Nationality, melting pot culture and art come together in Miguel Zenon’s Identities Are Changeable (Miel Music, 2014). It’s billed as an extended musical work for large ensemble about national identity as experienced by the Puerto Rican community in the New York City area. It’s also a spoken word testimony to that experience.
The Miguel Zenon Quartet consists of Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; and Henry Cole, drums. The “Identities” Big Band members are Will Vinson and Michael Thomas, alto saxophones; Samir Zarif and John Ellis, tenor saxophones; Chris Cheek, baritone saxophone; Mat Jodrel, Michael Rodriguez, Alex Norris and Jonathan Powell, trumpets; and Ryan Keberle, Alan Ferber and Tim Albright, trombones.
One of the voices heard in the opening track, “De Donde Vienes? (Overture),” is that of Sonia Manzano, whom many will recognize as Maria, a character on the children’s television program Sesame Street. She and others introduce themselves, say a little something about their experience, all over the back drop of a big jazz band playing something that’s part Latin, part symphonic.
Each song is prefaced by one of the speakers talking about being Puerto Rican, being a New Yorker, being born in the United States and visiting Puerto Rico. On some tracks, the speaking continues over the music. On others, the voice only serves as an introduction, while the instruments do the rest. On “My Home,” there’s a back and forth between the speakers, telling of their first time they went to Puerto Rico and how the experience compares to their expectations. The instrumental part largely consist of Zenon’s alto leading, with the other horns in overlapping but complementary phrases. The music swells before softening until only the base quartet is active. While Zenon stretches out, the horns return in echelon – one plays a steady, single-note beat and is gradually joined by others until the song shifts back into the main mood.
The kick start to Identities
Are Changeable was when Zenon asked his friends a question he had
been asking himself: “What does it mean to be Puerto Rican in
21st-century New York City?” He grew up in San Juan and moved to New
York in 1998 to pursue a career in music. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth
of the United States, so even those who are born there are U.S.
citizens. And many who migrate to the USA land in the New York City
area. An estimated 1.2 million “Puerto Rican-Americans” were living in
the greater New York area in 2012. The spoken parts are interviews Zenon
conducted with Puerto Ricans who had returned to the island after living
on the mainland. In addition to Manzano, the actress, they are Zenon’s
sister, Patricia Zenon; musicians Luques Curtis and Camilo Molina; poet
Bonafide Rojas; and family friend Alex Rodriguez. Their stories weave in
and out of the musical tapestry. It all comes together as a pleasant
listening experience as well as insight to the identities of a people
who experience the duality of being Puerto Ricans and, at the same time,