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Miguel Zenón interview: “Identity is a state of mind and a choice you make”

New York jazz master channels Puerto Rican roots in Portland performance this weekend.

By CLAIRE SYKES

Internationally acclaimed alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón celebrates his just-released CD, Identities are Changeable, at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s club at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 14. Before the New York City-based Miguel Zenón Quartet performs, the Puerto Rican-born jazz master will talk about his Latin-music origins with local Cuban-American songstress and opening act, Jessie Marquez.

Then Zenón and drummer Eric Doob, pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Hans Glawischnig will launch into compositions from Identities, originally featuring his quartet and a twelve-piece ensemble. They were commissioned by Montclair State University as part of a multimedia project that includes his interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent and a video installation by artist David Dempewolf. (The Portland concert features only music from the album, played by his quartet.)

Last month, OAW’s Claire Sykes talked to the 37-year-old San Juan, Puerto Rico-born-and-raised Zenón, who is a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellow and multiple-Grammy nominee, about his upbringing and cultural identification, how he composes and why jazz matters—and the role music plays in connecting, shaping and changing lives.

Miguel Zenon performs with his quartet Friday at Portland's Jimmy Mak's.

Miguel Zenon performs with his quartet Friday at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s.

Claire Sykes: How did you get into music, and particularly the sax?

Miguel Zenón: I grew up around Puerto Rican music. It was a part of everyday culture, in the neighborhood and the house; my mom was always singing and my dad played percussion. But there were no professional musicians in my family. I started studying music formally at age ten or eleven from someone in the neighborhood who taught the kids solfège, or sight singing, and how to read music. Around age eleven, I was accepted at the Escuela Libre de Música [in San Juan, Puerto Rico], and went there for six years and studied music more formally.

The instrument I was attracted to early on was the piano, but I never studied it. The first day of school I was a little late, and the space for piano was full. Someone in my family had a sax sitting around and it seemed like the logical choice. At the time, I was more interested in music, as a whole, than a specific instrument. The sax was a vehicle for me to play music, and it just grew on me after a while.

CS: How did your music career develop?

MZ: The first four to five years at the Escuela Libre de Música, I wasn’t serious enough about music to think it would be my livelihood. I was also a good student in math and science, and thought a career in that would interest me. For the longest time, that was my goal. What changed for me was discovering jazz music. I was listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. But if I had to choose one that influenced me the most, it would be Charlie Parker because he played the same instrument [alto sax] as I did. I was trained in classical saxophone, and it was all about good technique. He has that in his playing, but also he improvised so freely, so naturally. It had a really big effect on me then, and even now. Jazz made me reconsider what music and playing it had meant to me in my life, and I fell in love with the idea of making music for a living. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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Celluloid Resurgence: Film is not dead after all

The unique release of Christopher Nolan's epic space tale "Interstellar" has our critic reevaluating the digital vs. film divide.

Actual, physical celluloid has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Surely you’ve already heard about it. Death to cinema they’ve been saying! Digital projection, “that’s just TV in public,” says Quentin Tarantino. You know, typical over-the-top, sky-is-falling bloviating from the sometimes tragically nostalgic cinephile crowd. Admittedly, I am one of them, but these days find myself more in the middle of this seismic change in movies. When a situation is this complex, it’s the best place to be. It’s where optimism is earned.

interstellar

However, before satisfaction would be mine… first things first: Christopher Nolan has a new film out, called “Interstellar.” You’ve no doubt heard about this too. Nolan is one of a handful of big name directors whose name even average moviegoers know. His place in the pantheon of great modern auteurs is well-earned. He consistently makes good, sometimes great, cinema (there’s even a masterpiece or two in his filmography). He is a bastion for going out to the movies, no mere conjurer of cheap tricks but one who instills all his work with honest-to-goodness movie magic.

I’d love to wax-poetic about “Interstellar” (believe me, I really could), but that’s not what I’m here to do (besides, everyone and their mother has already reviewed the damn thing, so there’s plenty of opinions to sift through). In short—set your hyperbole and critic-speak tolerance to high, please—I found it to be immensely enthralling and easily Nolan’s (a chilly director) most emotionally satisfying film to date. I laughed, I cried, I was honestly blown away at times. It’s a more complete, far greater accomplishment than even his last two (very good) movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” I can’t recommend enough seeing it on the biggest screen possible, to take in the vastness of its vision.

The question becomes: in what format will you be seeing “Interstellar?” For those who don’t know—or much more likely just don’t care—Nolan has been a big proponent of shooting and projecting his work on film. He’s used his clout in the industry, of which he has a lot (thanks to an impressive box office run of massive hits), to ensure that folks in cities where cinemas still have working film projectors can see “Interstellar” on film, be it on the former standard 35mm or the gloriously huge 70mm IMAX. Most will see it on the new standard, DCP. In the end, all that truly matters is that people see it, feel something (good or bad) and hopefully are moved by the picture.

