El Gavilan by Sofia Rei featuring Marc Ribot – a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment (advance review)

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A little over a week ago, during a flight to Berlin, I re-read an old National Geographic article called The Real Price of Gold. In this cover story from January 2009, author Brook Larmer describes the harsh working and living conditions of the modern-day miner, focusing on the town of La Rinconada in Peru, the highest permanent settlement in the world.

When, just a few days later, I heard the words “mejor habita en su concha el caracol” (a snail lives better inside its shell), I was immediately reminded of the article and its vivid description of labor under the cachorreo system (which entails working thirty days without payment for the chance to claim as much ore as you can carry on day thirty-one – a questionable arrangement resulting in a dangerous lottery). The coincidence of this recurring theme was as profound as it was uncanny, not just because I’d randomly picked out the old magazine from my collection or because the song’s lyrics closely reflected the article’s content, but mostly because “Arriba Quemando El Sol” was written more than half a century ago.

This acute reminder of an unchanging reality was indeed sobering, but it was just one of many things I found fascinating about this latest record I’d received for review – El Gavilan, by Sofia Rei and guest artist Marc Ribot, scheduled for release on April 25th.

If you’re familiar with The Music and Myth, you probably know how I feel about these two musicians. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Sofia Rei the most exciting vocalist in the world at the present moment. The reasons for this are manifold: from her powerful, educated voice, exhaustive in its expression of the human experience, to the daring playfulness with which she combines modern arrangement techniques with age-old South American themes, to the captivating manner in which her natural charisma brings those timeworn stories to life.

But the most important quality that makes Sofia such an interesting musician to follow is simply the profound dedication with which she researches her subject matter. In many ways, listening to a Sofia Rei song is akin to reading a National Geographic article in that it manages to condense an impressive catalog of information into the limitations of its concise form. One need only revisit La Gallera for a convincing demonstration of her evocative talent. When I found out this self-described “song researcher” had recorded a tribute album to legendary Chilean artist and tragic figure, Violeta Parra, I was already interested.

If you’re searching for proof of Sofia’s ability to produce a memorable tribute, look no further than her superior take on La Llorona, arguably the most imaginative modern version of the song currently in existence. My excitement only increased when I found out she had invited one of the most intense and eclectic guitar players of this generation to be a guest artist.

The idea of this record became as mysterious as the concept was promising. How did Marc Ribot fit into the vocalist’s vision? It wasn’t hard to imagine that John Zorn’s go-to guitarist and one of the key-figures in Tom Waits’ abrupt, mid-eighties shift to the experimental side would make his presence felt, but what shape would the sound of this shape-shifting musician take? And how would the dynamic, colorful vocalist tackle Parra’s distinctively despondent poetry?

I have to be honest: it’s the first time in a while that I wasn’t sure what to expect from an album. On the one hand, this was a dream-collaboration, featuring my favorite vocalist and my all-time favorite guitarist, a pairing that had contributed to some of the most beautiful vocal songs of the last few years as well as the Music and Myth’s best vocal record of 2014.

On the other hand, I’m a documented fan of Sofia’s previous record, De Tierra y Oro, and I wasn’t sure how that would influence my experience with the bold musician’s first solo release in five years.

El Gavilan starts with “Casamiento de Negros”, in hindsight, the right choice for an opening track, though I was initially ambivalent about its placement since it’s immediately followed by one of the most powerful compositions in the set. All of the chosen songs are time-tested, so the record’s primary challenge was to bring them back to the forefront in a form that would make its existence musically relevant (the lyrics, as I’ve mentioned before, are still frightfully relevant today).

An enormous part of an album’s appeal, at least for me, is what I call its narrative coherence. Ironically, this appeal seems to increase in importance during a time when only the most ardent music enthusiasts listen to records as complete, cohesive bodies of work instead of just random piles of songs in a playlist. For that reason, I feel “Casamiento” was ultimately the right pick to start the journey, purely because of its straightforward introduction to the album’s stylistic direction – minimalist, experimental, centered around the multi-faceted use of vocals in creating atmosphere. Marc’s presence is beautifully understated throughout, his subtle but targeted contributions doing a perfect job of enhancing the effect of Sofia’s unearthly voice.

The song’s subject matter – a tragic recount of a “black” wedding and a destiny of inescapable poverty – clashes with the upbeat rhythm and melody, creating a certain discrepancy that brings to mind Parra’s original version. Here, it’s greatly enhanced by Sofia’s layered vocals and Marc’s unprecedented use of pedal steel to create a sort of sepia-toned, historical reverberation. Disturbingly, the listener discovers that the music is a lie, as the words reveal the burdensome truth: marriage, sickness and untimely death under the sign of abject poverty.

Se ha formado un casamiento

todo cubierto de negro,

negros novios y padrinos

negros cuñados y suegros,

y el cura que los casó

era de los mismos negros.

Cuando empezaron la fiesta

pusieron un mantel negro

luego llegaron al postre

se sirvieron higos secos

y se fueron a acostar

debajo de un cielo negro.

(A wedding has taken place

All covered in black

Black were the groom and the bride

Black were the in-laws

Black also was

the priest who married them

When the party started

They placed a black tablecloth

When they got the desserts

Black figs were served

And they went to bed

Under a black sky)

Spearheaded by Sofia’s use of the caja vidalera (an Argentinian drum) and the guitarist’s electric, confrontational approach, “Arriba Quemando El Sol” plays like a call to war, quickly becoming the record’s unofficial anthem. Summoning the ghost of Violeta Parra, the vocalist manifests her voice in its rawest, most single-hearted form to lament the historically unchanging fate of the miners.

Cuando vi de los mineros

dentro de su habitación

me dije: mejor habita

en su concha el caracol,

o a la sombra de las leyes

el refinado ladrón

Y arriba quemando el sol

(When I saw the miners

Inside their rooms

I said: a snail lives better

inside its shell,

Or under the shadow of law

the refined thief

and above the sun is burning)

The final line of each stanza – repeated for emphasis – is delivered with complete abandon, breaking off into a banshee’s shriek to create a fitting impression of perpetuity.

“Una Copla Me Ha Cantado” is a mournful ballad where Sofia draws from her work with John Zorn’s Mycale to tackle another important theme in Parra’s work: the agony of lost love. Reminiscent of the most delicate moments in Frantz Casseus and Silent Movies, Marc’s guitar seems to haunt Sofia’s voice. Meanwhile,  the singer delivers this splendid ballad with an almost reverent restraint.

In “Maldigo Del Alto Cielo”, the only track that features only the vocalist, Sofia makes the most pronounced use of her layering techniques (to an almost distracting extent) in order to symbolize the character’s infinitely echoing curse. The song gets off to a bit of a rough start as the combination of vocal percussion and piercing charango makes it difficult to warm up to, but the course is quickly restored by the inspired use of tempo and echo to create the illusion of space-time dilation. Ultimately, it becomes one of the most interesting songs on the album.

“La Lavandera” is as simple and straightforward as a ballad can get. A traditional duet that sees vocalist and guitarist on equal footing, this gorgeous piece relies entirely on instinctive force and calculated frailty. Here more than anywhere else, the two musicians seem to have an almost otherworldly understanding of each other’s strengths. Parra’s incisive poetry serves to emphasize the raw, romantic interplay, making for another one of the album’s highlights.

Reminiscent of “Arriba Quemando El Sol”, the aggressive and visceral “Corazon Maldito” again shows Sofia unhinged, banging on her caja from amid a veritable wilfdfire of guitar effects. With unparalleled vigor and more than a hint of madness, the vocalist cries:

Corazón maldito

sin miramiento, sí,

sin miramiento,

ciego, sordo y mudo

de nacimiento, sí,

de nacimiento.

