Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables – equal parts science and art

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A couple of weeks ago, while browsing through the new releases, a particular record caught my eye. Two things stood out immediately.

First, the artist’s name. Tyshawn Sorey is one of the most respected, all-encompassing musical minds of the modern era. His compositions invariably place his work at the upper echelon of jazz, modern classical and the avant-garde.

The second thing that had my attention was the album’s lineup: a Double Trio consisting of a typical piano-jazz set-up (featuring Sorey on drums and percussion, Cory Smythe on piano and Christopher Tordini on bass) as well as a classic string trio formed of Fung Chern Hwei on violin, Kyle Armburst on viola and Rubin Kodheli playing the violoncello.

Now, whenever I see a string trio on anything even remotely resembling a jazz record I go completely nuts. Seeing as this was also signed Tyshawn Sorey, I went into it with high expectations. In fact, my expectations were so high I even anticipated they would be surpassed, meaning this record has the distinct quality of simultaneously meeting and surpassing my expectations. All kidding aside, I think this pretty much sums up Sorey’s talent.

The young musician with an MA in composition from Wesleyan University and an upcoming Doctorate in Music for Composition from Columbia brought forth an impressively ambitious work influenced by the conducted improvisation method of Lawrence D. Butch Morris, among others.

Even before listening to a single note of this impressive 120 minute-long double-album (recorded in a single 15 hour-long session) I knew it was going to be one of those instances where I would profoundly regret not having any musical schooling. To be clear, The Inner Spectrum of Variables is as much a work of science as it is a product of art and, though it can be exquisitely appreciated by a layman, I am simply left in awe just thinking of the variegated layers that must reveal themselves to a trained musician’s ear.

From the start, you can tell you are listening to something special. Pianist Cory Smythe opens the record with a solo – the subtle but sublimely beautiful “Movement I (Introduction)” – establishing the piano as our first guide into the composer’s world of variables. This track also positions the first part of the record firmly in modern-classical territory, though genre delimitations are of little importance in Sorey’s work.

This is its own musical entity, of no more static consistency than a churning mass of fog (to quote John Dos Passos). And while many composers cross genres and blur the lines between musical styles, in Sorey’s case, this feels less like a construction made from various different building blocks and more like a number of assorted thematic influences reflecting off of an entirely authentic musical surface.

The short piano intro seamlessly flows into “Movement II” (one of my favorites) ceding the proverbial stage to the string section. It’s on this track more than any other that I feel the listener can get the best glimpse of Sorey’s innate understanding of constructing a coherent narrative. The string trio tells a remarkable story of patience, reflection, tension and expression. The ataractic piano appeases the strings, shifting the mood from dark and tense to almost nostalgic. When Sorey’s instrument makes its long-awaited debut in a quaking crescendo, it is just to further focus the listener’s attention on the intense and haunting strings.

Like the best composers, Sorey makes perfectly balanced use of his instrument, humbly using it to enhance, never to distract. The classical-ensemble feel of the first two tracks gracefully bows out in Movement III, with its sparks of jazzy experimentation in the form of spasmodic piano over frenetic drums and strings that hint at whale songs among other acoustic expressions of nature.

The shift towards the dissonant is subtle, not gratuitous. Its purpose isn’t to shock, but to reveal a different chapter in this musical story, one further inclined towards the deeper levels of contemplation. Also remarkable on this track is the composer’s use of silence to create space, especially around minute four, where the strings (including Tordini’s bass) break out into a veritable game of catch-me-if-you-can.

When the piano once again takes over, pace and patience become more and more important. To me, and perhaps others inclined to seeing music as a form of storytelling, Movement III sounds like the musical representation of meditation. With the mind’s descent into deeper levels of consciousness and quietude represented by the shift from playful pizzicato to solemn piano, the instruments grow calm, shifting their focus inward, much like the rampant thoughts of day-to-day life subdued by the tranquility of meditation.

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.

Once again, Sorey’s drums are the last to make an appearance and, once again, their appearance is spectacular. Sorey’s introduction of the drums at around the ten-minute mark exacerbated by the tension in the strings and Smythe’s convulsive piano, collectively make for another one of the record’s best moments.

