You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.
Saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s soundtrack to growing up in Puerto Rico encompassed many salsa luminaries. But no one in that pantheon loomed larger than the late son legend Ismael Rivera. “He kind of personified the genre, what it meant to be in that world,” Zenón says. “I remember being attracted to his music from the get-go, even before I played any music.”
Rivera, a Puerto Rican crooner who died in 1987 at age 55, was lauded for his brilliance as a sonero, a master lyrical improvisor of son, the folkloric Cuban style of music that evolved into salsa. Known endearingly as Maelo and reverently as El Sonero Mayor, he was both a venerated icon and a common man deeply connected to the streets of his hometown, Santurce. “He was like this mythical kind of figure,” Zenón says. “He was definitely bigger than his music.”
On Zenón’s 12th album as a leader, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel Music), the multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy nominee pays tribute to Rivera’s musical genius through the modern jazz filter of his quartet. “Obviously there’s a personal connection,” Zenón says, “but also I wanted more people to know about him. I really wanted to use this project to put his figure out there.”
Known for bridging modern jazz with Puerto Rico’s homegrown sounds, Zenón’s longstanding quartet — pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole — has taken it a step further on Sonero by seamlessly melding the worlds of salsa and jazz to come up with a sound that defies labels. Eleven compositions showcase the artistry of Rivera, who churned out a string of hits throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s while fronting several bands, including Orquesta Panamericana, Cortijo y Su Combo and his own outfit, and as a solo performer in the ’80s. Some of the selections on Sonero are seminal songs from Rivera’s repertoire, others are less obvious choices. All of them combine to exquisitely preserve the idiosyncratic spirit of a singer who tapped into the soul of his people and transform his music into something altogether different.
That’s always a challenge when you’re trying to inject some personality and some new ideas,” Zenón says. “I mean I like intellectual things. I like complexity on its own, but it’s special to me when complexity is balanced with something that’s heartfelt. That’s what I get from his music. He did something that’s musically complex, but you can hear that it’s coming from his heart. He was just singing what he felt.” —Lissette Corsa