Weekend Musicposted on February 9th, 2010 by Alan Lockwood
During the first weekend of February, the Alexander Kasser Theater was testing ground for two acts of musical fusion. On Saturday, February 6th and Sunday, February 7th, both Miguel Zenón’s band and Kronos Quartet brought similar recipes to the table—mixing established forms with fresh musical styles. Or, for Kronos, a diversity of styles—and the perils of amplifying a bastion of acoustic beauty, but we’ll get to that.
Miguel Zenón’s path as an instrumentalist runs deep, with stints in the Mingus Big Band and with bass maven Charlie Haden. He’s an alto player possessed with astounding technique and quicksilver inventiveness. Breathtaking runs were limber at Saturday night’s performance, not agitated. Then in a late solo he briefly burnished his line with a bending Arabian tonality—intriguing, not obtrusive, like a deft, magical tweak.
It’s his work as a composer, though, that’s reaped dividends, including a MacArthur Fellowship. An expansive suite from his latest release, Esta Plena, pinioned the concert, molting between jazz fluency and Puerto Rican plena music, showing how they urge one another to new heights. Zenón augmented his quartet for this performance with ace hand drummers wielding panderos (panderos sound tart, like conga heads without the resonant trunk). The pianist Luis Perdomo (as bracingly talented as Zenón), Hans Glawischnig’s mellifluous contrabass, and drummer Henry Cole were teamed with Obanilu Allende and NEA National Heritage fellow Juan Gutierrez and Tito Matos—the founders respectively, of plena powerhouses Los Pleneros del 21 and Viento de Agua.
So when anybody in the house meets a full-on plena band after this weekend, they’ll be, as Jimi Hendrix would have it, experienced. Puerto Rico’s deeply proud of its plena; it’s a crucial flavor adding the arch lilt that distinguishes New York salsa from Cuban song forms. In Zenón’s vision, the extreme fluency of today’s bop coexists with plena’s urgent appeal. Impassioned lyrical complaint makes the personal, political—as with the blues. And in the suite, Matos’s bold vocals declared that while the world’s bicycling, Puerto Rico’s walking, which makes a protesting rhyme in native Spanish. Whether Zenón and Perdomo blew mad runs or the coro sang, each of the suite’s transitions drew whooping applause.
Which is radically unlike audience protocol when a typical string quartet pauses between movements—but Kronos never aspired to being one of those. Through their thirty-year career, they’ve expanded audiences and—crucially—commissioned scads of composers ranging across the wide world. Their new release, Floodplain, runs inland as it were from musical fusion’s harbor homes—think Buenos Aires and tango, or jazz sailing upriver from New Orleans.
At Kasser, Kronos played pieces from Northern India to Azerbaijan. Further formal augmentations included electronic tracks, most coherently in Ramallah Underground’s big wisp of a piece “Tashweesh,” then more like a deus ex machina intrusion as Café Tacuba’s prerecorded guitars swelled in the disparate “12/12.”
Hank Dutt’s voice-like viola resounded in El Din’s “Escalay,” accompanied by a pizzicato rhythm and the second violin’s drone, and again in the solemn raga passage by Ram Narayan. Yet in these lovely passages lurked a crucial issue: amplification. Electronic “enhancement” is an issue of subtle significance. We hear most music amplified, whether live or as recordings. The string quartet, unsurpassed for composers to converse with their audience, also provides many audiences with an acoustic education. That Kronos fills halls that must be amplified is part of what makes the band exceptional. But I know few rooms with the Kasser’s so-spacious intimacy, as the Shanghai String Quartet’s April recital with jazz contrabassist Christian MacBride will reveal. Kronos’ mighty mission might be further enhanced by playing straight up our ear holes when a particular piece or venue permit it, unfettered by loudspeakers.
Alan Lockwood’s piece “American Voices: Robert Ashley and New Opera” is in the Autumn ‘09 issue of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. His writing on music appears in Time Out New York, Musical America, The New York Sun, and other publications.