Towards the midpoint, when all instruments briefly descend into a tumult of controlled chaos, I can’t help but be reminded of John Zorn’s method of conduction, which is probably fitting seeing as how Sorey and Zorn sometimes collaborate. As the first record’s closing “movement” violently slips into a final minute of pure piano jazz, it foreshadows the more jazz-oriented vibe of the second part.

If the first of the two sides commenced with the classical beauty of the piano solo, part two opens with a contemplative, almost mystical percussion solo in “Reverie”, where Sorey’s cymbals and gongs create a mesmerizing catalog of cognition, somewhat reminiscent of Robyn Schulkowsky’s and Nils Peter Molvaer’s Hastening Westward, with strings and piano playing the part of Nils Peter Molvaer’s trumpet.

In “Movement IV”, dissonance dissolves into echoes of oriental music. The combination took me back to Zorn’s Masada String Trio and even Bar Khokba. It’s another one of my favorite tracks, mostly due to Sorey’s fantastic percussion. Though generally (and brilliantly) subdued throughout Variables, in this track, the instrumentalist side of the composer is at its most forceful. The song’s last few minutes are a sublime expression of impact, right up to the finale, when the whole song comes full circle.

The record closes with the disarmingly temperate and stridently spectral “Movement V + VI + Reprise” reminiscent of the closing tracks on many an ECM recording. Given the complexity and uniqueness of Sorey’s album, I still can’t make up my mind whether this is a good thing or not. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating composition also.

Overall, with a broadness of scope reminiscent of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic (incidentally, The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2015), Tyshawn Sorey’s 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.

I usually close review of such a record saying it is “highly recommended” by The Music and Myth. But The Inner Spectrum of Variables is not merely highly recommended – it is required listening for any serious music aficionado.

Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley – a beautiful record in the songwriter’s creative comfort zone

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It might be interesting to note that, over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on two reviews pretty much in parallel. One was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, the other is this week’s entry, Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter.

On paper, these records have a lot in common. Both are 2016 releases by musicians whose careers have really taken off in the last few years. Though it can be argued that Esperanza’s level of fame transcends the inconspicuous jazz niche turning her into a superstar of pop music proportions, in the jazz genre, she and Gregory are both household names. Both the records’ predecessors have earned Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album (Radio Music Society in 2013 and Liquid Spirit in 2014).

Still, the artists’ approach could not be more different. Esperanza retreated to the memory of her earliest artistic aspirations to find her inner “Emily” and release a work that distinguished, knowledgeable jazz reviewers have called “intense, intelligent and intrepid” (*wink*).  Meanwhile, Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley sounds like it could have easily been Disc 2, had Liquid Spirit been a double album.

If the songs were shuffled and you had never before heard a Gregory Porter tune, you’d probably have a hard time telling which songs belong together. Now, given that Liquid Spirit is one of the best vocal jazz records of the last decade, this uniformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was the first thing I noticed upon playing the album.

In my opinion, “Holding On” is a bit of an unfortunate choice for an opening track. I can see the reasoning behind it, as it’s a reworked, heavily porterized version of his collaboration with British electronic music duo Disclosure. However, given that his two previous records had some of the most impactful opening tracks of any record in any genre in recent memory (I’m talking, of course, about “Painted on Canvas” and “No Love Dying”), the rather unspectacular “Holding On” seems like an uninspired choice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that Gregory Porter is simply incapable of producing a song that couldn’t be described as warm and beautiful. But “Holding On” just doesn’t compare to its predecessors on any level.

Unfortunately, “Don’t Lose Your Steam” does little to pick up the pace, in spite of its inspiring lyrics, dedicated to Porter’s young son. Already, even the track placement is reminiscent of his previous record, with “Holding On” and “Don’t Lose Your Steam” playing the parts of “No Love Dying” and “Liquid Spirit” but failing to evoke their dynamism and raw emotion. Two songs in, Take Me to the Alley sounds like it runs the risk of becoming merely a collection of Liquid Spirit B-sides.

