Mondays with Morgan: Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo (new album ‘El Arte Del Bolero, Vol. 2’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo about their latest duo album, El Arte Del Bolero, Vol. 2, a sequel to 2021’s El Arte Del Bolero.

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Luis Perdomo and Miguel Zenon wearing suits and standing outside in a city looking away from the camera
Luis Perdomo and Miguel Zenon. Photo credit: Jimmy Katz

The bolero is a form of romantic song that originated in Cuba in the 19th century. But thousands of miles away, in Europe, audiences were enraptured by them.

In early 2023, Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo supported their 2021 album El Arte Del Bolero across Europe, for mostly non-Spanish-speaking audiences.

“They’d never heard this music before,” Zenón tells LondonJazz. “But there was an acknowledgement of something there that goes beyond the music. Which I think is the power of good songwriting that comes from a folkloric source.”

The rapturous response to this music from El Arte Del Bolero – which had been nominated for a GRAMMY – partly inspired the pair to record a sequel.

El Arte Del Bolero, Vol. 2 (reviewed by LJN) is just as mellow, immersive and evocative as its predecessor, while assuming a wider purview of Latin America’s myriad musical traditions.

“We tried to take it out of that setting and bring our own voices and jazz knowledge to it,” Perdomo adds. He’s speaking of two cuts from Venezuelan sources, but it could easily apply to the entire album: “Keeping some of the nuances from the music, we tried to make it ours.”

Read on for an interview with Zenón and Perdomo about the impetus behind – and execution of – El Arte Del Bolero, Vol. 2.

LondonJazz News: The response to El Arte Del Bolero seemed to wildly surpass your expectations. So what happened from there?

Miguel Zenón: This is music that we’ve been playing kind of informally in a duo format for a while.

The first one was by accident, really, in how it came together. But at least in my mind, I always thought, OK, this is something we could keep revisiting – maybe because of the nature of the repertoire. It’s so vast with so much to explore, and it’s something we like so much.

Even when we were playing gigs after that first one, we were already adding new things: Let’s try this, let’s try that. We did this little run earlier this year in Europe, where we really tried out some new things. It felt really good; the new material felt really nice, and it made sense: Let’s go record this in a proper studio, and have something else out there.

Luis Perdomo: There’s so much music that we could play. Now that we’ve been doing this project, I keep listening to this type of music every day and thinking of what would be cool, maybe I’ll call Miguel and tell him about this song.

Just last night, I was listening to a whole bunch of South American boleros. Like Miguel said, the repertoire’s so big; we have material for more than 10 records.

Luis Perdomo and Miguel Zenon looking straight to camera outside a red brick building
Luis Perdomo and Miguel Zenon. Photo credit: Jimmy Katz

LJN: How did you expand on the aesthetic, or the reach, of El Arte Del Bolero?

LP: Normally, the bolero roots are in Cuba, and a lot of the music that we did on the first record was from Cuban composers.

For this particular project, we were trying to go away from Cuba a little bit, into different countries.

There’s some more recent stuff, by people like Rubén Blades, the composer and singer, that was written more in the ‘70s. But most of the stuff was written in the golden era of the bolero in the 1940s and ‘50s. Keeping it a little more diverse, in that sense.

MZ: That’s definitely the direction we were trying to take, but also, [we wanted to] not look at the bolero as a genre, but think about it more as Latin American song. Something that’s a little more vast, that we can capture and filter through the present, throughout the project.

Luis mentioned Rubén Blades; the song we recorded [“Paula C”] is not a bolero at all. It’s just a really nice song that he recorded as a medium salsa. So, we decided to bring that in, because it’s a nice song to play and we both like it.

We brought it into the project to expand the idea; we’re dealing with this genre, which is the bolero, but we’re really thinking about it from the perspective of the larger umbrella of the repertoire, which is really Latin American song.

LJN: How would you characterise the nuances of the bolero’s various iterations, depending on the countries and scenes in which it springs up?

MZ: I think a lot of it has to do with eras.

For example, there was a time when a lot of these composers, like Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores, who were both from Puerto Rico, were living in New York City. So, a lot of the material was mixing with the energy that was in New York. Especially from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is called filin – a jazzier bolero, in a way.