Me das torment

(Wicked heart,

You have no mercy,

You have no mercy on me,

Blind, deaf and mute

from birth

from birth

You torment me)

This introspective hymn increases in intensity, building up towards the record’s uncontested thematic centerpiece.

At almost fifteen minutes long, “El Gavilan” merits perhaps its own, separate review. Essentially documenting a person’s psychological breakdown, this story of love and betrayal is constructed almost like a play. With a method actor’s dedication, the vocalist brings to life a tortured character, running the gamut of emotion, from anxiety to sorrow, rage and, ultimately, delirium. This bipolar frenzy is aided by Marc’s dual use of his instrument. Its ominous, acoustic form builds up tension while the faded, electric effects allude to the character’s perceptible aura of madness.

This is a truly colossal work, a veritable study in storytelling and emotional expression by two of the best in the industry today. It’s a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment that would have completely carried the record even on its own. As it stands, it’s a climactic conclusion to an unbelievable stellar recording.

The final track, a beautiful, pensive version of “Run Run se fue pa’l Norte” features Angel Parra on guitar. Sofia’s arrangement feels ethereal, ending a bleak story on an almost encouraging note. The words “y cuenta una aventura que paso a deletrear” (and speaks of an adventure that I now begin to spell out) signal the end of Violeta’s life and the beginning of her legend.

Often times, the enormous difference between Violeta’s organic, unrefined delivery and Sofia’s faultless, all-encompassing vocals leads to a sort of transcendent interpretation of the songs. By the very nature of her voice and the energy of her delivery, the vocalist has, in a way, liberated these songs from the bondage of their intrinsic emotional weight, preserving them in a timeless and boundless form.

Through this carefully crafted tribute, Sofia Rei manages to outdo herself, paying homage to her influences as she claims new territory. El Gavilan continues to add depth to one of the most interesting musical résumés of the last decade.

Update on current projects

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A quick update for the Music and Myth fans.

The reason for my recent “radio silence” is that I’m working on a bigger article about John Zorn’s Masada records, which implied listening to every single Masada work in existence. So, I haven’t ignored the Music and Myth – quite the contrary. The article will be called A Beginner’s Guide to Masada and it will be out in a few weeks. In the mean time, I’ve had the chance to return to the quaint Yorkschlösschen in Berlin and hear the charming Desney Bailey. Definitely looking forward to seeing her on stage again soon.

Also, last evening, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with my absolute favorite vocalist, Sofia Rei. We talked about her new record, El Gavilan (out April 25th), her other projects and plans for the future. You’ll be able to read an advance review of El Gavilan on The Music and Myth in the following few days and the full interview in about a week. Meanwhile, I’m working on my fourth novel, giving my first a little “facelift” and catching up on some proofreading for a joint project so… wish me luck! There’s a lot of work ahead in the coming months.

René Marie’s Sound of Red – a splendid, sincere and sobering record for troublesome times

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We are just a few hours away from the 59th Annual Grammy Awards and this year The Music and Myth is taking a particular interest in the ceremony. For the first time in years, I’ve found myself actually rooting for someone.

Longtime readers of my website will (correctly) point out that I don’t take NARAS very seriously. In fact, I go out of my way to ridicule their shortsightedness and blatant disregard for the breadth and variety of the music industry. However, even I can’t deny the level of exposure a win can bring and there is one particular record I think is highly deserving of the largest possible audience.

While, historically, the nominees in the Best Vocal and Instrumental Jazz categories consist of the same twenty names popping up in rotation alongside the ever-present Chick Corea, every so often, a truly outstanding work will find its way on the ballot. That was the case with Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit in 2014, whose undeniable value and crossover appeal were recognized by NARAS and rewarded with a Grammy. This year’s standout is René Marie’s Sound of Red.

The charming, energetic vocalist was nominated once before for I Wanna Be Evil, an Eartha Kitt tribute record, ultimately losing out to Beautiful Life by Diane Reeves. This time, Marie makes her debut as a composer and what a spectacular way to introduce the world to her songwriting ability.

I’ve discussed all the nominees and their respective works in The 2016 Music and Myth Awards. While they’re all unsurprisingly praiseworthy, Sound of Red just has that unmistakable aura of a musical milestone. So, in this article, I’d like to take a closer look at this album I’ve been listening to incessantly for the past few weeks.

Sometimes, when I play an album, I can tell from the first notes that I’m listening to something special. That was the case with Patricia Barber’s Smash, Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro or Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables. Now, Sound of Red joins this elite group of love-at-first-sound records, an achievement it owes to its powerful and memorable opening track.

In the song’s very first second, the singer’s voice establishes the setting as “a lonely night”, providing the cue for the band’s forceful introduction. Already, the listener’s attention is undivided and it remains that way throughout the album’s eleven tracks.

The first thing that stands out, aside from Marie’s beautiful voice and captivating diction, is just how incredibly capable her band is. Pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin Baxter provide a complex backdrop for Marie’s poetry, raising the bar when it comes to timing and force and absolutely exceeding at enhancing the impact of the vocalist’s delivery.

This band has impressed me in every single song. I’ve tried to pick out a favorite among them, but couldn’t. Collectively, this might be the most powerful, cohesive unit in the modern jazz scene and, with her natural wit and enthusiasm, Marie makes for the perfect leader. On the title track, her voice is complemented with an enjoyable saxophone solo courtesy of guest musician Sherman Irby.

An engaging bassline introduces “If You Were Mine”, a simple, old-school tune that continues to establish the band’s ingenious interplay and serves up perhaps the record’s most vibrant piano solo. On “Go Home”, pianist Chin completely switches gears and demonstrates his feel for melody, evoking an early-Tom-Waits vibe to accentuate Marie’s raw and sentimental statements. In a clever spin on the adulterous affair motif, the vocalist casts herself in the role of a reluctant “other woman” singing:

I see where this is heading

And I’d love to go along

But you’ve got some ties that bind you

To a place I don’t belong

I know your heart is aching

And you think I’ve got the cure

But once the dawn is breaking

You might not be so sure

Later, she urges the object of her affection to “go on home to the woman you love, tell her you didn’t mean to be unkind, go home […] before I change my mind.”

Though I’m not a big fan of power ballads, this unorthodox approach and impeccable delivery makes it one of the best tracks on what is already shaping up to be a superlative record.

The highlight of said record is, in my opinion, the intense and dynamic “Lost”, a veritable tour-de-force of musical storytelling. It’s hard to pick out the best on an album where every song sounds like a new genre classic but “Lost” is exceptional in its cadence, complexity and humor. The middle section – starting with the piano solo all the way through Marie’s scat singing and, ultimately, her hilarious evocation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – is the greatest thing I’ve heard in months. The band amps up before the bass halts the pace and Rene’s battle hymn reawakens the dormant narrative. Just an all-out flawless piece.

With its mesmerizing vocals and straightforward lyrics, “Stronger Than You Think” has all the makings of a hit that transcends the genre, while the honest and whimsical “Certaldo”, featuring guest guitarist Romero Rubalbo, does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of charming Italian small towns.

The Earth shook beneath me

The full moon glazed above

The cobbled stones, the narrow streets,

Of course I fell in love

Of course she did. Of course we do! As a lover of all things Italy, I can completely relate and the song brings back some wonderful memories. Indeed, una canzone molto divertente.

“The Colorado River Song” is an unassuming track born from playful improvisation on a road trip, as the artist herself recounts during this excellent NPR gig. Reflecting the joyful, unrestrained energy of a fun day out, this song wouldn’t be out of place in Louis Armstrong’s repertoire. It also provides a welcome break from some of the heavier tracks like “This Is (not) a Protest Song”.

The mood turns serious in this ode to people on the fringes of society, written as a result of “some personal situations that developed in [the composer’s] own family”. This raw, beautiful ballad with shades of country music stands as perhaps the unofficial anthem of the record. A sobering song for troublesome times, Rene’s non-protest anthem is another one of the record’s highlights.

