The awarding of the MacArthur “genius grant” to Miguel Zenón in 2008 was met with considerable controversy, but the Puerto Rico-born saxophonist has silenced many of his critics with a series of ambitious conceptual projects. Most of those have explored his musical and cultural heritage, but his latest, a collaboration with the French pianist Laurent Coq, looks even further abroad.
Rayuela takes its inspiration from the novel of that name (“Hopscotch” in English translation) by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. The composers split their duties based on the book’s settings of Paris and Buenos Aires. Counter-intuitively, Zenón handles the Paris-based material while Coq deals with an Argentine city he’s never visited.
Coq’s “Buenos Aires” then is a romantic image of a fantasy metropolis rather than a portrait of the actual city. Like much of the album, it possesses an evocative narrative sweep, its Spanish-tinged intro followed by Dana Leong’s sinuous trombone solo over a cloud-soft bed of piano and tabla. Zenón’s “La Maga” blossoms from a delicate piano intro to display similar reach, elegantly blending jazz and classical elements. Even those who’ve not read the book will likely be able to imagine characters and settings from the cascading melodies of “Gekrepten,” the ballroom grandeur of “Oliveira” and the rollicking boogie of “El Club de la Serpiente.”
While the two composers split top billing on this disc, the remainder of the quartet is equally responsible for the music’s stunning breadth. Leong’s cello entangles Zenón’s arcing alto through the interwoven lines of “La Muerte de Rocamadour” and imitates a Spanish guitar on “Berthe Trepat.” Dan Weiss, alternating between table and drum kit, deftly maneuvers the tricky, shifting rhythms of “Talita” and grabs the spotlight for the darting, staccato maneuvers of “Morelliana.”