Miguel Zenón: Identities Are Changeable
Alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón brings an inspired concept to his ambitious Identities Are Changeable project. Not only does the San Juan, Puerto Rico-born artist augment his quartet with a twelve-piece large ensemble, he threads interviews conducted with fellow transplanted Puerto Ricans into the seventy-six-minute recording, resulting in a complex suite of bold artistic scope. In essence, the theme centers on issues of identity, both ethnic and national, as experienced by Puerto Ricans in the New York City area (as of 2013, there were about 1.5 million Puerto Ricans living in NYC, making it the largest community of its kind outside of the Island).
A graduate of Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music, Zenón has toured and/or recorded with figures such as Charlie Haden, Bobby Hutcherson, and Steve Coleman and has released nine recordings as a leader to date (including Identities are Changeable). Recognized repeatedly in the annual Downbeat Critic's Poll, Zenón also received in 2008 the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as the “Genius Grant”). Struck by the experience of encountering second and third generation Puerto Ricans who were so proud of their heritage and its traditions that they self-identified as Puerto Rican as much as American, Zenón posed a set of questions to a diverse group of men and women revolving around issues of home, identity, culture, and language, audio excerpts of which then were woven into the eight pieces on the album (more precisely, Identities Are Changeable is a six-part song cycle framed by an overture and postlude).
It's important to not misunderstand the meaning of the title. In characterizing identities as changeable, Zenón doesn't mean that one identity can easily be substituted for another but rather that an individual's identity is fluid and multi-dimensional. In an inspired move, Zenón chose to musically reflect that fluidity and multiplicity by having multiple rhythmic structures co-exist (e.g., five against seven), sometimes separately and sometimes concurrently within a particular section of a piece.
Zenón strikes an effective and carefully executed balance in the way his intricately structured, long-form compositions alternate between interview excerpts and the instrumental passages. During the former, the musicians generally recede into the background but then leap boldly into the forefront to fully mine the rich potential of the instrumental episodes. The leader's alto sax is a deliciously warm presence whenever it appears, and his quartet members pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole acquit themselves admirably, with Cole meriting special mention for his deft handling of the tricky tempo markings (see “First Language” and “Through Culture and Tradition” as good examples). The additional players sweeten the quartet's sound with sax, trumpet, and trombone embellishments and even manage to nab a couple of solo spots on the album, too—a fine tenor sax solo by John Ellis on “Same Fight” and an equally robust one by trombonist Tim Albright on “First Language.” All things considered, Identities Are Changeable represents an incredible accomplishment by Zenón and company, and one comes away from it almost overwhelmed by the wealth of music presented.As a side note, one can draw an interesting parallel between Zenón's project and Steve Reich's multi-media opus The Cave. While the genres in question—jazz and classical minimalism—obviously are different, both artists in their respective works combine music and spoken texts in audacious manner. What connects them as strongly is that both projects grapple with issues of identity, the NY-based Puerto Rican community for Zenón and the roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for Reich. Just as has been done for the live production of The Cave, Zenón might consider doing something similar for Identities are Changeable in accompanying a live ensemble presentation with on-stage video footage of the interviewees. One imagines the result would be splendid indeed.