Saxophonist Miguel Zenón interprets the music of legendary salsa singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón interprets the music of legendary salsa singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera 

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click to enlarge Miguel Zenón

Miguel Zenón

Noah Shaye

Saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón is a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient who creates jazz that moves seamlessly between the experimental and the folkloric in an ongoing exploration of his Puerto Rican identity. Many of his 12 studio albums as a bandleader reference and highlight diverse arrays of the island’s genres and musical figures without ever mimicking them directly. The most recent, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera, honors legendary Puerto Rican composer and salsa singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera. On this tour, Zenón brings a brilliant quartet of longtime collaborators: Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo adds precisely percussive, muscular notes to Zenón’s astonishingly fluid sax, bassist Hans Glawischnig provides a supple, smooth foundation of tones, and exploratory Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole creates the groove’s explosive, complex subtext. Rivera, who passed away in 1987 at age 55, specialized in a distinctly Puerto Rican style of soneo, an improvisational form of singing; his style was so revered that he became known as El Sonero Mayor (the greatest sonero, that is). In the 1950s and early 1960s, Rivera was the lead vocalist of Cortijo y Su Combo, led by famed composer Rafael Cortijo, which transformed the repertoires of Afro-Rican vocal and percussive traditions bomba and plena into contemporary dance-band music. After the group disbanded, Rivera helped lay the foundation for the distinctive Fania-style Puerto Rican salsa that emerged in New York City later in the 60s, creating seminal tracks and beginning his conquest of the dance-music world at large. Zenón has developed fascinating takes on Rivera’s signature tunes, including “El Negro Bembón,” which tells the tragic story of a Black man murdered for having big lips, and “Las Caras Lindas,” a “Black is beautiful” anthem by Catalino “Tite” Curet. The saxophonist brilliantly connects the dots between Puerto Rico’s improvisational-music traditions and his own brand of trailblazing, avant-garde jazz.   v

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