Miguel Zenon & Laurent Coq's Rayuela
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Miguel Zenon & Laurent Coq's Rayuela

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Argentine author Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch (Rayuela in Spanish) is a dizzying stream-of-consciousness work whose influences include Henry Miller, William Burroughs, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Zen Buddhism, the French New Novel and the French New Wave cinema. The novel’s 155 chapters — 99 of them deemed by the author as “expendable” — could, Cortazar said, be read either sequentially or by “hopscotching” around from chapter to chapter in a sequence that Cortazar devised that resulted in an infinite loop between the last two chapters in the sequence.

Hopscotch is Puerto Rican alto saxophonist/composer Miguel Zenón’s favorite book, not only for its radical literary method but because the text is suffused with music and, in particular, a love of jazz. “I was just drawn to the book in a literary way. I always loved it,” Zenón says. “Cortazar was a huge jazz fan. There are many references in the book to jazz and music in general. “[Cortazar] also talked about the book interacting with the reader, so the reader wouldn’t be passive. I was drawn into that as well. For me, when I read it, it was like nothing I had ever read before. I always wanted to give back to the inspiration the book gave me.”

Zenón got his chance to honor Hopscotch and its late author when he was awarded a grant from Chamber Music America, an organization that encourages interaction between American and French musicians, to compose a major work. Zenón enlisted his friend and colleague, French pianist Laurent Coq, to be his collaborator. “It was a good opportunity to do something together,” he says, “because the book takes place half in Paris and half in Buenos Aires,” reflecting the cultural relationship between Coq and Zenón. “It also was nice to experiment with other, chamber-oriented instruments.”

Zenón and Coq fashioned a 10-section suite based on the improvisatory nature of Hopscotch. They called it, appropriately, “La Rayuela.” Zenón, who was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and his quartet — pianist Coq, cellist and trombonist Dana Leong and drummer and tabla player Dan Weiss — premiered La Rayuela in Paris in April. The group, also called La Rayuela, will present the work in Hartford at the Polish National Home on Sept. 4.

Zenón and Laurent agreed to split the composition duties, with an interesting twist. Zenón composed pieces based on the novel’s Paris sections, and Coq wrote from the chapters set in Buenos Aires. “We did that on purpose,” Zenón says. “We went away from the obvious. We picked some characters, some passages, almost in a literal way, to convey Cortazar’s words into music. Laurent took his way, and I took mine.”

One of the most daring aspects of La Rayuela, one that most mimics Cortazar’s labyrinthine approach, is that the work’s sections will be played in random order in each performance. Only Zenón knows what section he will call next. “It’ll be as much a surprise to us as to the audience,” he says.

After the Hartford performance, La Rayuela will return to New York to record the work, Zenón says.

Before the La Rayuela project, Zenón had recorded an album, in 2009, titled Esta Plena, which showcased another side of his protean musical personality. Zenón was raised in San Juan, where he studied classical music and was first introduced to jazz. He also heard the indigenous Puerto Rican folk music known as plena, called “the newspaper of the people,” Zenón says.

Plena, Zenón explains, ”is very African-derived.” Its rhythmic base is supplied by three hand drums tuned like conga drums — one low-pitched, one middle-pitched, and one high-pitched. “The combination creates the rhythm of plena,” Zenón says. “It makes the music very mobile and easy to move around.”

When he first encountered plena music, Zenón didn’t automatically think of it as a jazz fusion vehicle. “I just wanted to learn more about the style. As I did research, I started getting ideas to use this rhythm and eventually it became a project. The connection with jazz became really obvious to me. Jazz and plena are really both folk music. Musically, they connect because of the African connection, but there’s a certain joyous spirit to both that’s very evident. They flowed naturally together.”

Zenón’s next project explores what he calls “the Puerto Rican songbook.” He plans to gather the historical works of Puerto Rican composers and arrange the material for his quartet and for larger ensembles. Zenón hopes to record the results of his efforts next year; in the meantime, he hopscotches with the spirit of Julio Cortazar.
- The Hartford Advocate


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MIGUEL ZENON has released five recordings as a leader, the latest, "Esta Plena", was nominated for Two Grammy Awards. Zenón is a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective and has performed and recorded with, among others: Charlie Haden, David Sanchez, Bobby Hutcherson, Steve Coleman, Guillermo Klein, The Mingus Big Band, Joshua Redman, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Nicholas Payton. In 2008 he was awarded both a Guggenheim Grant in composition and a McArthur Genius Grant. Zenon is currently working on his next recording, "Alma Adentro": The Puerto Rican Songbook.

LAURENT COQ was born in Marseille and grew up in the country side, near Aix-en-Provence. After studying classical music for twelve years (First Prize in 1988 at Aix-en-Provence Conservatory) he moved to Paris in 1988 to devote himself to Jazz. In 1994, he obtained a Grant from the French Government for a six months stay in New York. He studied with pianists Mulgrew Miller and John Hicks, but most notably he studied with Bruce Barth who continues to be a mentor to him today. At age 40, Laurent Coq has released eight albums as a leader (including a movie score with a symphonic orchestra) and his playing as well as his original compositions have gained him international acclaim. Coq has won several awards ( including the 2005 Best French Record for Spinnin') and was nominated twice as Best French Jazz Artist of the year by the Jazz Academy in Paris. He has written several movie scores and is an in-demand pianist on both sides of the Atlantic (Julien Lourau, Pierrick Pedron, Elisabeth Kontomanou, Sam Sadigursky). He currently resides in Paris.

Cellist/Trombonist/Composer DANA LEONG fuses hip-hop, jazz and electronics to create a signature boundless sound. Often referred to as a "hi-def Yo-Yo Ma," Dana's pioneering fusion of electronic music and ethereal jazz sensualities has garnered critical acclaim and wowed audiences worldwide. Whether as a performer, composer, collaborator, or recording producer, he has worked with top artists including Dafnis Prieto, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Wynton Marsalis, Yoko Ono, and Kanye West, to name a few.

DAN WEISS started playing the drums at the age of 6. He studied privately since he began. His main teacher as a child and teenager was Jeff Krause. While in high school he studied classical piano and classical composition. He studied drums and composition at the Manhattan School of music. Dan also studied frame drums with Jamey Hadaad. Dan has been studying tabla for the last nine years exclusively under the guidance of his guru Pandit Samir Chatterjee. He has performed and or recorded with David Binney, Lee Konitz, Dave Liebman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Miguel Zenon, Wayne Krantz, Kenny Werner, Ritchie Beirach, Ben Monder, Uri Caine, Village Vanguard Orchestra, Ravi Coltrane and many others. He has been touring Europe and North America extensively for the past seven years with many different projects. He has also played in South America and Asia and has recorded for Omnitone, Fresh Sound/New Talent, Arabesque, Pi, Criss cross, Between The Lines, Act, Hat Hut, and Auand record labels.

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