For virtuoso alto saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenón’s 43rd birthday, here’s the uncut version of a Blindfold Test we did for Downbeat in November 2005. He was 29 at the time, and already extremely literate in the lineage of his instrument.
Miguel Zenon Blindfold Test (Raw) — (2005):
1. Ornette Coleman, “In All Languages”(from In All Languages, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987) Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums.
That’s Ornette. At the beginning it sounds like this other tune that I know, but I don’t know this tune. It sounds like Charlie on bass, but that’s another horn in there. I wonder if it’s Don Cherry. Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound too high for a pocket trumpet. But definitely Ornette, though. I don’t know this recording, but who’s going to say anything about Ornette? One of my main inspirations in terms of one of the first alto guys that really got away from the Charlie Parker thing and was able to do something original back then. He still does actually. I saw him the other day when we played with Charlie at the Blue Note. He was there. So I was pretty nervous! But it was great to see him. I’ve had the chance to meet him a couple of times, and he’s one of those guys who everything he says seems to have a meaning somehow. He doesn’t talk unless he wants to say something important. But I’m pretty sure that this is Ornette. It sounds like a fairly recent recording. From the ‘70s maybe? It’s the way the recording sounds, and to me the more recent music is a lot freer in terms of time, whereas his earlier music was free in terms of the improvisation, but what was happening with the rhythm section was pretty much a bebop approach, like walking bass and the cymbals just kind of swinging in that way. This is totally free in terms of tempo, too. But in terms of the sound, you can tell this has reverb and all that stuff, so it’s maybe ‘80s or even more recent than that. 5 stars, just because it’s Ornette and it sounds incredible. I’ve seen Ornette recently perform a few times with his current group, and he’s almost like Wayne Shorter in the way he uses little motifs that he’s carried through ages, but he still uses them to compose. Sometimes you’ll be able to recognize something that’s an obvious motif from Ornette’s language, but then it’s a totally different tune. So that’s what happened when he started the tune and the first phrase – I thought it was this other tune I’ve heard before. But then he went into something totally different. It’s a definite gift, I guess, for a composer to have motifs so strong.
2. Donald Harrison, “Doctor Duck” (from Eddie Palmieri, Palmas, Nonesuch, 1994) (Palmieri, piano, composer; Harrison, alto sax; Brian Lynch, tp; Conrad Herwig, tb; Johnny Torres, bass; Richie Flores, congas; Anthony Carrillo, bongo; Jose Clausell, timbales, Robbie Ameen, drums
I don’t know this record, but it sounds like something maybe Eddie Palmieri would do. Yup! There’s the montuno right there. This is probably Donald Harrison. Well, it might not be him, but I know he did all those records with Eddie, and because of the montuno and the kind of tune it is, it’s pretty obvious that it’s Eddie’s recording. Of course, Eddie Palmieri is one of the legends of Latin music in general, and this track specifically is a perfect example of a traditional Latin jazz kind of track, very danceable in terms of the form, in terms of the way the percussion is playing behind them, just going for it, establishing a percussive movement and setting. There’s not that much interaction between the soloist and the band; it’s more like they’re establishing that… It’s the same way you would do on a salsa group, establishing a groove, and the alto player, who I think is Donald Harrison, is blowing on top of that. But of course, as I said, once the tune started I was trying to guess who it was, and I guessed Eddie first of all because of the instrumentation, because I know he used trombone, trumpet and alto on a lot of those records, and also once he started playing the montuno it was obvious that it was Eddie Palmieri. That’s probably Brian Lynch on trumpet. Yes, that’s definitely Brian. He’s playing the changes real clear, but then he’s playing some kind of modern stuff. This kind of stuff to me is really nice to listen to. It’s very groovy and very down-the-line, pretty obvious Latin. It has the percussion, the montunos, the bass, the tumbao—everything. It’s almost like dance music. It’s trying to capture that same vein, all the music that Eddie does. Eddie’s one of those guys, along with Pappo Lucca, who plays with the salsa group Sonora Ponceña in Puerto Rico. Every piano player who’s working on montunos, they swear by these guys, because they kind of invented a way to put what all that stuff that was coming from the très, from the son montuno in Cuba, to put that stuff in the piano—and in a modern way, too. So they are very different, but every piano player you talk to, they always cite them as their main guys for montuno. It’s incredible that Eddie still plays like that, too. 4 stars, just because it’s Eddie and a legend. If it was somebody else, I probably wouldn’t give it 4 stars. As I was saying, this isn’t something I would sit down and listen to. It’s something that’s more danceable, very groovy and very nicely done.
