Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Concert Review: Miguel Zenón's Esta Plena

NOTE: this review was written as part of MUS 378 Jazz History, taught by Don Seybold.

Miguel Zenón’s Esta Plena. To me, it sounds like the name of a Spanish ballet. I have listened to music from Cuba, Mexico, South America, but plena is none of these: it is the traditional music of Puerto Rico. Still, knowing just this did not meaningfully inform my expectations of the concert. I discerned it was something unfamiliar and different, on account of the unusual number of young people packed into the ground floor of Loeb Playhouse. My seat was towards the rear, and behind me were perhaps a half-dozen young Puerto Ricans. To my left and right were more college students. There was a buzz in the air. It induced students to text and tweet at a furious pace, which added yet more energy and tension with every character pecked.

After the obligatory Todd Wetzel introduction, the band quickly deployed to their instruments and began playing without hesitation or introduction. Hans Glawischnig, the bass player, set up a boisterous Latin beat that enunciated the frenetic energy buzzing in the hall. The six seated behind me possessed the voices of a dozen, whooping, yelling, and otherwise emulating the soundtrack of a dance party in Spanish. As the theme of the first song was repeated, the younger subset of the audience met the beat with a steady clap. This was my favorite style played during the night: raucous, fast, and a distinctly “concert” sound (as opposed to upper-case Concert).

The concert’s theme was an exploration of plena – a music influenced by Spanish and African musical traditions. The main instigators of this sound were the three plenera (hand drums) of various sizes and their players: Héctor Matos (requinto, the smallest drum), Obanilú Allende (vocals and segundo, the middle drum), and Juan Gutiérrez (seguidor, the largest drum). The ensemble providing a jazz counterpoint to this trio consisted of Miguel Zenón (Alto Saxophone), Hans (bass), Luis Perdomo (piano), and Henry Cole (drums).

Merging plena and jazz is a nice idea in theory (on this basis Zenón was awarded Guggenheim and MacArthur grants), but it is a very ephemeral and fleeting moment in practice. On some of the numbers, the two styles were intermixed; others were more theme-oriented, with some themes played by the plenera and some by the piano or saxophone. The height of the concert was the long drum solo that traded attacks with the plenera, yet mostly sidestepped reusing tedious drum solo clichés. The main problem I sensed was that the drum rhythms are fixed and the folkloric quality of the music is much more structured than the floating-in-space harmonic aesthetic I often imagine while listening to modern jazz.

Regardless of the style, all performers were drenched in energy, whether improvising a solo or beating the living crap out of their hand drums in hard-to-imitate polyrhythms. Not since I saw Thom Yorke of Radiohead live have I seen a band’s frontman dance so wildly and without restraint while singing and playing. Miguel’s solos are plain as day to understand: just watch his body wobble about the stage, and match the motions and emotions to the movement in the music. The band’s energy was infectious, and throughout the concert it provoked yelling, clapping, and other concert-worthy (lowercase-c concert) forms of participation.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the audience was interested “experiencing” the groove, so most members just sat calmly (as if watching a YouTube video, or in a master’s clinic). Part of this is Purdue’s concert culture: when most of the concerts are sponsored by the local retirement home megacomplex, you shouldn’t expect many people to dance in the aisles. I would have much rather seen Zenón’s septet in a club with a dance floor, as plena music (and Latin-sounding beats in general) are undeniably designed to induce dancing.

To balance out the plena, several more typical jazz songs were also presented. The most pleasing segments of these were the improvisations of the piano and saxophone. None of these songs were terribly memorable for me, and I felt that they bored the P.R. audience as much as the plenera-wielding musicians who didn’t have a single note in some pieces. One exception was a ballad piece, which was quite haunting. It began with a simple riff by Hans on bass, and slowly added in complexity. With each new chorus, Miguel dug just a bit deeper into the theme, and by the climax was dancing passionately with his horn. It reminded me instantly of Bolero – but translated into the context of a jazz ballad. Rarely have I felt more compelled to stand up and clap after the final bars.

The concert was a blast. I’m looking forward to new works by Zenón, and am especially interested to see if he can further integrate plena tradition into the improvisations of jazz.

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