Perhaps because of its position behind such a powerful, socially relevant track, “Many Years Ago” remains rather understated with its bygone-era blues, in spite of the fact that’s it’s an absolutely lovely song.

The record closes with the dynamically contrasted “Joy of Jazz” and “Blessings”. The high energy and unabashed optimism of the former serves to increase the disarming beauty and tenderness of the latter. I’m not ashamed to say that I was literally brought to tears by this song, which is notable given that it happens so rarely, especially for someone who listens to countless hours of new music every week. Indeed, the effect of the vocalist’s tender, honest delivery is enhanced by the fact that she is just a genuinely likable person, making her blessings sounds as if they’re coming from a friend, not a performing artist.

In “Blessings”, Rene Marie delivers one of the most beautiful closing songs I’ve heard in many years of studying music. It left me feeling good and fulfilled and left the artist with a new lifelong fan.

With lengthy tracks that have ample time to set up a premise and deliver the narrative at a satisfying pace, with a band that seems to have an almost supernatural understanding of its vocalist’s strengths and a lead singer who can convincingly express the whole spectrum of human emotion, Sound of Red is a masterpiece and one of the best albums of the last five years. Absolutely flawless!

The 2016 Music and Myth Awards

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It’s almost the end of January, which means it’s time for the fourth annual Music and Myth Awards, wherein I nominate The Music and Myth’s favorite vocal and instrumental records of the preceding year. The concept is simple: a music lover’s honest, subjective and – given that I listen to countless hours of new music per week, dare I say – informed opinion.

The tradition started with my displeasure over the fact that NARAS failed to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for best vocal record of 2013 and has since evolved into a sort of anti-Grammy round-up article. I usually start by taking a quick look at the Grammy nominees in the best vocal and instrumental jazz record categories and trying to predict the eventual winner, before revealing my own winners and attempting to justify my picks.

So, let’s take a look at the Gammy line-up for this year. As always, there’s cover-records galore and the usual NARAS-approved crowd, consisting of musicians who seem to hold season tickets to the nominations. I feel like I have to repeat this every year: this is not a knock on these musicians or their beautiful records, rather on NARAS and their restrictive view of the music industry. I don’t think there’s a single musician or band that hasn’t been nominated – probably multiple times – over the last few years. Given the wealth of talent in this particular genre, I find it hard to believe that every year the “very best” music is produced by a sample of about two-dozen musicians. Anyway, it is what it is, so let’s move on to the round-up.

In the Best Instrumental category we find last year’s winner, John Scofield, with his record of quirky and sometimes outright funny reworkings of country music classics. In the cleverly titled Country for Old Men, Scofield covers everyone from Hank Williams to freakin’ Shania Twain and does so with impeccable technique and finesse. It’s a thoroughly entertaining effort, but ultimately one that doesn’t develop beyond the limitations of its concept.

Meanwhile, Peter Erskine’s not-so-cleverly titled Dr. Um, with its tribute to Weather Report-type fusion certainly adds some color to this ballot of straightforward and straight-faced piano-driven records, but it’s also the only one of the five that makes me wonder what it’s doing in a supposed selection of the best in the world.

There’s a lot of piano on this year’s ballot, with three marvelous and diversified exhibitions of the instrument’s evocative power. Book of Intuition by Kenny Barron is captivating, dynamic and splendidly crafted while Sunday Night At The Vanguard by Fred Hersch is pensive and subtle, making knowledgeable use of space and atmosphere. My personal favorite, however, is Nearness by longtime collaborators Joshua Redman (on saxophone) and Brad Mehldau. There is something refreshingly raw and unpredictable in its sound and the duo’s impressive chemistry makes for a fascinating dialogue. My head says they should win, but my instinct tells me the award will go to Hersch. So far, I’ve been one-for-one every year, so let’s see if I get it 50% right again this time around.

On the vocal side we’ve got Catherine Russell’s old-school and upbeat Harlem on my Mind that finds the singer at the top of her game, while perennial nominee Tierney Sutton puts forth The Sting Variations, a charming collection of songs from the English musician’s repertoire that ultimately suffers from the same drawback as Scofield’s cover album, namely the failure to outgrow its gimmick.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet teams up with Kurt Elling to offer the stylistically exquisite Upward Spiral. Of course, Marsalis and band are top-notch while Elling has perhaps the most educated voice in the business, so this alone makes for a record that aims for musical perfection. While the record exceeds in everything it seems to attempt, it’s exactly this focus on technical faultlessness rather than clever storytelling that I think hinders it from being a truly memorable work.

As opposed to other years, however, there are two thoroughly unforgettable records in the vocal category, and I’ll take a bit of a closer look at both of them.

Let’s start off with Gregory Porter’s Take Me To The Alley, which I’ve already written about this summer. Now, Porter is the kind of musician who’s reached a stage in his career where everything he touches turns to musical gold. He has a unique voice, a singular style and songs that have mainstream appeal, pushing him more and more into the pop landscape. If you don’t believe me, here’s Gregory singing “Purple Rain” with German pop icon, all-around entertainer and modern-day Spice Girl, Helene Fischer. Something tells me we won’t be seeing a Catherine Russell/ Helene Fischer duet anytime soon.

Like Liquid Spirit before it, Take Me to The Alley is absolutely gorgeous start to finish, its simple tunes made memorable by Porter’s warmth, sincerity and almost supernatural talent for creating memorable melodies. This is the kind of record you can play for someone who hasn’t heard a single note of jazz in their entire life and be comfortable in your certainty that you’ve just converted them (then, when you’ve got them securely hooked, you hit them with the Zorn catalog).

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

Perhaps [Porter’s] greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition. With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.

Normally, I would have predicted that NARAS hands him the award just based on the album’s potential mainstream appeal but they already gave him a Grammy for essentially the same record only a couple of years ago.

In my opinion, a more deserving winner would be René Marie for the outstanding Sound of Red. In her first record of fully original material, the intelligent and charismatic vocalist sings her heart out in an impressive collection of powerful and memorable compositions, a veritable tour de force in storytelling and emotion.

I absolutely fell in love with this record from the first note and had a hard time deciding between it and my eventual pick for Best Vocal. It matches Take Me to the Alley in candidness and warmth, but clearly surpasses it in scope, due to Marie’s impressive emotional range. While Porter’s delivery can often fall into a formula, albeit a very pleasant one, Marie seems to adjust her articulation to match the essence of every song. It’s a stunning feat of characterization. I usually ridicule NARAS at every turn and trust neither their expertise nor their commitment to music, but I sincerely hope they make the right choice this time and hand the award to René Marie.

And now, on to the second part of the article for the actual Music and Myth Awards for 2016.

Best Vocal Record: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

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As I’ve mentioned above, I had a very difficult time choosing between The Sound of Red and Emily’s D+Evolution. Both are stunning, fearless, challenging works of exceptional beauty and intelligence and both carry the pronounced signature of their respective creators. While I instantly fell in love with The Sound of Red, it took me a while to warm up to Esperanza’s new endeavor. Her bold and unpredictable creative direction is a big departure from what the audience has come to expect based on her previous outings, but that is exactly what makes it so memorable. Once I played it a couple more times and got used to the structure, the record almost violently seized my attention, demanding to be experienced and respected. Esperanza’s study of the Emily persona is gripping in the most intimate way, the songs are enduring and remarkable for their ingenuous complexity. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism.

In the end, I chose this record first and foremost because it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Sure, the influences are there and they are undisguised, but the result feels fresh and exciting. In this profound yet playful record, Esperanza has not only found her own voice, it feels like she has invented her own language too. Absolutely breathtaking!