3. Sonny Criss, “Blues In My Heart” (from Crisscraft, 32-Jazz, 1975/1997) (Criss, alto saxophone; Ray Crawford, guitar; Dolo Coker, piano; Larry Gales, bass; Jimmy Smith, drums; Benny Carter, composer)
I have absolutely no idea who it is. He sounds great. I can’t recognize the alto player by sound. Maybe when he starts improvising, I’ll be able to… He’s playing a lot of Bird stuff, but the sound has something else to it. It might be Charles McPherson. Maybe Frank Morgan. He has a very distinctive vibrato, but I don’t recognize him. [Do you know the tune?] It sounds familiar, like I might have heard it, but I don’t recognize it either. He’s got a great sound. The way he uses vibrato specifically, it’s hard for me to pinpoint who it is. He has a way of using the vibrato which is uncharacteristic of other alto players. But he’s definitely playing a lot of bebop stuff, too. So whenever he’ll play a run, I can say it’s definitely a guy who admires Charlie Parker a lot. But I’m not familiar enough with the sound to pinpoint who it is. The way he’s playing the bluesy stuff is kind of different, though. He’s being very economical about the notes he’s playing. He didn’t really play a lot of notes. He was being very patient. 3½ stars. Sonny Criss? Wow! I’ve heard him a couple of times, but I’m not really hip to him that much. Oh, that was by Benny Carter. When he started playing, I was thinking of Benny Carter, but the sound didn’t match…
4. Tim Berne, “Huevos” (from Science Friction, Screwgun, 2001) (Berne, alto sax, composer; Marc Ducret, electric guitar; Craig Taborn, keyboards; Tom Rainey, drums)
This is definitely more modern than that! This recording sounds almost like a live recording. It sounds weird. It doesn’t sound like the other recordings. My first guess would be Tim Berne maybe. His sound. Just the composition. But I’m really not that familiar with his playing. I’ve never actually heard him live. I’ve heard him on recordings. When the composition first started playing, I thought he was Henry Threadgill, but once he started playing, it’s not quite the same sound. Although it might be him! But now that I hear it a little more, it’s not like something Henry Threadgill would write, at least from the stuff I’m familiar with. It’s pretty complex and really well done. He has a lot of instruments in there. I can’t really pinpoint how many. Maybe a couple of guitars? One guitar. Drums… It sounds really thick. It could be Marty Ehrlich. He has that kind of sound, too. But my guess would be Tim Berne. The other guy I might think of is Dave Binney because of the composition, but his sound is totally different.[AFTER] I guessed it, but by chance. As I said, I’m not really that familiar with his playing or his music at all. But the times I’ve heard him, I could recognize him by the sound, what he started playing. I couldn’t tell you for sure it was him, but I could guess it was him also because of the music. I’ve heard a little of his music and the music he does with other people, and it’s along the same vein—specific instrumentation and driven by some kind of complexity and a very systematic way of doing it. It was a great piece. 4 stars.