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ArtsWatch looks ahead to the next Portland International Film Festival

The Vancouver International Film Festival gives us a great jump on the best films coming to Portland

Film festivals are complex, multifaceted, logistical nightmares… (almost) as much for the audience as for staff. However, if one distills them down to their essence, an inherent bifurcation is revealed. They are the final bastion for a not insignificant crop of smaller, foreign, arthouse, documentary and independent films to be seen in a cinema with a crowd. They’re also an odd microcosm of all that’s wrong with the industry today.

I’m willing to bet almost every reader here already agrees with the former, but the latter? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s our dirty little secret. Gasp! There are just as many bad movies produced every year in world cinema as Hollywood, probably even more.

Which is why you, dear movie lover, need some guidance. Some good, old-fashioned curation. After all, Portland is rife with endless festivals. It has a deep bench of specialty, indie and arthouse theaters. We’ve got choices. Too many if you’re asking me. In a way, though, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s all too easy (and understandable) to take for granted such privileged access to films far and wide, strange and square, big and small, and nearly everything in between.

Since this problem only looks to grow in size and insurmountability, I’ve decided to clue in Portland moviegoers about what films you should take note of, look out for, and in many cases, anticipate with great excitement. What are my qualifications? Simple: I’ve recently returned from this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

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On the south side of Southwest Washington Avenue between 11th and 12th, and set back from the street, two buildings butt up square to each other. Last year, a local art program, Forest for the Trees, arranged for an Australian artist, who goes by the moniker Rone, to paint a large mural of a woman’s head surrounded by flowers on the side of the building that fronts 12th Avenue. I first saw this mural, “Every Rose has It’s Thorns,” back when I covered PICA’s TBA:13. (The hotel I typically stay in is not too far from there.)

That was the day a mural broke my heart.

I had been looking at the empty canvas of that wall for years. It used to be beige in color, and then a few years ago, it was painted brown. The darker color made it even more exciting. You see, every evening as the sun reachs a certain point, the windows on the north side of Washington reflect light back onto that wall. I have a picture of it when the wall was blank, but I cannot find it. I did, however, wait around last Friday afternoon to see the light show again, despite the mural. I took a picture.

Rone's "Every Rose Has Its Thorns"

Rone’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorns”

You can see the reflections, how many there are when the angle is just so, both on the brown wall and more clearly on the gray wall of the building behind it. The lights trail across those surfaces until there is no more direct sunlight. Yet, where once I was able to experience something truly wonderful, there is a blemish in search of a brand name to attach itself to.

What is Rone’s woman looking at? One might say she is calling our attention to the narrow strip of that part of downtown that lies between 12th and I-405. Parts of it are a little run down and therefore might be considered thorns, but any benefit of the doubt on that account rings hollow. And to make matters worse, thanks to this year’s “Forest for the Trees” initiative, there is another mural of a woman on the wall to the east. The artist, who goes by Faith47, has given us “Capax Infiniti” (Holding the Infinite), a very tall and dismissive damsel with her back turned to us. She is turned away from the winsome woman of the west wall as well, so I’d like to think she is just too embarrassed to be seen with the adjacent travesty. Yet, it was her arrival that prompted me to write this long overdue essay.

Any number of critiques can be leveled at these murals—social, political, economic—and I dare say the same can be said for many of the others brought to us in 2013 by “Forest for the Trees” (the 2014 group contains a little less schtick and is somewhat more inventive). These artists are skilled enough, yet it is the kind of talent ad agencies seek out to make what they’re selling more desirable and consumable. (I worked in that industry for a good number of years, until, as my personal joke goes, I decided I wanted to go to heaven.) These two murals are among a total of three on the west side and within an area of downtown that is seeing an increase in the number of high-end boutiques, eateries and hotels. This fact alone speaks volumes.

Early Saturday morning I sat in my truck across the street from these walls, had a smoke, drank my coffee, and thought about what I would finally write about this marred wall. I watched a number of people pull out their phones or hike up their cameras to take pictures of these murals. No doubt, many people think these things quite lovely. But if only they could have experienced the walls unadorned as I had. Would they then grieve as well?

“This world needs more pretty things, don’t you think?” Perhaps, but please, not at the expense of the sublime.

The local side of this year’s Reel Music Festival

A new Elliot Smith doc opens this year's Reel Music Film Festival, but there's plenty more to check out at the fest that runs from Oct. 10 to 22.

By LARS STEIER

In the new documentary “Heaven Adores You,” director Nickolas Rossi sought to cover an aspect of Elliott Smith’s life he feels has been unfairly neglected – the music.

Late in the film, musician Sean Croghan says, “Hopefully someday we can… all get past the tabloid news aspects of his life and just start to focus on what he created.”