Best Instrumental Record: Tyshaw Sorey – The Inner Spectrum of Variables

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If the pick for best vocal record was difficult, this one could not have been easier. From the first time I heard it in August of last year, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that this would be the Music and Myth’s best instrumental record for 2016. I kept waiting to see if I would stumble across a work that might equal or even surpass it. Not even close!

Tyshawn Sorey’s monumental composition for double trio (piano jazz and classical string) is a universe of its own, similar in scope to last year’s winner, The Epic by Kamasi Washington, but completely different in almost every other aspect. Its blend of jazz and classical, of composition and improvisation, technique and imagination makes it as much a work of science as it is a work of art. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

Of course, the beauty of Sorey’s Variables is that, as the name suggests, the symbolism can take whichever shape the listener’s mind can conjure up. This allows the audience to participate in the work on an almost creative level, in a way achieved only by the topmost expressions of art. In this author’s opinion, the very best examples of literature leave enough room for the reader to fill with the contents of his or her imagination. Tyshawn Sorey’s compositions demonstrate that this effect can be achieved in music also.

[…] The Inner Spectrum of variables is a visionary work, masterfully imagined by a composer whose genius extends even beyond the brilliance exhibited by many of his distinguished peers and flawlessly executed by a band whose virtuosity is uncontested.

That’s a wrap for this year’s Music and Myth Awards. What did you think of the records? Have you already heard them? Are you planning to check them out in the future? Who do you think will wake away with a Grammy and what are your choices for best vocal and instrumental record of 2016? Sound off in the comment section!

What We Leave Behind by Soul Basement and Jay Nemor – unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor

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The Music and Myth starts off 2017 with good vibes and a great big serving of soul courtesy of What We Leave Behind. This upbeat, high-spirited collaboration between Italian musician Soul Basement and American/Icelandic singer-saxophonist Jay Nemor served as a welcome break from my month-long study of John Zorn’s catalog, its smooth, simple, old-school sound in stark contrast with Zorn’s complex, eclectic avant-garde experimentation.

There’s neither experimentation nor much metaphor in this live studio recording, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear, powerful message. I received the album for review from Fabio Puglisi, the man behind the Soul Basement project, who described it as “all about jazz, soul and those good old-fashioned moods, yet still looking towards the future”. This forward-looking is achieved through to-the-point, socially conscious lyrics by Nemor as well as a delivery that aptly switches from impassioned to delicate, remaining hopeful and determined throughout.

The first words the listener gets to hear are definitely meant to establish the tone the artists wish to grant the recording: “Got a smile on my face, things are going my way, I’m doing fine.”

Though not nearly as memorable as a “No Love Dying” or a “Code Cool”, this simple, self-explanatory track succeeds in marking a clear direction for the rest of the record and getting the listener in a persistent feel-good mood. The song’s major revelation is Nemor’s deep, spellbinding voice. Whether it’s his soulful singing or his unambiguous spoken-word interludes, the vocalist’s delivery is a constant high point throughout the record, adding gravitas to a playlist that might otherwise have felt too light. His unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor carry over to the second track, “Noise Pollution”, which seems poised to become the album’s anthem, with its funky beat and resounding contemporary message.

Talking loud ain’t saying nothing

Tired of all these politicians faking and fronting

Misleading the people with destructive illusions

It’s a foregone conclusion

That we gotta find some kind of solution

Telling all them lies

just to get inside

So that they can do

Not a thing they promised to

For me and you

What else can we do

A change is overdue

Nemor’s frankness is both his strength and his weakness as a lyricist, with effective songs like “Noise Pollution” countervailed by the likes of “It’s Time”.

Even after countless have stood at the frontline

time after time after time

to show us the way to a better day

yet still here we are looking for a new leader to come and save the day

Does another have to put their life on the line

in hopes that we will finally make up our mind

to develop a collective mind set

so that we can fight, proclaim and protect

our human rights

which when you think about it’s a damn shame we even have to fight

for our so called inherent God given birthright

Here, the writer’s lack of subtlety translates to an articulation that falls dangerously close to preaching and distracts from an otherwise well-crafted song. As a lyricist, Nemor is at his best when delivering simple, heartfelt statements such as “With You”, a beautiful, unassuming ballad à la Gregory Porter, with captivating instrumentation and exceptionally tender vocals.

“Love Will Find You” again features – as they say in writing – a bit too much telling and too little showing. However, the somewhat flawed lyrics are outweighed by a catchy dynamic arrangement and a short but fresh-sounding saxophone solo, making it a more-than-enjoyable listen.

“The Joy Inside”, with its lively percussion and crisp vocals is an understated gem while “Angel of Mine”, a gorgeous ballad wherein Nemor does his absolute best work, wouldn’t be out of place in Barry White’s repertoire – high praise for any soul musician. To me, this is the highlight of the record and a truly memorable moment.

The soft, nostalgic “Future Reminiscence”, a spoken-word serenade to bygone times and enduring memories sounds unspectacular at first, but its heartfelt message, smooth sax and low-key vibe leave a pleasant aftertaste and a general feeling of well-being to close the record.

Crafted with care and obvious dedication to the spirit of modern jazz and soul, What We Leave Behind is a heartfelt effort with a strong, consistent message, an endlessly charismatic vocalist and a couple of outstanding compositions. The duo of Soul Basement and Jay Nemor clearly possess great chemistry. There’s a multitude of ways for them to further cultivate this successful collaboration and I’m looking forward to hearing the future fruits of their labor. Recommended by The Music and Myth!

Music is better than we are – an in-depth interview with Patricia Barber

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Chapter 1: Angels, Birds and Us – the trip to Vienna 

Every year, I spend January 1 performing a very cherished ritual.

From the moment I get out of bed, I retire to the living room with a large cup of coffee and two daily planners. One is for the previous year, the other for the one that’s just starting. I don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to e-mails or even turn on the computer. For up to ten hours, I’m engrossed in a meticulous routine during which I’m completely isolated from the world. It’s my favorite day of the year.

For exactly a decade I’ve been keeping a daily journal, recording everything I do and all that’s important to me. I write down my schedule, the amount of work I get done and the specific way I relax afterwards. I document where I go and whom I meet, whom I talk to on the phone or online and the topics of our conversation. In case Ioana and I happen to be traveling, I mention the places we visit.

My new year’s ritual consists of meticulously studying every entry in the old planner and occasionally writing down important information in the new one – names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthdays and appointments.

The entire first day of every year since 2007 has been dedicated to one long, detailed trip down memory lane. It’s not only an effective mental exercise that has verifiably improved my memory, but also an opportunity to reminisce. It’s a chance to come to terms with the lows but, more importantly, to relive the highs.

Once in a while, something so cool happens that I get excited at the prospect of reliving it even while the event is still taking place. Which brings me to December 3, two days before my thirty-first birthday.

Exactly four weeks after the monumental Bagatelles marathon wherein I got to see a great number of my favorite musicians live, I once again found myself inside the legendary Porgy & Bess, this time staring at a photograph of one of my absolute creative role models, Chicago-born composer, pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber.

The night of the Zorn concert I kept thinking that a bucket-list experience like that was a fitting event to close off an intense, capricious year and usher in the lull of the winter holidays. Little did I know that, for The Music and Myth, 2016 was far from over.

Those who have been following The Music and Myth over the years know what Patricia Barber’s work means to me. I’ve discovered her a short while after setting up the website (and, implicitly, starting my study of serious music) and her phenomenal record Smash has been a constant presence in the Cherascu household ever since.

I’ve never shied away from expressing my opinion that Smash is one of the best records in any genre in recent memory. This flawless, profoundly lyrical and thematically comprehensive work has even inspired me to create The Music and Myth Awards as a response to its artistically criminal omission from the 2014 Grammy ballot. Simultaneously, it has inspired me to ridicule NARAS at every turn, which has become almost as notable a tradition as the prestigious Music and Myth Awards themselves.