5. Jerry Dodgion, “Quill” (from The Joy of Sax, LSM, 2004) (Dan Block, Dodgion, Brad Leali, alto sax solos; Mike LeDonne, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums)
The alto is way up front in the mix. I can’t tell if that’s the recording.. But it sounds great. I can’t recognize them. There are a couple of alto players. The second guy, I can’t tell… He’s playing a lot of Cannonball stuff. I’m not really sure if it’s Cannonball, but it’s definitely from Cannonball. I wonder how many saxophones there are. Sounds like a big saxophone section. It sounds like one of those Thad Jones arrangements, although it isn’t, but just the way the groove is set. Maybe it’s Jerry Dodgion. I can’t tell about the other guys, though. I wonder who the second guy is, the guy who sounds to me like Cannonball? Well, I thought it was really. It was grooving. It sounded to me like it was a really big saxophone section. I couldn’t really tell by the orchestration; there were a lot of different things happening. But it was pretty happening. 3½ stars. I can’t guess the alto players, though.
6. Steve Coleman, “Ascending Numeration” (from Alternate Dimensions: Series 1, Self-Produced, 2002) (Coleman, alto sax; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Regg Washington, acoustic bass; Sean Rickman, drums; Pedro Martinez, percussion; Yosvany Terry, clave)
I know the drummer already, I think. Sean Rickman. The way he’s playing. The sound of his cymbals. This is Steve Coleman. I’ve sat in with him a few times, and I’m usually lost. I get together a lot with him and talk. If I were going to say anything about him, he’s probably my greatest living inspiration in a musician. He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever met. He’s always working on something. He’s one of those guys who never gives up in terms of the information he has. He’s not content with what he has already. He’s already looking for more, always looking for something new, always reading and trying to bring everything that’s around him into music. I think this is the record where he uses two bass players, maybe Resistance Is Futile, or maybe the one before. I’m not sure of the name, but I’m pretty sure I know this recording. Reggie Washington is playing acoustic and Anthony Tidd is playing electric. I’ve sat in a couple of times at his gigs, and I talk to him a lot about music… I’ve gotten together with Steve a bunch of times, and we just play and talk about the kind of stuff he does. It’s always inspiring. But his music is very, very complex. It’s almost important to go out and sit in on a gig with him if you don’t know what’s happening. You could kind of skate around it, but I think the main thing with him is that he’s trying to put his own effort to not skate in everything he does. Even though something can be very complicated for somebody listening from the outside, he’s trying to play it as perfectly or as accurate as possible. He’s very accurate about playing changes and playing meters, and I know he’s very serious about the whole thing and not just getting by, kind of just playing licks. He’s an inspiration, because he plays it at such a high level. But then when you talk to him about something, he usually just talks about Bird or Coltrane, and goes back to the tradition, which he knows real well. But the thing that’s most inspiring about him to me is that he’s really been able to take all that tradition and classic jazz stuff, and he’s been able to translate into something that sounds incredibly modern. But the roots of his music are all in something that’s very tradition. That to me is incredibly inspiring. He’s very precise about changes. When you hear anybody else playing this music, and you hear him play, he’s not missing anything. He knows this music so well. Everything he does, at least from what I’ve learned from talking to him, is pretty systematic. It’s preconceived, in a way. He conceives everything from the rhythm to the harmony to the melodies, and everything that happens on the tune has a purpose. It could be something numerical, or he even goes as far as astrology and stuff that goes beyond just playing numbers and music. I wouldn’t be able to into deepness on it, but I know he’s serious about incorporating many elements of nature, and just… Everything that has to do with the world, basically. He’s very serious about incorporating that somehow in his music. So the rhythmic thing… When I first met him, I was an incredible fan, and I had all these records, and I started asking him about tunes, like this tune that’s in 5/4 or 7/4 or whatever. The first thing he told me is that he didn’t think of it like that, he didn’t think of it as 5/4 or 7/4 in meter. He thought of it almost like a rhythmic melody. He’s got a rhythmic melody that just happens to be 11/8 or 7/4, but he doesn’t measure it in terms of meter – it just happens to be that way once he starts playing the tune, and they have to incorporate everything around that. His music is an incredible inspiration to me in every way—conceptually, sonically, the way he plays. Especially after I got to meet him and talk to him. A really big influence on me. 4 stars. There’s things he’s done that I like better than this. My favorite is probably this double record he did with a big band and also a quartet called Genesis and Open Another Way. The thing he did in Cuba is also incredible. And by far my favorite is The Sonic Language of Myth. That period when he did those records is incredible.