Then, along comes the title track to save the day – an absolutely superb ballad right up there with the best Porter has ever produced. With instantly recognizable piano chords, the vocalist’s warm, honest delivery, beautiful lyrics that hint at the second coming without becoming excessively clerical and perfect harmony vocals by Alicia Olatuja, this should have absolutely been the opening song. Anyone who thinks otherwise might claim to know music, but has little understanding of storytelling.

“Day Dream” is a decent song made good by the warm, love-filled poetry, as Porter affectionately observes his son Demyan in the child’s imagined environment.

He’s satisfied to dream his whole life away

Candy coated castles life of play

Broomsticks are his magic cars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Do you remember it seems like yesterday

Getting older

Growing taller

Getting smarter

He’ll find his way

Rocket ships that never leave his hand

But he’s in space ‘cos he’s a rocket ship man

Got to fight in some galaxy wars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Got to get home to kiss his mama goodnight

By now, the listener can recognize the typical Gregory Porter set up even in the instrumentation, which his long-time band makes sure is always smooth and homogeneous, if at times formulaic. Compared to Esperanza, who seems to be on the path of experimenting with various facets of her artistry, Porter has found his musical comfort zone and is content to keep the same creative direction. Because he is an indisputably gifted songwriter, with an incredibly warm, poignant timbre, an innate feel for conveying emotion and a capable band, he is never in danger of becoming monotonous, even if he’ll also never be accused of being avant-garde.

“Day Dream” is followed by “Consequence of Love” which serves to remind the audience that, even though he delivers swinging RnB with the same poise and dedication, Porter’s forte is still his uncanny talent for producing pitch-perfect ballads.

The record’s dynamic switches with the catchy and clever “In Fashion”, one of the highlights for its punchy piano, ear-pleasing melody and witty poetry.

We’re never caught in picture frames

The paparazzi know our names

They know like fashion

Our love is not for real

The weathers fine but in your mind

You need that flare and so you wear

Big blue fur and feathered hair

To fit your skin

Think I better let it go

Think I better let it go

Cos I’m thinking I’m last year’s runway passion

No longer in fashion

And I find myself obsessed

By how you dress

And whom you see when you’re without me

Dedicated to his late mother, the soft, simple “More Than a Woman” is one of his most tender ballads, while the touching “In Heaven”, whose captivating tempo belies the sadness of its lyrics, is sure to deeply resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Two powerful ballads preface the closing tracks, “Insanity” and “Don’t be a Fool”. The latter has one of the most beautiful choruses in the repertoire of a musician whose greatest strength is writing flawless ballad choruses, and lyrics that touch on loss and regret.

Don’t be a fool

Don’t give your nights to someone else

While giving days to those who really love you

Don’t be a fool like me

And give your life to someone else

While faking love to those who really love you

The closing line-up is a bit surprising. Not so much for the swinging, funky “Fan The Flames”, which has some great moments for tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, but for the upbeat, mischievous and downright adventurous (by Gregory Porter standards) “French African Queen”. It’s a fun, catchy tune in the vein of “In Fashion”, though it seems like a bit of an odd choice to close a mellow, slow-paced album like this with shouts of “Oui, oui”.

In his newest record, Gregory Porter has produced pretty much a direct continuation to Liquid Spirit, though without the carefully contrasted narrative that made the latter one of the great works of modern vocal jazz. Still, as I mentioned before, Porter is incapable of producing a bad song. His powerful personality, distinctive timbre (on the low end of the spectrum I think few vocalists can keep up) and a high standard when it comes to songwriting make for a splendid body of work, in spite of the fact that he is clearly sticking to a formula that should, in theory, make his music sound monotonous. Perhaps his 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.

Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding – intense, intelligent and intrepid

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One record I was really looking forward to this year was Esperanza Spalding’s fifth studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution released on Concord ten years after her debut, Junjo.

Esperanza is one of those musicians that just seem too good to be true. Basically, her entire career has been one long, continuous hype. It should really be impossible for the young songwriter, bass player and vocalist to rise to these almost ridiculous expectations and yet she does it every single time, with each new record.

