NPR logo Miguel Zenon And Laurent Coq Play 'Hopscotch'

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In 1963, the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar published the classic novel known in English as "Hopscotch." Set in Paris and Buenos Aires, that novel has inspired a new collaboration from Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon and French pianist Laurent Coq. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says their music parallels the feel and form of the book.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The new quartet album by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon and pianist Laurent Coq is called "Rayuela," in English, "Hopscotch." It's named for Julio Cortazar's novel, the fragmented tale of a wandering bohemian and his social circles in Parisian exile, and back home in Buenos Aires.

Those settings make it a good fit for a collaboration between composers from France and Spanish-speaking America. The book is expansive, smart, breezy, romantic and sometimes like a disturbing dream. The music lands on all those squares.


WHITEHEAD: Julio Cortazar devised an original form for "Hopscotch," giving you two ways to approach the novel. You can read straight through to chapter 56 and then stop - that takes you about three-fifths of the way. Or, you can follow a wandering trail he lays out through all 155 chapters that has you flipping back and forth between the front and back of the book before ending in a loop.

It gives you a sense of dislocation that parallels that of his ex-pat heroes. Back when I read "Hopscotch," all that to-ing and fro-ing reminded me of a stride pianist's left hand shuttling up and down the keyboard. It's jazzy on the face of it and gives musicians who riff on the concept plenty of room to move.


WHITEHEAD: Most of the compositions Miguel Zenon and Laurent Coq wrote for their album "Rayuela" are inspired by the novel's characters or episodes, but they also confront its form. The alternative ordering of the book's chapters suggests an analogy with shuffle play, and the album's packaging quietly suggests at least a couple more ways to sequence its tracks.

Getting way down in the weeds, Zenon translates every letter in one paragraph-length chapter in the music, following complex procedures. Another of his pieces is a kind of mobile, with a set of themes the soloists can choose from and go back to as they see fit. They spontaneously re-order the material.


WHITEHEAD: The other players in this quartet reinforce the bi-continental flavor. Dana Leong plays new-world jazzy trombone and Euro-romantic cello, though he does a lot of genre-bending on either. Dan Weiss plays the drum set and North India's hand drums, the tabla. Out of their usual context, they're a marker of dislocation.


WHITEHEAD: Some jazz and blues lyrics sneak into Cortazar's novel "Rayuela" where his characters occasionally listen to and argue over old records. So it's fair turnabout for improvisers to look to the novel for ideas. Curious artists are always looking beyond their own backyard; that's often what prompts them to leave home in the first place, and keep going. France's Laurent Coq and Puerto Rico's Miguel Zenon know each other from New York, that city of outsiders who become insiders, without forgetting every hop that brought them there.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Rayuela" by saxophonist Miguel Zenon and pianist Laurent Coq on the Sunnyside label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website

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