This week, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra kicked off their sixth annual Winter Festival. Entitled “America Panorama,” the three-week festival is dedicated to the “symphonic repertoire and wide-ranging musical spirit of the United States,” and to that end it will feature a huge variety of composers, styles and traditions, touching on traditional classical concert music, film music, jazz, electronic, hip hop and more.
This past Wednesday night I had the opportunity to attend a third of the festival’s events. Taking place in The Cube, one of the smaller venues within the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, the concert was a genre-bending chamber music experience featuring the formidable talents of saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón and the Chicago-based Spektral String Quartet. Last September, Zenón and the quartet collaborated to put out a concert-length album of Zenón’s music: Five months later, Yo Soy La Tradición is on the ballet at the Grammys this Sunday afternoon in the “Best Latin Jazz Album” category.
But pigeonholing the album as “Latin Jazz” feels a bit reductive. Though a great deal of its material does stem from Zenón’s Puerto Rican heritage, from the island’s music and its cultural traditions, a lot of the album’s sound is reminiscent of other musical worlds as well. While its jaunty, complex rhythms and often-playful, always-expressive melodies reflect the latin jazz aspect of its influence, some of the textures and harmonies are less familiar to the genre, pulling instead from the vibrant traditions of the string quartet repertoire. Much of this stems simply from the presence of the four string players, which is a rather unorthodox addition to anything falling under the genre heading of “latin jazz.” Drawing from some of the sounds a string instrument uniquely can bring to the table — colorful ponticello textures and delicate pizzicatos, for instance — Spektral’s members at moments sounded like they could have been playing something straight out of 20th century expressionism, or else one of the many other pieces by living composers that form a mainstay of their repertoire.
Much of the concert functioned like a study in contrasts. Often the quartet would lock into a tight and controlled pattern, almost hocket-like, providing a backdrop for Zenón to improvise fluid and athletic lines above, below, around and within the quartet’s music, the rigidity of the quartet starkly different from the saxophone line. At other times the contrasts would be sectional — at one moment all the musicians might be sawing out a line in fierce melodic and rhythmic unison (like in“Milagrosa,” which near its end was quite reminiscent of Messiaen’s famous “Dance of Fury” movement in “Quartet for the End of Time”), and in the next they might break out into a joyful and light latin-inflected groove, as if spontaneously.
One thing that felt like less of a contrast than might be thought, however, was the blending of different musical traditions. The juxtaposition of jazz and the seething string harmonies hardly felt like juxtaposition at all — the music’s disparate influences blended seamlessly together. Zenón’s smooth improvisation over the strings interwove easily with the textures, and at times members of the quartet matched this spontaneity of sound with improvisatory sections of their own, as Zenón confirmed to me when I asked him afterwards.
Zenón and Spektral Quartet together were fascinating together, and this type of concert is exactly the sort of programing that helps keep a contemporary arts organization alive and vibrant in the modern world.