Raising voices and horns for Puerto Rico

Miguel Zenon leads a talent-packed fundraiser for Puerto Rican relief Sunday afternoon at Freight & Salvage. Photo by Michael Katz.

While the Bay Area’s Puerto Rican community is tiny, accounting for well under one percent of the region’s population, according to the 2010 census, the island’s rich cultural heritage has long exerted a powerful influence on the local music scene. The impulse to come to the aid of Puerto Rico’s beleaguered people would be strongly felt regardless, but our abiding ties to fellow citizens can feel more tangible via affection for artists with Boricua roots.

Though he’s a longtime New York resident, Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón is spearheading Sunday afternoon’s benefit concert at Freight & Salvage, Juntos por Puerto Rico, because he’s in the Bay Area for the month, rehearsing with the SFJAZZ Collective. The Freight event features a packed roster of musical giants “who are donating their talents to help raise funds” for the Puerto Rico Real Time Recovery Fund (ComPRometidos/Foundation for Puerto Rico) and Hurricane Maria Community Relief & Recovery Fund (Center for Popular Democracy), Zenón says.

The program includes Zenón’s Collective bandmates (drummer Obed Calvaire, trombonist Robin Eubanks, trumpeter Sean Jones, and Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez), Joshua Redman, John Santos, Rebeca Mauleon, Shefali Shah, Marcus Shelby, Saul Sierra, Marco Diaz, David Flores, Javier Navarrete, Rico Pabon, Pedro Pastrana, Jose Roberto Hernandez, and Zakir Hussain.

Like so many people with friends and family on the island, Zenón is largely cut off from his loved ones, though he’s gotten word that his family is okay. “They’re safe,” he says. “Most of them are home, though some people are staying at other people’s homes. But there’s no running water. It’s really rough. Communication is so hard even within the island. On the west coast, they were really hard to reach for a week. It’s just starting to get better.”


As if playing tag-team relief, after the Freight event La Peña holds “Batey Boricua! Fundraiser for Puerto Rico” from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The center has long hosted regular workshops on bomba, a folkloric tradition based on rhythmic interactions between drummers and dancers, and plena, a troubadour tradition based on topical songs often described as the periodico cantado (sung newspaper). Sunday’s event is billed as a community bombazo jam session with “singing, dancing and playing music and sending the strongest love” to Puerto Rico. And Thursday, Oct. 5, trumpeter Will Magid hosts the Smoked Out Soul: Puerto Rico Benefit at Monarch in San Francisco featuring drummer Paul Oliphant, trumpeter Brandon Lee, Six Degrees Records co-founder Bob Duskis and musicians from the Music Action Lab, which includes Berkeley pianist Erika Oba (more on that next week).

Wanting to move quickly to organize a benefit, Zenón reached out to Oakland percussion master John Santos, knowing he’d recently organized a successful Freight fundraiser for Puerto Rican conga legend Giovanni Hidalgo. Over the years, no one in the Bay Area has done more to showcase Puerto Rican musicians than Santos, who’s performed and recorded with numerous leading players from the island. He’s still anxiously awaiting word from some of them while simmering over the Trump Administration’s less than urgent response to Hurricane Maria.

“We’ve been in touch with a lot of people in our circle, but there are people who still haven’t been heard from,” says Santos, who presents a pan-Caribbean night of music at the Freight on Dec. 2. “Some pueblos are still really isolated. Just seeing politics from the top, the lack of care, is so disgraceful but not surprising. For the government to drag their feet is beyond insulting, it’s criminal.”

Born and raised in San Juan, Zenón has recorded a series of albums documenting his singular synthesis of Puerto Rican music and jazz, like 2005’s Jibaro, 2009’s Esta Plena, and 2011’s Alma Adentro (all on Marsalis Music), a project featuring his lush instrumental settings for songs by five leading Puerto Rican songwriters. He delved into the unsettled nature of Puerto Rico political status on 2014’s Identities Are Changeable (Miel Music), a project that involved interviewing dozens of Puerto Ricans who have settled in the New York area.

Zenón sees the here-nor-there status of Puerto Rico, a United States territory suspended between statehood and independence, as “coming to the surface,” in the hurricane’s aftermath. “It’s been in political limbo forever. We don’t have a say, and now we’re in trouble. Now you’re supposed to help us. Well, it’s not really written in stone, because of this and that. It’s always going to hurt us. It’s never not been a negative.”


Recommended gig

Berkeley pianist Laura Klein presents a program of original compositions and arrangements Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory for a variety of ensembles, from duo to quintet (though the basic building block is her trio with drummer Jason Lewis and bassist Jeff Neighbor). They’ll be joined on several pieces by her husband, guitarist Tony Corman (who brings his Morchestra to the CJC on Oct. 27 with special guest vocalist Clairdee), and a former CJC student of Klein’s, Dan Neville “an accomplished young vibraphone player with whom I’ll be performing two of my chamber pieces for piano and vibraphone,” she says. She’s bringing in arrangements tunes by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Marian McPartland tunes, “as well as a gorgeous, little-known tune by Eliane Elias,” the great Brazilian jazz pianist, “and a Monk composition in honor of his 100th birthday.” The concert’s centerpiece is Klein’s “Pt. Reyes Suite,” a work in progress of compositions inspired by particular places at Pt. Reyes “or by experiences I’ve had there,” she says. “We’ll be premiering ‘Divide Meadow,’ named after a lovely meadow on the Bear Valley trail where I once saw a white deer, and ‘Pica Pau,’ a sprightly 5/4 samba based on an ostinato rhythm which sprang into my mind listening to a very persistent woodpecker (pica-pau is the Portuguese word for woodpecker).”