Jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenon is pleased to be coming back to Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center on Jan. 27, but some of that excitement  is about the day after his concert.  Zenon is up for a Grammy (his fifth nomination) in the Latin Jazz category and the ceremony is Jan. 28.

Zenon is a native of Puerto Rico where he grew up in San Juan’s largest public housing project.  Because of his musical proclivites, he went on to attend Escuela Libre de Música, a school for the performing arts. He studied classical saxophone and learned about jazz from his musician friends. Zenon listened to a lot of jazz and was particularly drawn to Charlie Parker.  He says he was “blown away” by Parker’s technique and amazed that Parker was improvising.  “I hadn’t planned for that.”  That revelation led Zenon to move to jazz as his major musical orientation. He studied at the Berklee College of Music, dealing with the culture shock of moving from Puerto Rico to the Northeast, and cultivated his art “step by step.”

Tipico is Zenon’s latest album and he wrote it specifically for his quartet. Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Henry Cole (drums) have been playing together with Zenon for 15 years, a long time for any music ensemble. Zenon wrote songs with his fellow musicians in mind. Zenon says that the “human connection” is strong with his group given the copious time they spend together performing, recording, and practicing.

Tipico is an homage to that musical camaraderie. Zenon composes slowly taking small ideas to the piano or the computer where he plays with rhythm, melody and harmony. He says he has a structure in mind before he begins to develop the song. He draws inspiration not only from his bandmates but from his native Puerto Rico.

Plena is one of the folk music traditions of Puerto Rico and is the name of one of Zenon’s 10 albums. Plena is played on panderos, tambourine type drums without cymbals, and has its own complex beat signatures. It is especially popular at Christmas where plena songs are sung like carols. Zenon says that the plena beat even underscores the singing of Happy Birthday in Puerto Rico. Concern for the island of his birth is very high for Zenon right now.  The MacArthur Genius and Guggenheim Fellow winner has dedicated himself through fund raising concerts to bring awareness about the plight of Puerto Ricans after last year’s hurricane and to raise money for relief.

Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and writer.  His new double CD is Don’t Go Back To Sleep: New Songs and Selected Poems.