Following the release of his previous album, 2008's Awake, Miguel Zenón was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant," the latter alone putting half a million bucks in his pocket with which he could do anything he wanted. He used at least some of that cash to create Esta Plena, an album that expands on 2005's roots-conscious Jíbaro by linking traditional Puerto Rican plena music with modern jazz technique. In the album's liner notes, Zenón provides an in-depth explanation of the history and musical properties of plena, a folkloric style born of the poor class in a barrio in southern Puerto Rico. Its lyrics, he explains, tell of the lives and struggles of those people, and while the music has continually evolved since its inception, it still pays its respects to its roots. Here it evolves yet again as Zenón marries the time-tested form to his modern jazz sensibilities. He is a superb, dynamic alto saxophonist and a visionary bandleader, and working with a cast of ace contemporary players -- pianist Luis Perdomo, acoustic bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Henry Cole (all three of whom appeared on Awake), lead vocalist/percussionist Héctor "Tito" Matos, and background vocalists/percussionists Obanilú Allende and Juan Gutiérrez -- Zenón finds the place where the traditional plena and contemporary jazz, both of which share African roots, meet up and become something new together. From the fiery opening instrumental, "Villa Palmeras," through the vocal numbers, Zenón melds his well-defined melodicism with intricate rhythms and harmonies, allowing plenty of space for his fellow musicians and vocalists to contribute to the story. Perdomo, particularly, is a major factor: a masterful pianist, he virtually serves as a second leader here by co-crafting the melodic direction with Zenón. On tracks like the midtempo "Pandero y Pagode," the swinging "Oyelo," the sizzling "¿Qué Será de Puerto Rico?" (spotlighting drummer Cole), and the epic instrumentals "Progreso" and "Villa Coope," Zenón and his crew create music that is full of life, history, richness, and realness.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin