The masterful Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer Jonathan Suazo is thrilled to announce the August 4, 2023, release of his formal debut album, RICANO, on Ropeadope.
All About Jazz has glowed: “Three vastly different ideals — rhythmic agility, soaring grace, and barbed blowing — all merge under Suazo’s mouthpiece.” Avant Music News called his playing “compelling. “A strong command of the jazz language, limitless imagination on his improvisations, intensity in emotion and technique,” opined LatinJazzNet. Ahead of RICANO, GRAMMY.com declared him among the “10 Emerging Jazz Artists To Watch.”
Suazo calls RICANO “an original Afro-Caribbean experience” that deals with “exploration, integration, community, education, and self-acceptance.” The title is a tip of the hat to Suazo’s dual heritage; it fuses the words Puertorriqueño and Dominicano.
RICANO also features an array of special guests from the highest echelon of the global jazz scene: saxophonists Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez, percussionists Enrique “Kike” Serrano, Florentino “Magic” Mejía, andOtoniel Nicolás, cuatrista, and singer Fabiola Méndez, singer Tanicha Lopez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, cuatrista Christian Nieves, pianist Josean Jacobo, rapper Emil “El Hijo de Borikén” Martínez, and many more.
Suazo threads each track on the album with enveloping chants, curiosity-piquing lyrics, and elements of dance and improvisational elements — all inseparable from the traditions of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. As Suazo explained to GRAMMY.com, the period of self-reflection that culminated in RICANO began during his time at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, when he took several research trips to both islands.
“I started doing a deeper dive into my roots as an important exercise to find something in the source of your identity that can carry the rest of your career forward,” Suazo explains of his time at the Global Jazz Institute. “Something that I identify with that can be translated into music.” As such, each composition on RICANO pays homage to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic through standalone representations and unique combinations of both islands’ musical traditions.
The sumptuous opener, “Somos más que tú,” is a tribute to the late cultural leader Tito Matos, inspired by the plena genre of music native to Puerto Rico. The title translates to “We are more than you.” “Meaning that we are more than any oppressor or corrupt politician,” Suazo says, “that comes into power and aims to produce pain on our people.” This message is powerfully expressed by the original lyrics of Emil “El Hijo de Boriken” Martinez.
Inspiration-wise, the robust “Héroes” switches islands; it’s derived from the sounds of Dominican salve, “I’ve dedicated this one to Enerolisa Nuñez and her daughter Yeni Nuñez, two leaders from the community of Mata los Indios,” Suazo underlines. “I consider them heroes for keeping this tradition alive for many generations.”
“Esperanza pa’ mi pueblo” dances atop the Afro-Puerto Rican cuembérhythm. “It’s meant to instill joy. A friendly reminder that there is hope in the smallest and largest details,” Suazo expresses, with a cheeky addendum: “Hopefully, it can land in the ‘make my day better’ playlists of folks out there.”
The tranquil yet gripping “Verde Luz” is something of a second national anthem for Puerto Rico; on RICANO, Suazo gives it his spin. “I decided to split the arrangement into a meditative side with Tanicha Lopez on vocals and a harder hitting side in a quartet format,” Suazo says, “to fully express the intensity of that separation from my homeland the original lyrics by El Topo speak of.”
For years, Suazo has been enraptured by Afro-Domincan music; “AFRO DOMI” is deeply informed by the commingling of binary and ternary elements within this tradition. “At its core, the composition is a rhythmic study based on the high and low pitches found in the main pattern of Palo,” Suazo says; Zenón appears to give the tune iridescent hues.
“Don’t Take Kindly” is hung on what Suazo calls a “slightly broken” waltz-time feel, fused with a modified Puerto Rican Yubá pattern. Featuring compelling vocals from Tanicha Lopez and Génesis Dávila and a dazzling bass solo from Ricky Rodriguez, the composition is charged with the rage Suazo felt upon encountering racist treatment when he moved to Boston.
“We don’t take kindly to being treated like this is the phrase that I kept repeating in my head when I wrote this,” Suazo reveals. “This track is my way of expressing this anger healthily.”
Further plumbing the complexities of racial identity and political strife is “Ser de Aqui,” about “the constant challenge that being from Puerto Rico brings to the table due to the archipelago’s conflicting colonial status.” The tune draws its energy from the Puerto Rican jíbaro style called aguinaldo lamento; the lyrics by Fabiola Méndez reflect on the bottomless complications of the diaspora.
“Seguimos Luchando” shifts focus from the macro to the micro; it speaks to the power of the individual against oppression. The David Sanchez featuring track combines Dominican congo and Puerto Rican sicá and incorporates a sample of a galvanizing speech by Puerto Rican nationalist Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.
“Dharma” highlights the Puerto Rican bomba rhythm known as Yubá, which Suazo characterized as “a ternary rhythmic pattern that’s very rich in musical vocabulary” The word dharma means ‘purpose in life.’ I wrote this piece contemplating on my mission on this earth.”
RICANO concludes evocatively with “Amapola,” originally written by the Dominican musical titan Juan Luis Guerra. Suazo threads Dominican pastiche on the track and salves through a captivating and emotion-forward sound field.
The closing track’s just another example of what Suazo does throughout RICANO and has done throughout the buildup — he acknowledges his ancestry with intelligence, vulnerability, and heart. Best of all, those building blocks are only a foundation for untold, unfettered evolution.