For Ioana and me, seeing Patricia in concert meant fulfilling a musical ambition that dated back almost four years. But there was another longtime goal I was looking to achieve: sitting down for an interview with one of music’s most captivating storytellers.

On Friday evening, one day before the concert, I was standing outside Patricia’s hotel on the Vienna beltway. The interview was scheduled for 22:00 but I’d arrived early, accompanied by my usual jazz-traveling party: my wife and in-laws. I spent that hour at the ground floor restaurant, mostly fretting about where the hell I was going to conduct the interview, since the establishment was uncomfortably loud and the receptionist had assured me that there was absolutely no other communal space in the boutique hotel. I knew from walking around the area that there were no other quiet spots in the vicinity, so I was left anxious and irritated.

My anxiety was instantly dispelled when Patricia came down to meet us in the lobby (I’d asked Ioana to join me for the interview). There was something about the distinguished musician’s personality that gave me the feeling I’d known her for years. She greeted us like friends and we proceeded to look for the quietest place we could find. A quick inspection instantly disqualified the cramped locale, so Patricia just shrugged and said, “My room?”

We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, while Patricia recounted how she’d had to call the reception to get an extra chair, because there was only one in the room.

“I told them, ‘I need more than one chair, I’m an old person’,” she joked. “This is a children’s hotel.” We laughed and she turned to Ioana. “See, but now you’re going to have to sit on the bed.”

Chapter 2: Post-Enlightenment Free – the interview

Patricia, I know you’ve been struggling with a cold for the past few days. How are you feeling now? 

It’s fine. It’s over.

That’s good to know. First, let me say, we’re happy to have you back in Europe.

Thank you.

I know you haven’t been here in 2016, but you’ve been here many times over the years. Can you discern a difference between the jazz scene in Europe compared to the United States?

I can’t tell because I’m only playing these specific clubs, so I can’t tell if you have more than that… in Vienna, for instance, more than Porgy and Bess. So I can’t tell you what it’s like in Europe, unfortunately. You’d have to live there for a while to understand.

When you’re traveling, do you have the chance to collaborate with European musicians or play together at festivals?

No. We go like this (she makes a gesture of the hand to symbolize going directly from one place to the next).

Do you always go to the same venues?

No. Budapest, for example, was a different hall – a wonderful, wonderful experience. But often… I’ve been to Porgy & Bess, I’ve been to the New Morning in Paris. So, some are new, some are old.

You’re a resident musician at the Green Mill in Chicago…

Yeah. I play every Monday.

How did you end up collaborating with them?

I had been working at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which was a very popular club; a very nice club. The only thing about the Gold Star was that [the owner] insisted that I do standards, which I got to know very well after nine years there. I knew them anyway, but I got to know them extremely well. But I had a feeling that I wanted to write my own music and that wasn’t okay with him. So I sat home for about a year (laughs). I took time off. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to do this. And Dave Jemilo called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you just come in Sunday night and see what happens?” I said okay. So I did that. And from there we went Sundays and Mondays and it became very full and then we stayed on Mondays.

For how long have you been playing there regularly?

We don’t know. Dave and I don’t count exactly. Eighteen years… something like this.

That’s a long time.

It’s a long time.

So, basically, your career developed simultaneously with this ongoing gig.

(Art this point I dropped my notebook and papers and spent a while picking them up off the floor. I joked about the fact that I’m Romanian and that until 1989 we barely had electricity, which is why I prefer good old fashioned pen and paper over modern technology. Patricia agreed that “paper doesn’t run out of batteries.”)

I remember playing in Romania and it was raining on the Steinway piano. I was so upset. I wanted to cover the piano instead of continuing the concert.

This always happens at the Garana Jazz Festival. I don’t think they’ve had a single year without a downpour. In fact, I was going to ask you whether you had any notable memories from performing in Romania.  

That was my memory. “Oh, my God, we can’t let it rain on the piano (laughs).” But it was a beautiful place up there on that mountain. And that hotel was really, really beautiful… just gorgeous.

On October 5 at the Ear Taxi Festival you debuted a new song cycle called Angels, Birds and I. Are your concerts in Europe going to revolve around this new project? Will you be presenting it for us tomorrow? 

Yes. I’ve been putting [the songs] in the concerts, but not like a song cycle, in order. Because that takes a very special kind of situation and this is not that. But I have been putting them in the concerts, two or three per set and they definitely influence the set, they definitely influence the whole vibe… the sound.

When you put together the set list for a concert, do you specifically look for a narrative coherence? Do you pick the order of the songs based on their topic?

No. It has much more to do with tempo, pacing, key. To make a difference between those things for the audience, who may have never heard me before and they’re not so interested in the five tunes. So it has to do with tempo, key, variation, time signature.

Tell me a bit about this song cycle. I know the songs are built around your fascination with singers, specifically opera singers. How did this project start?   

The first song I wrote is called “Higher.” I wrote this one for my mother, who was a great singer. So that was what brought me to the singing. Singing to her when she was dying was a great source of relief for her and I also wanted to tell her that it’s okay to go. So,this is called “Higher”, meaning…

(she quotes from the song)

And you my true love

Have been stilled by pain

Grounded in silence

On Earth you’ll remain

Until an Air

Blows in like spring

You’ll be young again

Raise your voice, take wing

So it’s a song meant to ease the transition.

Yes, but using song, using music. That started it. After that started, I wrote another song. Then, Renée Fleming came into the jazz club. She had been at the club before and we just enjoy each other’s company. I said, “Is there something you’d like to hear?” and she showed me her iPhone which had a very specific list of my songs. Some of them were these songs and some were other songs like “Scream”, which she also sings and it sounds beautiful, really beautiful. Working with her, I wrote more songs and then she would take them and so I wrote some more songs. “Surrender” she also sang and I accompanied her. We ended up doing a concert together in Chicago, New York and Washington DC of my music – only my music. So a lot of these songs have become art songs, because they don’t really need a drummer.

When you performed them together, did you also sing or just play piano?

I played. I played, she sang.

So you wrote the other songs with Renée in mind.

In the middle of it, I did. In fact, “Voyager”, which I’ve done and I’ll probably do tomorrow night, is written with her in mind. It is definitely about Renée Fleming. It’s definitely about her or the phenomenon of the operatic singer. Then, “The Opera Song” I wrote for her – only for her – which I probably won’t do tomorrow night and “Muse” I wrote for her. “Muse” is the culmination of the five-song cycle. I became the god of music because I’m the protagonist, I’m the one writing music. And the god makes a contract in agreement with her – “If I give you music, will you give me form?” As gods always want mortal form.

When you’re writing music, do you perceive yourself as a songwriter first, then a vocalist or pianist?

It’s hard to say. Different times, different things, you know? Sometimes I feel like playing the piano, sometimes I feel like singing. I love composing, but it’s a very solitary activity. Being an introvert, I think that I could do that only and then just change the keys and hand them to Renée, or hand them to somebody else and I think I’d be relatively happy with that. But music is dead if it’s not communicated… it’s just dead. You write it and it has to go out and have a relationship with people, otherwise it doesn’t work. So, I’m stuck in this situation; once I write this music I have to play it and sing it for somebody, otherwise it doesn’t work. They have to hear it and I have to understand in some way that they understand it. I have to know in some way that they get it. They don’t have to get it all the way, but it has to work in some way. Just musically perhaps, harmonically, lyrically… you know?

Who is the first person you play new music for? Is it your wife?

Often. Often it’s Martha, yeah.

I remember talking to Neil Cowley about this. I asked him if he ever got feedback from his family and he joked that he’s sensitive and he’s scared of what his wife would say. That she has, I quote, “the unfortunate habit of saying the things that will make me cry the most.” That’s why I was wondering about the first person to hear your songs.   

Martha, definitely Martha. But then I send it to two or three people. Renée is one these days. If it’s this kind of a song, I send it to her. And, whatever she’s doing… she’s all over the world, she’s busy right now, especially this year… but she always gets back to me.

Where did this interest in opera and classical music, especially the classical musician, originate?

It started… well, with Martha. Martha’s an expert in 18th century opera; it’s her field… Mozart and the castrati… She’s written three big books and won a bunch of book awards now. She introduced me to classical music twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to opera, just amazed sometimes. The first time I heard Verdi, I was amazed. But I started to feel trapped by the harmonic language of jazz. It’s very specific, very strict. So I went to a friend of ours – whom she’s out with tonight, in fact – Shulamit Ran. She’s a great composer. She’s won a Pulitzer prize and everything. I went to her for a few harmony lessons and she taught me – it was like a magic key that she gave me – she taught me how to break apart or break away from that very strict harmonic system of jazz.

Since then, it’s been crazy. I mean, even on Smash, a lot of those things are stepping outside of the normal jazz harmonic system. You can see that influence starting very early on in pieces like “The Wind Song”. Some of those chords I go to on the bridge are not jazz. You would not expect them to happen. Way back in “Morpheus” – that was 1993, when I won that Guggenheim fellowship – I started stepping outside. And for “Morpheus” I used Schumman.

I studied Schumman and watched the way that he moved his chords and I kind of based “Morpheus” loosely on that kind of idea. So this is an art song, there’s no reason to have a drummer. Any opera singer can sing it. Shulamit told me as soon as I put them in a book, they will.

What’s the plan going forward with this? Do you plan on extending the song cycle or will you keep it to five?

This particular one ends at five because the god of music has struck the deal with the singer and she gets what she wants – she gets to be inside the sinner’s skin. She gets to know what it feels like to be the opera singer. I didn’t realize when I started the song that it would be the end but that is the end. They’ve merged. There will be more songs and they may be art songs or not, but that song cycle is done.

Do you plan on recording it in any form?

Yes, I would like to. I was just having a conversation on the computer with Paris. TSF wants to record the concert and I’m saying, “Not yet.” These songs haven’t been recorded and I don’t want to record them at a live concert. So we’re having this discussion.

Why not?

The first time they’re heard I want to make sure they’re right. I want to make sure they’re perfect.

This is decidedly not a jazz approach.

Right. Well, I have so many of those songs I can do, but this song cycle is different.

How would you envision your next record?

I don’t know. I just finished the five songs, so I want to take my time. This isn’t the problem. Everybody’s telling me, “We need a record.” First of all, I think the album is outdated. I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. I just did a live CD from the Green Mill. You can get it on my website and it’s really fun. It sounds exactly like the Green Mill, including the bus that comes by – you can hear the bus.

Now that’s a jazz approach.

That’s really fun. I’m not sure I want to hand myself over to any kind of record company anymore. I think that it’s old fashioned, but I’m the minority at this point. But I’m sure I’m right… I’m sure I’m right (laughs). So I will record a CD or an album with the five songs, but I haven’t written the rest of them. I have time.

Nothing in the immediate future, then.  

No.

I definitely think you can take your time. Smash will undoubtedly stand on its own for a long time.

Well, I feel that way. I definitely feel that way. There’s no hurry. I just feel completely confident in the path I’m taking right now. It’s definitely not consistent with the path that other musicians are taking.

Did you maybe feel that the record company or the record format didn’t do [Smash] justice? Is this doubt about putting out another traditional record somehow connected to your experience with Smash?

Well, they didn’t do justice to it at all. But I think that’s partly because of the times, you know? The record companies are just falling apart. They have nothing really to offer anybody and they just take the money from individuals. If I offer an album on my website, I can actually make some money… not a lot, but some. And that seems more fitting to me, so we’ll see. People threaten me all the time, “If you don’t do this, this is going to happen to you” and I’m like, “What is the worst that can happen to me?” What is the worst that can happen to me? What? I don’t come back to this club for a while? So what? I don’t care… I just don’t care.

As you know Smash is one of my all-time favorite records. It also inspired The Music and Myth Awards back in 2014 when I chose it Best Vocal Record. As the person who inspired The Muisc and Myth awards, I was wondering who you’d pick as Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental record for this year. It can be from any genre.   

Renée Fleming, Berg. That Berg album is great. And Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory. Her latest string quartet is unbelievable. The Pacifica Quartet plays it. And they did an amazing series of Shostakovich.

So, these are the best records of the year.

For me, you know? This is what I’ve listened to.

That’s what the Music and Myth Awards is all about: the listener’s personal experience with the music. When I write my Music and Myth awards article every January, I always make a point out of stating that these are my subjective picks. My point being that any awards are entirely subjective and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Music is an individual experience; nobody can conduct an objective evaluation. NARAS has no idea what they’re doing…

No. Not at all.

It’s all just somebody’s personal opinion. This is the cornerstone of The Music and Myth Awards. I just wanted to bring this up since it all started with you and Smash. But going back to Angels, Birds and I, is there any other musician you’d like to hear performing these songs?  

All of them (laughs). As many as I can get. I mean, all of them that I love and admire. My music might, in fact, appeal to people like this, as it appeals to Renée. I would love to get Philippe Jaroussky to do a thing but, you know, he’s too famous. I would love to get Alice Coote, a mezzo-soprano – a low mezzo-soprano – to do some of these tunes. So… many, many people.

How about Angela Gheorghiu? My wife is a great fan of her work and I know you are too.  

Oh yeah, she’s pretty special.

I don’t listen to a lot of classical and opera. I mean, I can listen, but I don’t presume to understand its complexity. I’ve always been drawn mostly to jazz and world music.

I’d love for great jazz singers to sing this. I’ve been trying to get Sheila Jordan to sing one of my songs forever, but it’s not happening. I don’t think that she reads music, so it would take some time for her pianist to teach it to her. But any great jazz musician. Kurt Elling sang “The New Year’s Eve Song” and it sounds great. And it’s getting more and more play, I can see it from my royalty statements.

Speaking of royalty statements, could you tell me a bit about what it’s like for jazz musicians nowadays trying to support themselves from their art. Al Di Meola told me that people are buying a steadily decreasing number of records in the U.S and that, I quote, “there’s not one CD store in the U.S.” What is it like now compared to ten, fifteen years ago?  

You mean the computer? Oh… well, it took away our living. It took away any payment from writing songs. So I would think that people who might consider writing songs for a profession will not do it anymore. I can’t imagine how they would start. They can make money in concerts but… I used to make really good money writing songs and now I make none. Zero. Songwriting is just zero. Spotify and all… they have taken it all.

As a self-published author, I understand the situation very well. But I have to admit that the internet has helped me discover so much new music and so many musicians whom I’d never have known otherwise. I ended up buying their records and going to their shows.  

There are good things. There are good things about it. It’s hard for anybody. If you make shoes or you make rocket ships, somehow the value of it… You know, if you don’t get paid for it, somehow it screws around with your head a little bit. But I’m very independent. I’ve been so independent all my life so it doesn’t screw around with me as much as other people but it’s definitely something… it’s definitely a thing. Because I started buying real estate when I was twenty-six, I can survive.

So it’s not exclusively music then.

No, I can survive because I bought real estate. I rent places, you know? Even today… I’ll be on the road and someone writes to me and says, “Where’s the milk?”

Do they know they’re renting places from Patricia Barber?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

That seems like it should drive the price up.

Well, Air BnB is making it so that you can do that. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But most people – ninety-nine percent – enjoy it when I practice (laughs).

Because we were talking about singers and your new song cycle being about singers, I wanted to ask you a related question. You have a very unique way of expressing yourself as a vocalist. There’s a certain particularity about your delivery that involves not only your timbre, but also your intonation, your speech tempo. Does it come naturally or is it something you’ve practiced and developed? Are you aware of it while you perform?  

Yeah, people tell me that and I don’t exactly know what they’re referring to, which is fine. I don’t look into it too deeply. I did, of course, work as a singer when I was young, to stay in tune. I worked as a singer to keep the hands in exact metric time and to loosen up my voice so that’s like a two… double-brain thing. I worked on all those things but… no.

You’re not aware of it.

No, no.

This is a question I ask almost everyone. Being a science fiction author, it’s somewhat of a trademark question in my interviews. If you could travel back in time to the moment when you first realized you wanted to pursue a career in music, what would you tell yourself?   

I would say, “Do what you love. Always do what you love.” Because I get up in the morning and I do what I love. The financial aspect… you have to think of something. If you have some other idea that can help you, if you can start investing when you’re young, that would be great. Maybe not in the stock market but something else. I don’t trust the stock market right now, with the way things are. I never have. I’m not very good at it. I’m good at a buildings and windows and toilets and stuff like that.

In recent years, the political sphere has been dominated by a powerfully divisive rhetoric and there seems to be growing anger and discord all over the world. Do you think that musicians can play a part in bringing people together or help bridge the gap or should music stay completely outside of politics and current world events?

I think music is very healing. I was very political during the election; I worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I know her. But when I go into the concert hall or the jazz club I do not speak of it. Because, to me, music is better than all of that. Music is, interestingly, the one thing that survives centuries. It survives Aleppo being razed to the ground. Music will survive that, and it floats over the centuries and it comes to us in the form it was in the fourteenth century or the tenth century, it still comes to us. Music is amazing that way.

Now, having said that… some of my songs are political. They have been in the past, less so now, because I’ve been interested more in universal themes. Sometimes my songs are political, so you can tell kind of where I stand on the political scale. And I’ve had to pay for that in terms of… I’ve been banned from certain venues and certain radio stations because of the content of my lyrics.

Did it ever affect the way you compose?

It didn’t before, but now the U.S is different so, I don’t know… It probably won’t affect the way I compose. But when I was working for Hillary Clinton, I would have to take the pins and everything off before I went into the club, to make sure that I was just neutral. And I took out the songs that were political. I used to write funny songs about Bill Clinton and Obama – I took them out. Because I don’t want someone to be uncomfortable. I just think music is better… it’s just better than we are. It’s just better. You can give someone something better than what we have on this Earth.

I think you just gave me the title of my article.

That’s good (smiles).

I have just one more question. This one is from Ioana. Will you be performing “Scream” tomorrow night? 

Chapter 3: An Angry Song – the performance

“Yes,” she said, flashing a mysterious smile whose significance we would discover the following evening. We told her that “Scream” is Ioana’s and my favorite and she seemed pleased to hear that.

We said our goodbyes and I was surprised and delighted to find out that Patricia reads science fiction, as I’d brought along a copy of my first book as a gift – a token of appreciation for being so generous with her time. After getting to talk to her so extensively and getting a glimpse inside the mind of this thoroughly dedicated musician, we were even more excited about the upcoming concert.

We arrived at the venue thirty minutes early and were seated at a balcony table, right above Patricia’s piano. By the time the artist walked out and informally introduced herself and her band, the place was packed. When she started playing, I realized why meeting her the other night had felt so familiar.

It’s a rare thing among musicians – and indeed artists of any kind – but Patricia Barber the person resembles Patricia Barber the artist almost perfectly. It’s like she is a walking embodiment of her music: captivating, graceful and intelligent, candid but at the same time somewhat mysterious. On stage, her confident and charismatic presence belies the stage fright she claims to suffer from to this day. Her rapport with the audience is reserved but sincere, and her crowd interactions never come off as forced or pandering.

Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of her performance was the very visible degree of intimacy between the pianist and her instrument. She seemed to relate to the venue’s trademark Fazioli as an old friend, not just a tool of the trade, at times seeming as though she and the piano were speaking a language only they could understand, complete with its own set of private jokes.

Though Patricia’s incomparable voice and the aforementioned particularities of her delivery can be so captivating as to demand the listener’s full attention, her piano playing is equally distinctive. Her percussive and unrestrained technique stands in fascinating contrast with her deep voice and controlled cadence, giving the songs a feeling of strength, even when she sings – in her own words – “a bad song” like Sinatra’s “This Town” or – in my words – fantastic songs like “Code Cool”, “The Moon”, “Caravan” or “You Gotta Go Home”.

Her band consisted of longtime collaborators Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jon Deitemyer (drums) whose performance was absolutely commendable for the subtle ways in which it enriched and highlighted Patricia’s articulation, without ever distracting from or stepping out of the songwriter’s creative identity.

For us, the highlight of the evening came right at the end. After the musicians left the stage to enthusiastic applause, they returned for an encore of “Light My Fire” before leaving again without having played “Scream”. I realized the significance of Patricia’s smile from the night before – she’d been planning to close the with “Scream”, demonstrating a brilliant insight into narrative coherence after all.

“It’s an angry song,” Patricia said, telling the audience that she’d been feeling rather angry herself lately. “Perhaps I’ll record an entire album of angry songs,” she mused.

After the first encore, the band returned to a standing ovation. When they started playing “Scream”, it took me back to the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler playing “Telegraph Road” in Budapest. For someone born in a country that was, until fairly recently, musically and artistically isolated, hearing your favorite musicians playing your favorite songs carries just a touch of otherworldliness that would be hard to imagine for someone from a different background.

There isn’t a lot to say about the band’s rendition of this modern-day anthem. It was perfect, start to finish. Perfect. Any attempt to describe it would not do it justice and might even be discourteous. “Scream” is, by excellence, a song that speaks for itself and demands to be experienced.

The feeling of otherworldliness persisted long after the excellent concert. On our way home, while waiting for the subway, I thought back to a few hours before. We were having dinner at a restaurant close to the venue. The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei, had just texted me to talk about a new project she’ll be bringing to Europe in 2017. She asked me how the Zorn show was and I told her that I’m actually back in Vienna, just an hour away from seeing Patricia Barber in concert.

The surrealness of that moment instantly made me think how exciting it will be to relive the experience on January 1. Now, just a few hours away from my yearly ritual, the day I think about the most is the day I started The Music and Myth. I think about how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come and what an incredible journey it’s been.

Happy New Year!

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A canvas of chaos – John Zorn’s Bagatelles live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna

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In January 2012 I accidentally fell off my bed and landed on the lower part of my spine. The impact jolted my brain and I had a seizure. I was taken to the ER and was eventually hooked up to an EEG device to monitor my brain’s electrical activity. Though the technician carrying out the procedure did not have the authority to set a diagnosis, she just couldn’t refrain from giving me her personal opinion: “It’s epilepsy.”

It absolutely wasn’t epilepsy. I haven’t had a seizure before or since. It was merely a very unfortunate accident coupled with what seems to be an all-around peculiar brain.

The neurologist who studied the results concluded that I’m fine. It’s just that my brain activity is slightly unusual – something she called “being a bit cuckoo”. She would be in a unique position to know since she also happens to be my mother-in-law.

This little story from 2012 will be relevant towards the end of the article but, for now, let’s focus on 2016.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across a Facebook post promoting a John Zorn marathon at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. The prolific composer would be presenting his new opus, the Book of Bagatelles.

This project for live performance consists of three hundred short, atonal, improv-minded compositions meant for what Zorn often calls his “community” – a legion of long-time collaborators and young prodigies that excite the fiercely selective musician.

