Miguel Zenon, 'Jibaro' (2005)

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.”

Purchase Jíbaro from Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

David Sanchez, 'Melaza' (2000)

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.)

The tenor and soprano saxophonist David Sánchez originally hails from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, in the greater San Juan metro area. He was mentored as a young musician by the august bebop syncretist and cultural ambassador Dizzy Gillespie, in the group pointedly named the United Nation Orchestra.


Sánchez had already released five previous albums when, as a new signing to Columbia Records, he made Melaza. This album, coproduced by Branford Marsalis, was intended as a serious statement: its title translates to "molasses," which of course is the viscous byproduct of sugarcane refinery, as well as a sticky vestige of capitalist colonial suppression. Arriving as it did on a major label in the year 2000, it was sometimes regarded as a complement of sorts to Motherlanda markedly more utopian statement by the Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez. 

What distinguishes Melaza is the fast tread and heavy traction of a real band, and especially a churning rhythm section comprising Edsel Gomez on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Pernell Saturino on percussion, and either Adam Cruz or Antonio Sánchez (no relation) on drums. These would all be important figures on the development of a new Latin-jazz, on their own and in a range of other working bands.

Another notable feature on Melaza is the fact that Sánchez stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the frontline with a fiercely intelligent young alto player named Miguel Zenón. They often phrase the album's themes in coiled-spring harmony, shifting and moving as one. "Zenón’s lithe, airy alto presence is a wonderful addition to the group," Peter Margasak observed in his review for JazzTimes, "expanding the harmonic possibilities of the tunes, and providing a nice textural counter to Sanchez’s post-Coltrane muscle." (It should come as no surprise, but this isn't the last you'll see Miguel Zenón on this list.) 

Purchase Melaza on Amazon, or listen on Apple Music or Spotify.