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Miguel Zenon understands that to better grasp the future, the past must be studied. That's evident after a spin of Zenon’s latest album, “Musica de las Americas,” released in August.
The celebrated saxophonist merges past and present with deep, upbeat Latin American grooves with songs that are passionate, poignant and powerful.
“This album is a labor of love,” Zenon said while calling from his Puerto Rico home. “It was important to me to come up with songs that are meaningful. So much great music and inspiration has come out of Puerto Rico, Panama and the Caribbean. There is such a rich tradition of music that comes out of the Americas.”
“Musica de las Americas,” which will be showcased when Zenon and his band perform Wednesday at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, is a heavy project, covering a considerable amount of history and focusing on the evolution of the Americas.
“There was so much I learned,” Zenon said.
Zenon, 46, who is not just a musician but an educator in his native Puerto Rico, has been a dedicated student since he was a child. Zenon focused on the saxophone when he was 11 and he became hyper-focused at 16 when he made a discovery.
His life changed when he first heard the legendary Charlie Parker play the saxophone.
“My mind was blown,” Zenon said. “To play the instrument that well and improvise on the spot like Charlie Parker did, well, that was just amazing. Parker creating with other musicians was like people speaking in another language.”
It was obvious the career path Zenon would take. His world changed after attending the Berklee College of Music.
“It was the first time I studied jazz in a formal manner,” Zenon said. “I saw at that point that music was a viable option.”
Zenon enjoys a varied career as a musician and educator. The Grammy nominee has been the recipient of Guggenheim- and MacArthur fellowships. He has released 15 albums as a bandleader, and his alto sax artistry has led to more than 100 sideman recordings.
“I’ve been incredibly busy, and I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many talented people,” Zenon said. “It’s been so great so far, but I have so much more to accomplish (and) I also want to give back.”
Zenon accomplishes that by connecting with young musicians.
“I try to teach them about the history of music and what it means in the world today,” he said. “I want them to learn, and give them the confidence to be able to express themselves. What’s great about jazz is that it’s a musical world that’s always inclusive. Just go back to the 1800s and you’ll see that. Jazz is a special kind of music and I have so much love and reverence for it.”
Yet Zenon never has been content with his music.
“The worst thing to be is complacent,” he said. “I’m always trying to discover or learn something new and apply it to my music.”
His creativity often is sparked when he collaborates.
“I love to work with other people,” he said. “Some of my best ideas come when I play with other musicians. I love the interplay. I come up with things that I never would have come up with myself.”
When touring the country, Zenon is amused how most Americans wear their genre of choice like a badge.
“It seems as if some people are jazz, some are country and some are hip-hop and some are rock, but we can enjoy all types of music,” Zenon said. “The reality is that if you look at the history of music, all the genres come from the same place.”