The lineup for the Sarajevo marathon was incredible, with eleven acts slated to perform for roughly twenty-five minutes each. Among them were such legendary projects as the Masada Quartet, the Nova (Express) Quartet and Asmodeus, but also exciting new bands and collaborations like the hard rock trio Trigger and the acoustic guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. That’s about eighty percent of my bucket list gigs in one single show, including people like John Medeski, Craig Taborn, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and freakin’ Marc Ribot.

Unfortunately, the show was scheduled on a Friday evening and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Sarajevo in time.

Desperately, I started looking at Zorn’s other tour dates only to discover that he was taking his Bagatelles Marathon to Vienna the very next day for a weekend-long show at the legendary Porgy & Bess. It seemed only fitting to hold an event of such magnitude at the distinguished venue located right in the heart of the European capital of music. One six hour drive later, I found myself staring at the familiar picture of my favorite songwriter as the queue was slowly moving forward towards what would become one of the defining musical experiences of my life.

When John Zorn hit the stage, he seemed delighted by the enthusiastic reception he received from the knowledgeable Porgy & Bess audience, who were asked not to photograph or record the performance.

The Bagatelles are designed for a concert experience. It’s an openly constructed, freely evolving manifestation of music which would lose its mystique and its very raison d’etre in a recording of any form.

“This music is meant for you,” the avant-garde mastermind explained. “It will never exist in the same form again.”

He went on to add that taping the show would not only diminish the audience’s intimate relationship with this music but also influence the musicians’ performance. “Musicians play differently when they know they’re being filmed,” Zorn confessed. To their credit, the audience respectfully complied.

This argument for a personal relationship with the music predicted a raw, intimate exhibition. What followed was perhaps one of the most spectacularly dynamic and narratively diverse performances an aficionado of serious music can experience today.

The evening started with the Masada Quartet, fronted by Zorn himself on alto saxophone and Dave Douglas on trumpet and backed by the incredible duo of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron on bass and drums respectively. It took me a while to fully comprehend that I’m actually getting to hear  this legendary project live.

Wasting no time with formalities, the band went full throttle from the first note. Instead of inviting the listener to join them on their musical journey, the veterans opted instead to grab the audience by the throat and hurl them straight into a loud, dissonant soundscape of schizophrenic intensity and boundless complexity. There was less klezmer and more free jazz than in other Masada gigs, with the Bagatelles feeling less like a series of melodic anchor points for improvisation and more like a canvas of chaos on which the inventive musicians sometimes deviated from action painting to coordinate their brushes for brief glimpses of expressionism. It was an improv enthusiast’s dream and, in my opinion, the perfect choice for an opening act because it already raised the bar for the upcoming bands.

At this point, I have to take a moment to commend Greg Cohen’s impeccable playing. If the bass has a tendency to be underrated on Masada records, somewhat obscured by the boisterous brass and Joey Baron’s frantic drums, in the live performance I couldn’t look (or listen) away from Cohen’s dexterous delivery.

Next off was the acoustic tandem of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. On the flyer, they were promoted as a “delicate guitar duo that sets the standard for what the bagatelles is all about” and even when Zorn was introducing them you could tell he was extremely excited about this collaboration.

I was too, partly because I was dying to see how these bagatelles would translate to this particular arrangement but mostly because when something gets John Zorn this amped, you know you are in for an exceptional time.

I was familiar with Julian Lage from his work with Gary Burton and Jorge Roeder, so I already knew the depth of this young man’s talent. I was happy to discover that Gyan Riley matched him in skill and elegance.

Needless to say, their set was spectacular, a veritable celebration of timing and instinct as the expertly handled instruments succeeded in capturing the mysterious, almost metaphysical nature of these compositions. The touching chemistry shared by the young musicians translated into a moment that was wild, yet delicate. Judging by the audience’s reaction it was also the highlight of the evening. Zorn himself did not miss an opportunity to praise their work afterwards.

The third act was the Nova Quarter (of Nova Express fame), an all-star ensemble built around vibraphone wildman Kenny Wollesen, with John Medeski on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and, once again, Joey Baron on drums. The most conventionally melodious (read: least discordant) of the projects, Wollesen and co. delivered a pensive and graceful set and perhaps the most cohesive interplay of the evening.

They were followed by violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who’d worked with Zorn in duo form on Masada Recital and Malphas: Book of Angels Volume 3, and whose personal eccentricities on their respective instruments sounded like a perfect fit for Zorn’s idiosyncratic vision.

The result was a dark and spectral meditation on the traditional musicality of piano/violin duets which, in my opinion, brought out the best in these bagatelles. From Feldman’s wailing banshee moments to Courvoisier’s downright abusive treatment of her instrument, this performance was a delight from start to finish. It was the one I was looking forward to the most and, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire evening.

The show was supposed to end with the proverbial bang courtesy of the hard rock meltdown of Will Greene (guitar), Simon Hanes (bass) and Aaaron Edgcomb (drums) – collectively known as Trigger. However, Zorn urged us to stick around for a special guest appearance by Craig Taborn afterwards. I’m a big fan of Taborn’s playing, so I was extremely excited. He’d been on the Sarajevo roster, but wasn’t promoted for Vienna.

Before the  remarkable pianist could take the stage, it was time for the three “young twenty-something punks” to do their thing.

After a couple of minutes of technical difficulties, during which Zorn assured us that these kids can “play the shit out of their instruments”, the trio exploded into a powerful, loud, electric and electrifying performance which was highly reminiscent of Ceramic Dog (to my great satisfaction) .Clearly, Will Greene has been hanging out with Marc Ribot, and all three musicians seemed positively honored to share the stage with such legendary artists.

At first, the jazz crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of this relentlessly turbulent brand of bagatelles, but, by the end of the gig, almost everyone seemed charmed by the “young punks”. For their part, the trio never looked out of place, delivering their music with poise and – to be candid – with giant fucking balls. That didn’t come as a surprise since no one in their right mind would doubt Zorn’s instinct for picking musicians.

The show concluded with Craig Taborn’s solo performance, which he delivered with typical convulsive intensity. It was a suitably memorable finale to an evening that contained so much music it would take weeks for its broadness of scope to be fully processed. Which brings me back to my personal story from the beginning of the article.

I don’t know if this electrical particularity in my brain has anything to do with my restless nature, my ongoing battle with depression, the fact that I don’t sleep particularly well and can’t quite stay focused on a single activity or with the fact that I have a hard time winding down at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult to rest, particularly to stop a torrent of disorderly thoughts from perpetually inundating the repository of my lucidity. That’s about as eloquently as I can put it and I write books for a living.

Rarely is my mind so engaged that it doesn’t seem to want to compete in an exhausting race against itself. Even when listening to music, my favorite activity along with writing and drinking wine, I find it hard to stay focused. Conventional musicality, with its repetitions, predictable patterns and harmonical spoon-feeding leaves ample room for distraction. That’s why I’ve been drawn to the coarse vocals and grotesque imagery of Tom Waits’s work and, later on, to the complexity and syncopation of jazz. That’s also why I’m drawn to John Zorn.

To me, the Bagatelles Marathon was the quintessential John Zorn experience: loud, aggressive, unpredictable, capricious and unrepentant. It was one of the rare moments when my mind was entirely engaged, so completely hung up on every note and elated by its inability to predict the erratic movements of this music that it left no room for distractions. This is as close to meditation as my cognitive construction will ever allow me to get.

Unfortunately, personal commitments forced me to return home the next day, thus missing part two of this unique musical experience, consisting of the John Medeski Trio, Erik Friedlander/ Jay Campbell Duo, Uri Caine Trio, Ikue Mori and Asmodeus.

Nevertheless, the amount and diversity of music I got to hear in one concert left me with a year’s worth of musical aesthetics to ponder and an evening’s worth of  inner peace.