The Mexican song has a very particular way; composers like [Armando] Manzanero had a really specific identity. Some of the songs we explore from Venezuela and Panama – I feel those have a more folkloric feel.

LJN: Can we do a lightning round, and talk about some of the great figures represented in this material – starting with Tito Rodríguez?

MZ: The music we recorded from Tito’s songbook wasn’t written by him; it was made famous by him. When you think of Tito Rodríguez, you think of the original Latin American crooner. You think about someone like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. 

That’s what he represented. Not just in terms of the material, but also his persona; that’s what he signified culturally and artistically.

A lot of the songs were literally written for him; his versions are the versions. “En La Oscuridad” and “En La Soledad” – those were written for Tito. 

It’s not like you have a lot of different ways of singing the songs. No: you have his way of singing the song, and then people who have covered his way of singing the song. It’s almost like he wrote them; that’s the power of an interpreter.

LJN: Can you say more about Rubén Blades and “Paula C”?

LP: That’s a song that was so, so famous in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia – all of South America.

I play that with my trio sometimes – just because harmonically, it’s so interesting. It could be a jazz standard; it has that same AABA sort of form. You could do some reharmonisations, although we don’t do many reharmonisations. We try to keep the songs so they can be recognised by the listener.

I remember listening to that song when it first came out – maybe 1978, 1977. I must have been five or six years old. I remember my father playing that song all the time; my brother washing his car, having all the doors open and blasting that song.

LJN: What of “Motivos,” composed by Italo Pizzolante?

LP: He wrote a lot of music, but that’s by far the most famous one.

Every time I hear this song, the version that comes to my mind is by La Rondalla Venezolana, which is a group that had six or seven guitars; they all sang in harmony. That’s a song I learned to play when I was 18 or 19.

LJN: Then we have Simón Díaz, as per “Caballo Viejo.”

LP: Simón Díaz was one of the most famous composers in Venezuela – another guy who was equally as famous as Aldemaro Romero.

That song transcended borders. It was recorded by Celia Cruz; it was also recorded by the Gipsy Kings.

Díaz also used to have a TV show in Venezuela that I used to watch all the time. This song is kind of like the national anthem; everybody will know this song.

LJN: How about Eva Elena Valdelamar, who composed “Mucho Corazón”?

MZ: She was a Mexican composer. This was a song that Luis and I loved; we’d been talking about and singing it.

Luis did a little digging into the composer, and he found out her history, and the history of the song, which is pretty amazing. She wrote it as a teenager, because she was being courted by this older gentleman, and she wrote it in response to this thing that was going on.

It’s by far her most well-known song, and it has been covered tons.

LP: Just the fact that it was written by a Mexican composer – it had a different flavour for us. It wasn’t the same, OK, it was written by a Cuban guy.

Even though, for the longest time, I thought it was a Cuban song. Because it was sung by the great Benny Moré, who was Cuban. And the version I had heard was by Estrellas de Areito – that’s what became Buena Vista Social Club.

LJN: Finally, we have “Silencio,” by way of Rafael Hernández Marín.

MZ: He’s definitely one of the most prolific and far-reaching composers to come out of Latin America. He was born in Puerto Rico, and lived for a very long time in Mexico, Cuba, and New York, and wrote a lot of music in those places.

I would argue he’s the most important Latin American songwriter of our time. A lot of that music, as a matter of fact, is considered by people in those countries to be of those countries.

I remember being in Cuba and playing some of his music. They were like, “Yeah, that’s a Cuban song.” I was like, “No, that was actually written by a Puerto Rican composer.” The same thing happened in Mexico, because it became embedded in their culture.

This is a song we actually had played in the past. We recorded it as a quartet on a [2011] album called Alma Adentro, which was specifically for the Puerto Rican songbook.

When we were trying to round up the project and think of things we could do, “Silencio” came to mind as something that could push the energy forwards a bit.

We tried it a couple of different ways, and we ended up going with something that was sort of in between – the arrangement we had played before, and something that was a little closer to the original.

LINKS: Purchase El Arte Del Bolero, Vol. 2

LJN review of El Arte Del Bolero, Vol. 2

Miguel Zenón’s website

Luis Perdomo’s website

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