7. Kenny Garrett, “April In Paris” (from Roy Haynes, Birds of A Feather, Dreyfuss, 2001) (Garrett, alto saxophone; Roy Hargrove, trumpet; David Kikoski, piano; Christian McBridge, bass; Roy Haynes, drums)
I know this tune, I just can’t think of the name. It’s a great tune. “April In Paris”? I had to think of the lyrics. I’m still not sure if it’s Kenny Garrett, but if it isn’t, it’s definitely somebody who’s really into Kenny Garrett. Just the sound. He has a way of bending into notes, especially when he plays high. It’s very distinctive to the way he plays, even if he’s playing ballad. But I’m still not sure if it’s him. But I’m pretty sure it’s him. Would this be one of those recordings with Freddie or Woody Shaw? Maybe one of his first couple of recordings. Kenny Garrett is probably the most influential alto player of the last 20 years. Anybody from my generation, or even younger or a little older has been influenced by him one way or another. Because what he did was so strong… Basically, he was kind of the Michael Brecker of the alto, of that generation. The way he played in terms of sound and his whole approach to the alto was very un-alto. It was more like a tenor. He was coming from the Trane kind of influence, but he brought all that stuff into the alto. He’s an incredible soloist and knows how to build. So any time you hear him, he’s going to be consistently good. But as I said, he’s so strong, the way he plays, that even for myself… When I started getting into jazz, he’s one of the first guys I started transcribing and really getting into. But eventually, I had to stop listening to him, because he was so strong that it’s hard to get away from trying to sound like that. So I had to stop listening to him completely. As great as he is, I don’t listen that much to him any more, because I’m trying to get away from the vein that everybody else has gone. But he’s an incredible alto player, one of the top today, if not the top. Just what he did with sound, just that, the way he approached sound on the alto is enough to get him into the hall of fame or whatever. 4 stars.
8. Lee Konitz-Sal Mosca, “Baby” (from Spirits, Milestone, 1971/1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Mosca, piano)
This sounds like one of those Lennie Tristano-Lee Konitz heads, putting a different melody in a standard, but I know it’s not Lee Konitz. Or maybe it is. More recent Lee Konitz. Yeah, it’s definitely Lee. But his sound is very different. If I were going to mention someone other than Bird who really did something for the alto back then… They were all kind of contemporaries, Bird, him and Ornette; they were coming out of the same time, just a little before and after and so on… But the incredible thing about Lee Konitz is that he was able to do something totally different from everybody else who wasn’t Bird. Even Cannonball… He and Ornette were the only ones who just went totally left. It’s almost like they did it on purpose. But he had a sound back then that was a very cool approach, not like a hard-headed sound like Bird had. It was more Stan Getz, kind of Paul Desmond, very cool and delicate. It was a strong sound, a great sound, but a very different sound. The way he plays his lines now is pretty much the same as he played them back then, though obviously more advanced and a lot different. But it’s very unlike something that Bird or somebody coming out of the Bird vein or the bebop vein would play it. The way he moves around the changes is very different in many ways. He uses a lot of different approach notes, he resolves the changes in a different way than somebody within the bebop vein would. Everything about him is different. What makes him different from somebody like Ornette is that Ornette to me was coming from a point where he was trying to find freedom with melody. He wasn’t really worrying that much about changes. He was trying to bring melody back to the forefront and this got to be the main characteristic of the music. Whereas Lee was still dealing with changes and standards. He was playing the same kind of changes that everybody else was playing; he was just playing them very different. It still sounds good, but it sounds very different, and for somebody who’s heard all these alto players coming out of the Bird tradition, when you hear Lee Konitz, it’s incredibly refreshing. It’s incredible! But his sound now has more of an edge to it, and he’s got a way of approaching and swelling into the notes that makes it very obvious that this is something that would be more recent. I don’t know who the piano player is. Is the tune “My Melancholy Baby”? 4½ stars. ‘71?
