At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Miguel Zenón has made one previous appearance on the 129 Essential Albums list so far — as a sideman on Melaza (2000), a vaulting, declaratory album by tenor saxophonist David Sánchez. That’s a helpful antecedent, because Jíbaro, the album that I selected to represent Zenón, is another persuasive pledge of allegiance to Puerto Rican culture and tradition.
The alto saxophonist surfaces in a chapter of Playing Changes that I titled “The Crossroads,” about new expressions of global interdependence in the music. Noting that in the early 2000s, Zenón had formed a quartet with Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez, I added the following:
Zenón spent a lot of time worshipping his music with these partners, so that by the time he began making albums, it was with a granite surety of purpose. The title of his fine 2002 debut, Looking Forward, articulated a direction, while the title of his even stronger 2004 follow-up, Ceremonial, implied a process and foundation. What changed in between was mostly his confidence as a composer and bandleader, and the endorsement of Branford Marsalis, who made Zenón one of the earliest signings to his Marsalis Music label.
He was still in his 20s when he made Jíbaro, his third album, which builds on the inland folk-troubadour traditions of Puerto Rico.
He composed the album more or less as a suite, without making a fuss about it; nevertheless, this landed as a serious artistic statement. In The New York Times, my former colleague Ben Ratliff selected Jíbaro as one of his Top 10 albums of the year, and hailed its creator as “a Puerto Rican-born jazz saxophonist and composer with an evidently enormous brain.” (It was only a few years later that Zenón became a MacArthur Fellow, receiving the so-called “genius grant.”)
Listen to the opening track of the album, “Seis Cinco,” and almost immediately you can sense the clarity of intention. Whether or not you are remotely familiar with the customs of jíbaro — let alone the technical requirements of the décima, a poetic form descended from medieval Spanish balladry — you can sense the depth of cultural understanding that Zenón brought to the table here.
Zenón has certainly continued his work as a cultural emissary and investigator, through his recording projects and in performance. Early in 2017, I called him up to talk about Típico, another excellent quartet album featuring Perdomo, Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole.
One of the insights that struck me then — so much so that I included it in Playing Changes — was Zenón’s reflection that he had to leave Puerto Rico in order to form his aesthetic relationship with its culture. “I feel that I became prouder and more in touch with my side of patriotism and nationalism, by exploring Puerto Rican-ness through music,” he said. “From the outside.”