When Miguel Zenon was growing up in Puerto Rico, he had no idea that he would become a jazz musician.
But without knowing it, from early on Zenon was laying a sound foundation for a jazz career. He studied classical saxophone at a school for the arts and at 14 started playing in salsa and merengue bands. Playing popular music from the island, he said, helped him adjust to the bandstand.
"My teachers in Puerto Rico, they were all coming from that background even though they were all classically trained and that's the way they trained me," Zenon said. "The gigs that they played were gigs that had to do with dance music. They were all trained in big bands, dance bands, and just playing for people."
"I was taught from early on to kind of feel the music," he said. "Instead of thinking about counting, just kind of feel it and kind of understand rhythm that way. And you know it's something that was really, really sort of nailed in my musical being."
Zenon's feel for the music has taken him from San Juan to New York City, where today he is among the most celebrated of young jazz lions.
In 2008, he received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
At 37, he has gained a reputation for being an innovative composer, one who explores Puerto Rico's rich cultural legacy within the framework of jazz.
On Saturday, jazz fans in the Twin Cities will have a chance to hear him at work when he performs with the JazzMN Orchestra at the Hopkins High School Auditorium.
As much as Zenon was nurtured by the island, it wasn't until he listened to records by sax greats Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and [Julian] Cannonball Adderley that Zenon discovered the creative possibilities of jazz. He was astounded at how they played with technical precision and immense personality.
"But then when I realized that they were actually improvising, that's kind of what blew me away," Zenon said. "There's improvisation in many styles of music including most Puerto Rican music. But there was...like a very deep language and a tradition connected to what they were doing — not only what they were playing melodically but also what they were doing rhythmically especially, harmonically.
"It was very different from what I had been exposed to or even anything that I had heard up to that point. So I became obsessed. I wanted to understand what they were doing and the more I got into it the more I liked it and the more I felt it's something that I wanted to do. Even though I was way being I really felt that it was something that I wanted to pursue."
Zenon pursued jazz degrees at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Manhattan School of Music. In the last 16 years he has become a sought-after sideman and collaborator, especially in New York, where he is part of a thriving jazz community.
But Zenon still fills the tug of Puerto Rico and has a deep connection to its music and culture. As an improviser, he incorporates those traditions into his playing but in a seamless way.
His recordings include "Jibaro," an album of music from the Puerto Rican countryside and "Esta Plena," an exploration of plena, a percussive storytelling genre.
Like other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has a culture in which older musical styles coexist with newer ones, a dynamic Zenon has been able to use to great effect.
That was particularly true on his 2011 CD "Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook."
The ambitious recording interpreted popular songs by some of the island's most important composers from the 1920s to the 70s, among them Rafael Hernandez, Pedro Flores and Tite Curet Alonso.
"I had a strong connection to a lot of these songs...because I've been hearing them since I was a kid," Zenon said. "But also part of it was that I wanted to make this connection with the Puerto Rican songbook in the same way that jazz is connected to the Great American Songbook."
In Minnesota, Zenon and the JazzMN Orchestra will perform some of his compositions, along with classic show tunes that have become jazz standards and others by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
They will also be joined by singer Debbie Duncan.
Zenon promises a show that captures the best of the jazz tradition, with Latin American feeling.
"Something that I've always felt is that Latin American part of me, even though most of the music that I play is jazz and I consider myself a jazz musician," he said. "But try my best to be honest about where I come from and what my background is, what my roots are. The more I can let that stuff kind of come out, the more true my playing is going to be to where I'm trying to go."