9. Henry Threadgill, “Dark Black” (from Up Popped The Two Lips, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, alto saxophone, composer; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Tarik Benbrahim, oud; Jose Davila, tuba; Dana Leong, cello; Dafnis Prieto, drums.
This is Henry Threadgill. Right away. That instrumentation. The way he’s doubling the melody with a lower instrument. He does that a lot. He’s an incredible composer. Probably one of the top jazz composers today just because of his originality and what he brings to the music. Very dense. His music is very dense, very well-done. A very original sound on the alto. It’s almost coming from that avant-gardist kind of sound on the alto, but his music is not free. His music is very composed. Is this Zooid? I don’t know what he calls it. He’s got the band with cello – it might be Dana Leong – and tuba, but I forget the name of the guy he uses. Maybe it’s Liberty Ellman on guitar. Maybe Elliott Kavee on drum or Dafnis; he switches. I don’t think it’s Dafnis. The music is very dense for me. It’s hard for me to find something to grab. I would have to listen to it a couple of times to start finding my own logic to understand it. I guess that’s kind of my fault, too; I’m always having to find something in the music that I can understand in a way to be able to follow it. But it’s incredibly well done. 4 stars.
10. Greg Osby, “Mob Job” (from Channel Three, Blue Note, 2005) (Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Ornette Coleman, composer)
I just bought this record a couple of weeks ago. That’s Greg Osby. It’s an Ornette tune. I would probably put Greg, Steve Coleman and Kenny Garrett in the same category, as guys from the same generation who all are coming from different places but have something fresh happening. Kenny Garrett I’d say is coming more from the tenor as opposed to the alto—maybe Trane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson. Whereas I know from talking to Steve that he’s totally a Bird fanatic, and everything he does is somehow coming from Bird. Whereas Greg Osby, in terms of the sound and things he does in the lower register and his lines and so on, is coming from a Cannonball vein, but a lot more modern approach. Greg is also a great thinker, a total conceptualist, and he has a lot in common with Steve in that way, though their ideas are very different. They deserve the same amount of respect in that sense. Greg is definitely a huge influence. I like this record a lot; it’s probably the one I like most of the last two or three he’s done. Before this one, I thought Symbols Of Light, the one he did with a string quartet, was incredible. This one is at that level. 4 stars.
11. Eric Dolphy, “Round Midnight” (from George Russell, Ezz-Thetics, Riverside, 1961/1999) (Dolphy, alto saxophone; Russell, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Joe Hunt, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)
Is this Eric Dolphy? This is “Round Midnight.” He’s got such a special sound. Every time I listen to him, it seems he’s blowing as hard as possible into the horn. He has so much energy. Could the arranger be George Russell? I don’t know if this is a George Russell recording, but I know they did some stuff together. The instrumentation and the beginning reminds me of stuff he’s done. A few people I know who knew Eric Dolphy personally, they say he was the nicest, sweetest person, and he doesn’t sound like that when he plays! He has so much energy when he plays. Definitely not nice and sweet. Very aggressive. Especially his sound. He sounds like he’s blowing so hard into the horn, but it’s not like he’s getting out of control, but like a laser kind of sound. His approach to the intervals and melodies is very personal. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until recently that I started to find a way to get into his music and listen to his records for a long enough time… Before they kind of pushed me away a little bit. Before, with the combination of his sound and his aggressiveness, I couldn’t hear what he was trying to do in terms of changes and melodies. I couldn’t really see his whole vocal approach. His whole thing is like a vocal thing, and I couldn’t see that; I was interested in something that had more finesse, like Cannonball and Bird or Lee Konitz. This doesn’t have finesse at all. But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to try to get into his head, basically, and see what he was going for. He was an incredibly organized guy. When I started listening to him the first couple of times, it almost sounded to me like he was just playing random things, but now I listen to it and it sounds incredibly organized. This is a very virtuosic and personal way of playing the instrument, definitely. 4 stars.