The sentiment is echoed by Rossi’s direction. Much of the film’s running time is devoted to Smith’s musical development in Portland, where he spent much of his life, in lieu of discussing his drug use or apparent suicide in 2003 – events which have come to dominate his narrative.

HeavenAdoresYou_ElliottSmith3

“Heaven” plays three times during the Northwest Film Center’s 32nd Reel Music Festival, including two festival-opening shows on October 10. Reel Music runs 11 days, primarily featuring music documentaries from the last year, along with a few classic narrative works, like Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine.”

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He did the unabashed mash

Patrick Rock at Fourteen30 Contemporary in Portland

I’ve been away for a while, immersed in a visual endeavor, and therefore a little out of practice where arts writing is concerned. However, I did spend this past weekend visiting a number of exhibits, composing an essay as I went along, but one readers will have to wait for, as it’s going to require some research.

But some things can’t wait. Today I come to you with a sense of urgency because Patrick Rock has two videos at Fourteen30 Contemporary that will only be on display until October 9. They are the last installment in the gallery’s four-part, month-long, Coral Brush Node series. I saw them this last Saturday and, by golly, they made my day. A tonic for an otherwise more-cold-than-hot cruise around the Pearl.

Patrick Rock owns Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art, and I mention this now only because I wrote a review about “The International Invitational Triennial of Contemporary Wind Chimes” he staged last April. And come to think of it, the last review I wrote —way back in June— was for Dan Attoe at Fourteen30. While certainly not wanting to be accused of favoritism for these two galleries, I do happen to like much of their programming, yet often for different reasons.

Jeanine Jablonski at Fourteen30 has an overall serious approach to her curation, and it is certainly “contemporary” in the manner I prefer to use the term, which is to be in the forefront and not merely work the artist happened to make in the last month. On the other hand, Rock’s curation and art may be thought by some to be bombastic with an aesthetic derived more out of hedonism than derived from either the canon or academy. And because both galleries stand out in Portland, I cannot promise I will not write about either in the next year.

But back to Rock’s videos.

Patrick Rock, "I know, I know, I know...,"/Fourteen30 Contemporary

Patrick Rock, “I know, I know, I know…,”/Fourteen30 Contemporary

The video in the front room of the gallery is visible from the street and does not lose any of its appeal or impact if the gallery door is locked. (After dark is best.) It is called “I know, I know, I know…” and was made this year. In short, it depicts the artist holding up photocopies of famous people in front of his face as if they were temporary masks. Film stars, renowned artists and great thinkers are represented, all which he defaces in a specific manner. I will not spoil the viewing by relaying any more information.

However, if one has an opportunity to visit the gallery when it is open (or by appointment), the front video is lent an extra dimension by the audio of the video in the back room. The second video is given a single “I know” for its title, and was also made this year. Again, so pleasingly surprised as I was upon entering the back room, I do not want to give anything away so the more inquisitive among my readers may have the opportunity for a similar experience. I will say that I, too, have a pair of black, capped-toe boots, and I am too fond of them to put them through what Rock does with his.

If I must give context for the exhibition, think Monty Python mixed with a little Paul McCarthy. Think: We might need to reboot… And for the moment, this will be the extent of my commentary about these works. After all, I need to warm up again to this art review thing. But I’m also getting ahead of myself, because I’m beginning to wander into the subject matter for my next review. Wait a couple weeks for further elucidation.

Ballet Diary 8-9: Curtain Call

ArtsWatch's ballet spy presents closing thoughts on a 9-week learning experience...and flowers

 

Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part summer series, wherein ArtsWatch writer A.L. Adams bravely broaches beginner ballet classes with Northwest Dance Project and keeps a Ballet Diary for our amusement and edification.

Our ballet teacher Renee Meiffren is such a B4L (Ballerina 4 Lyfe) that as she makes a sad announcement, she habitually flutters her fingers in front of her face like Stravinsky’s Firebird crying. During our eighth lesson, she informed us that our ninth week of class would be her last; she was dipping out early due to family emergency. After that, she’d leave NW Dance Project to give private lessons.

ballet_finale_web

These final two classes have been”crunch time”; time to stretch our necks up and our shoulders down one extra centimeter, time to balance in sous-sus for two extra seconds, time to perk up and point the limp tondues with which I’ve been closing my ronde du jembes en l’air. My battements have also gotten a crash course in follow-through force, with Meiffren crouching in front of me and holding her hand where my foot should kick. “I don’t want to kick you!” I exclaim. “Go ahead!” she says. “I didn’t know it was THAT kind of class,” I quip. “Maybe YOU should be paying ME.” (The class laughs because we’re all adults here, and ballet processes are still painful enough for some of us that S&M humor is oddly appropriate.)

You know the secret of a Hollywood high-five?

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