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Miguel Zenon digs deeply into Afro-Latin rhythm

Howard Reich

10:41 AM CDT, September 20, 2013

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Five years ago, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon won a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," and he has been steadily fulfilling the promise of that prestigious prize ever since.

Recordings such as "Esta Plena" (2009) and "Alma Adentro" (2011) deepened his explorations into the song forms of his Puerto Rican heritage, while his partnership with French pianist Laurent Coq on "Rayuela" (2012) illuminated the expanding range and profundity of his improvisations.

Still challenging himself and his audiences, Zenon brought an unconventional group – the Rhythm Collective – to the Jazz Showcase on Thursday night. Without benefit of a chordal instrument, such as piano or guitar, Zenon offered a music decidedly austere in harmony but unusually rich in color, melodic development and, of course, rhythm.

So even though listeners didn't get to feast on easily recognizable chord progressions, they heard something else: lush, glistening layers of sound, sometimes brilliant, sometimes gauzy, always cohesive.

One hastens to note, however, that Zenon's alto saxophone drove the proceedings, the bandleader taking responsibility for providing musical event and focus. He performed nearly continuously, pausing only sporadically for the rhythm players to make a statement, and even then Zenon often weighed in from the sidelines.

Only an inventive improviser could have made this arrangement work, but, in truth, Zenon's phrase-making would be attractive even if he were alone on stage (as he proved last September, playing an alluring solo show at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel during the Hyde Park Jazz Festival).

For starters, there's the distinctive sound of Zenon's alto, generally soft in tone, gentle in articulation, replete with nuance and lyrical to its core. Even in fast-flying passages, Zenon conveys an underlying musicality and a kind of melodic arc.

As improviser, Zenon seems to draw on a nearly inexhaustible well of ideas, his playing deeply versed in the language of bebop but also extending beyond it.

All of which was apparent in the evening's opening selection, Charlie Parker's "She Rote," which Zenon offered as a salute to Jazz Showcase's decades-long veneration of the bebop titan. Zenon's playing here – quick, lithe and marked by exuberant, whooping phrases – commanded most of the attention, his collaborators not yet providing all the sonic support and quick responses he needed.

That changed instantly when Zenon launched into two pieces by the master Cuban composer Silvio Rodriguez. In "Aceitunas," Zenon produced a shower of notes over pulsing rhythm from bassist Aldemar Valentin, drummer Joel Mateo and percussionist Reinaldo de Jesus. And in "El Necio," Zenon's plaintive lines and lighter-than-air running figurations inspired glittering colors and dramatic punctuations from the rhythm players.

But Zenon's own scores played a prominent role in this set, too, the saxophonist spanning a broad range of Afro-Latin languages in "The Chain" and offering all manner of chromatic twists and turns in "Hypnotized."

Practically everyone knows Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" – it long served as Puente's theme song – but Zenon's version took it to new places, the saxophonist fracturing the melody, displacing rhythmic accents and building his own themes from the famous tune. The song plays a key role in Zenon's new release with the Rhythm Collective, "Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico," and his radical transformation of it attests to the perpetually questing nature of his work.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Miguel Zenon & the Rhythm Collective

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $20-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com