Album reviews

Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo – ‘El Arte Del Bolero, Vol.2’

Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo – El Arte Del Bolero, Vol.2
(Miel Music. Album review by Sebastian Scotney)

There’s that famous scene in the 1999 Wim Wenders film “Buena Vista Social Club”: Ry Cooder and his son Joachim dismount from their motorbike and sidecar and amble into a backstreet studio in Havana. Ry, on voiceover, reflects on the improbable wonder of his first encounter with the voice of Ibrahim Ferrer: “You stumble against something like this maybe once in your life.” Inside the studio, Ferrer starts singing. The frailty in that voice is heart-rending: “Duermen en mi jardin / Las blancas azucenas, los nardos y las rosas…” (They are asleep in my garden / The white lilies, the tuberose and the roses…). Since that film, there has been a quarter of a century of story-telling about the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. And yet one thing was hardly mentioned: the music, the actual songs they sang, and their origins.

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That song, then…with its squishily romantic lyric about a man declaring the desperate wish that none of the scented flowers in the garden should ever know his suffering, lest they die…what is it ? The answer: “Silencio” from 1932. And the words and the music? By a singer-songwriter not from Cuba at all, but from saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s homeland, Puerto Rico: Rafael Hernández (1892-1965).

And now look closely at the cover image of “El Arte Del Bolero, Vol.2”. Those lyrics, artfully backgrounded, are there. That clever design trick tells the story of what this duo album by two close musical allies are trying to do here: in Zenón’s words in the liner text, it is to explore and show the character of “the Latin-American Songbook and [..] the Bolero in particular as a genre.[..] We wanted this to be all about the material; that the songs themselves would be the main characters.”

In truth there is design unity with the cover of the first “El Arte Del Bolero” album, which alto saxophonist Sam Norris reviewed so well for us when it came out [link below]. Sam said that the duo’s playing “shows off the pair’s uncanny musical chemistry, Perdomo’s comping breathing with Zenón’s clearly aimed, beboppy phrases, both players waxing and waning in tandem with one another.” Essentially, Sam has described the way things work between these two musicians quite so exceptionally well. Luis Perdomo has a whole armoury of different textures and moods. Jack DeJohnette once talked of admiring Perdomo’s consistency. It was a compliment. The pianist also hears everything and responds to it. It might be stating the obvious, but there is a wonderful dialogue between friends going on here.

Whereas the original “El Arte Del Bolero” was put together on instinct and impulse “at an impromptu duo session”, Vol.2 has been much more thought through. And Zenón and Perdomo sound like they definitely enjoyed a long process of discussing what songs to work on.

These songs from several countries have amazing backstories, which are well known to both musicians, and are a fascinating story of how good songs travel. Eva Elena Valdelamar was a Mexican singer-songwriter, and her song “Mucho Corazón” (a lot of heart) is the kind of ballad which gets played on barrel organs on street corners in Latin America. Zenon and Perdomo both like the version by livewire Cuban bandleader Benny Moré, who died tragically early.

The track that drew me in the most wa “Motivos” from 1965. The original song is by songwriter Italo Pizzolante – from Perdomo’s homeland, Venezuela, and it is a soulful declaration of love. This duo version is a complete statement, a perfect take. Zenon reminds us that he is one of the clearest-thinking improvisers one will ever hear.

Just an aside: Zenón and Perdomo are demonstrating the unifying power of Bolero. This important heritage travels with ease from country to country and unites people. In fact, UNESCO is currently considering a joint application from Mexico and Cuba to have it categorised as an item of intangible heritage. Here is an extract from the application :

“From the very genesis of Bolero, built from the assimilation and fusion of diverse cultural elements, the human creativity to build a shared cultural result is evident. In it, creativity is manifested both in the lyrics and in the music which, when fused together, allow feelings and emotions to be expressed, even with dance, and in the incorporation of different instruments, in the ways of interpreting it, where each musician, arranger or singer gives it his or her own style of expression.”

Maybe this album, which has taken a simple aim, “to play songs we know and love”, and does it so well, will tip the balance.

The album is released on 25 August 2023

LINKS: Sam Norris’s review of El Arte del Bolero
Youtube clip from Buena Vista Social Club film
UNESCO application: Ref 1990. Bolero: identity, emotion and poetry turned into song

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