomo is as harmonically blessed as any pianist while capable of rhapsodic and sensual skimmings of the skin, with his classical training.

As for me, I had recently recovered from Covid positivity yet was still struggling with the lingering Covid fog, which affects one’s mood, lucidity, energy, and psyche. Yet memory of the music remains vivid. Indeed, El Arte del Bolero was conceived and first performed during the pandemic and that experience, along with those embedded in the composers’ songs, fueled the profound melancholy permeating these exquisite, sometimes soul-wracking utterances. So I wrestled with the strength of these emotions as I bathed in them, awash in the complexity of their poignant and plangent textures. I thank higher powers for the music’s all-too-human qualities, even as it buzzed my brain in the stimulating setting of The Arts + Literature Laboratory’s art gallery/concert space.

El Arte Del Bolero will stay with me like a tattoo on my soul, and I’ve never been happier to be so “defaced.” Indeed, I’m facing the sun with no fear of burning, even if the pain can be all too real.


  1. Arsenio Rodriguez, “La Vida Es Un Sueño,” https://www.cancioneros.com/lyrics/song/29825/la-vida-es-un-sueno-arsenio-rodriguez











A YouTube recording of “A Tribute to Wayne Shorter” by a Madison jazz sextet brings his often-mysterious music back to life

Wayne Shorter in the era of his celebrated Blue Note recordings


This is for anyone who cares about the passing, in the eternal night, of Wayne Shorter. He was a titanic of modern jazz and jazz-fusion, and of American music in general. As with the famous Titanic, there was a certain fatefulness in him, even though he lived to 89. One of his underappreciated albums was Phantom Navigator, and his wife Ana died in 1986, at age 43, in the crash of TWA Flight 880. And his music often seemed to dwell in mystery, not unlike most of the iceberg submerged and waiting for the “unsinkable” ship liner, now once again in our consciousness, due to intrepid if fatefully foolhardy explorers.

The following video’s value is representing a live tribute by a sextet of musicians who handle an intriguing array of Wayne Shorter repertoire with aplomb and dedication as part of the recent Madison Jazz Festival.

The festival, by the way, has evolved to become, in my book, the best Midwestern jazz festival north of the inherently larger Chicago Jazz Festival. These musicians are from the Madison and Milwaukee region, but perform Shorter’s music in a representative manner, as comparable to most any region in America. The concert was at saxophonist-entrepreneur-educator Hanah Jon Taylor’s music venue Café Coda in Madison, which has been one of the Midwest’s hotbeds of such creative and improvisational music for some years now.

Pianist Dave Stoler (left) and bassist John Christensen from the Shorter tribute band. Tribute band photos courtesy Arts + Lit Lab

The tribute event was organized by the Arts + Literature Lab and it covers a discerning array of Shorter’s remarkable oeuvre. It opens with “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” one of the uncannily fetching tunes from his masterpiece album of the 1960s, Speak No Evil.

Wayne Shorter’s 1964 acoustic jazz masterpiece, “Speak No Evil.” Bing images

The title admonishment doesn’t mean that Shorter did not fearlessly peer into the eyes of evil and transmute that into music, among his other uncanny feats. Besides the implicit ominousness of that fable-evoking tune, that shadow-toned album includes the pieces “Dance Cadaverous” and “Witch Hunt,” although one suspects Shorter, a Buddhist fascinated with science fiction, was far more intrigued than put off by the “evil” powers of witches. Tenor saxophonist Pawal Benjamin, employing Shorter’s own horn voice, dug into hearty low notes in a solo both meaty and muscular, though not as oblique as Shorter’s would be. Pianist Dave Stoler came in swinging with some Herbie Hancock-like harmonies. The only drawback here was a rather ragged ensemble reading of the theme.

But that cleaned up in the playing of the ensuing tune, “Lost,” from an underappreciated Blue Note album The Soothsayer. Stoler plays tough here, riding the changes with block chords, really digging into this minor-key mood. As with the first tune, “Lost” has marvelously dense but resounding harmony in the ensemble line, rendering it indelible to memory.

The front line of the Wayne Shorter tribute band included (L-R) trumpeter Russ Johnson, tenor saxophonist Pawal Benjamin, and alto saxophonist Clay Lyons.

The band ensues with their own take on “Nefertiti,” recorded with the Miles Davis Quintet. The original was atypical in that it repeats the sighing, languid theme over and over, with no front-line solos, only drummer Tony Williams sustaining the tune with an explosive solo throughout, so you are constantly listening to his drumming as the theme turns mantra-like. Here the band allowed for a Benjamin tenor solo that slices up the theme nicely while drummer Wayne Saltzman digs into the Williams-esque rock-shuffle feel while striving to approximate the incendiary energy of a drummer who made legend of himself with Miles Davis even in his late teens.

Here Stoler also delivers very Hancock-like block chords and octaves, tart and pungent but still pretty, a fine-honed power.

The ensuing tune, “The Big Push,” also from The Soothsayer, has harmonies I could eat for dinner, as protein-packed as they are, and another oddly engaging melody. About Shorter’s harmonies: Each has a story-telling quality, with a layered ensemble chord a chiaroscuroed image in itself, and the change sequences cast suspense and weird beauty in equal measure.

I’ll touch on the second set somewhat more briefly: a highlight was Shorter’s intense yet atmospheric “Sanctuary,” written for Miles Davis’s slightly satanic yet spiritual album of controversial jazz fusion, Bitches Brew from 1970. It has a loping, free-ish melancholy contour, and here trumpeter Russ Johnson shone — the style is his wheelhouse, unfettered but well-formed improv.

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter with trumpeter Miles Davis in the band that produced “Sanctuary,” from the seminal jazz fusion album “Bitches Brew,” which included bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Courtesy www.musicajazz.it/festival-e-concerti

The band then shifted back to the Shorter Blue Notes with “El Gaucho,” another deceptively simple theme from the album Adam’s Apple with a characteristically resonating harmonic structure.

The band encores with, for Shorter, comparative ear candy. The rollicking “Yes or No” is among the composer’s most ingratiating and invigorating melodies and saxophonist Benjamin is cooking the hard-bop brew here, which could have been a Jazz Messengers tune, from Shorter’s days as musical director of that band. But the title’s implicit dialectic is key; this is from the album JuJu, by which time Shorter’s was conceptually delving into paradoxical African powers beyond the ordinary.

Such tension-filled qualities permeated the musical particulars of his writing and soloing style and helped to sustain the intrigue of several generations of jazz musicians as represented here.

So, this critical preview is to help document what you hear but, most of all, to encourage you to sit down, buckle up in the safari jeep, and follow this band longer than you might otherwise, on this Shorter sojourn:

(16) Tribute to Wayne Shorter at Cafe CODA – YouTube