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Miguel Zenón is known as much for his methodical explorations of his Puerto Rican heritage as for his blazing inventiveness as an alto saxophonist. His visionary work as a conceptualizer has won him numerous accolades, including multiple Grammy nominations and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. So this live session, recorded at the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Basel, Switzerland, in May 2019, is probably as close to an old-fashioned jazz blowing session as we’ve heard from him. The results crackle with the urgency and pleasure of the moment.
The band is not Zenón’s longstanding quartet. In fact, this was the first night of his residency at the Bird’s Eye, and the first time he and these players — tenor saxophonist Ariel Bringuez, bassist Demian Cabaud and drummer Jordi Rossy — had played together as a band. Zenón being Zenón, that didn’t mean throwing together standards and blues for everyone to jam on, but instead crafting a well-considered program of Ornette Coleman compositions. They range from some of Coleman’s earliest recorded pieces (“Free” and “Giggin’”) to cuts from the epochal 1971 Science Fiction/Broken Shadows sessions.
Perhaps the challenge of facing those pieces cold accounts for both the urgency and the go-for-broke daring of the performance. Multiple contrasting tempos, harmonic ambiguity, unpredictable stops and starts? No problem. Check the heedless swirl of extended counterpoint between Zenón and Bringuez on “Free” and “Dee Dee,” or the laughing figure from Zenón that cues the solo hand-off to the tenor saxophonist on the lickety-split “The Tribes of New York.” Aside from being a showcase for the band’s virtuosity, this album also makes the case for Coleman’s compositions — as idiosyncratic and sturdy as Monk’s, each with its clearly defined character (the hide-and-seek playfulness of “Dee Dee,” the somber plaintiveness of “Broken Shadows”). They are built to last, and they are served well here by a band ready to kick back and let it rip. — Jon Garelick