“Notorious” for snatching away the Best New Artist Grammy from Justin fucking Bieber in 2011 (thus salvaging what little credibility NARAS has left), Esperanza is a rare phenomenon in a genre that generally doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves: a superstar.

To steal a lyric from her new record, she is “exceptionally pretty” but also exceptionally talented. She has the confidence of a seasoned veteran but the energy of a hungry young artist. She is intelligent without being condescending and daring without being reckless. She’s had a unique career trajectory, unceasingly rising to new heights and everything she’s put out has been a gem. It was bound to stop somewhere.

Bullshit – no, it wasn’t!

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 other words, it’s exactly what it should be at this stage in her career.

When I reviewed her previous record for BlindedBySound, I called it “another impressive offering from Esperanza and, no-doubt, an important step forward on the road to leaving a very serious musical legacy.” If Radio Music Society was a step forward, Emily is a giant leap of moon-landing proportions. Everything is on point, there is not a single misstep. In her previous work, I pointed out her excessively straightforward lyrics as somewhat lacking in finesse. Here, this candidness no longer feels juvenile, but ripe, clever, playful and sexy.

The record starts with the words “see this pretty girl, watch this pretty girl flow” and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing (in the good way, not the way I do whenever I accidentally hear a tune by Sean Paul).

“Good Lava” is the perfect opening song – provocative, loud and unhinged. As a listener, you instantly realize that this is an entirely new creative direction as Matthew Stevens’ Marc Ribot-influenced guitar, Esperanza’s own Pastorius-tinged bass and Justin Tyson’s drums heavily tilt the sound towards funk and even rock, where it basically remains throughout the whole album.

Still, although the sound is different, Esperanza’s charismatic delivery is the same in her portrayal of her alter-ego, Emily. On “Good Lava”, she teases:

 

lone ranger,

I see you like the view

wond’ring from a distance

what my pretty peak can do

come brave me

[…]

you stranger

one day are gonna be

planting your own flag of

conquered fear and fantasy

right on me

 

For “Unconditional Love”, Emily reverts to her Esperanza-persona, with vocals that call to mind the sound of Radio Music Society in spite of the pronounced presence of guitarist Stevens (a constant throughout the record, which turns out to be almost as much a showcase of his talent as Spalding’s). Undoubtedly a beautiful song making good use of the singer’s splendid voice, it might have benefited from a different position on the record. This way, it slightly takes away from absorbing the full impact of the new creative direction.

The narrative balance is quickly restored with “Judas”, one of the highlights, both in its heavy, impactful sound and conscious, ruminative lyrics, that demonstrate the songwriter’s evident improvement in an area that used to be a noticeable shortcoming.

 

judas, you know the

lonesome road

don’t ya collectin’ bottle caps

of rum

honest sinning to chase the

blues

blur ya ‘til kingdom come

take a little girl who gets to see her

mama broke down

now she’s a lady made for

the modern world

my life

but if you ask my advice us

raging girls

are china dolls fed up with bull that follows

all the way down

digging up holy scriptures to

shame her while she drowns

but if you ask my advice that

shallow grave is a bargain

 next to judgment day

it’s only a matter of time

honey

good money

sinks through her teeth

she’s not evil

forgive this innocent wrecking

ball (man-made)

 

In “Earth to Heaven” the vocalist’s rich, clean delivery contrasts with the band’s rough, prog-rock energy and the poignant, determined poetry.

 

there are no perfect

amends here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

there’s no promise or test

here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there (soldier)

no virgins or saints here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

all good children and evil

are even here

 just getting there

war man’s cross on

their shoulders

kings die ringed in gold

slaves die consoled

on the other side

a meek’s reward

is better

like a pearly resort

except without a report

from hell

how on Earth can you tell?

Equally forceful and another one of the record’s highlights, “One” sees the vocalist at her dynamic best, masterfully playing off of Karriem Riggins’ drums and a short but biting guitar solo to again create a powerfully contrasted track. And since every reviewer and their pet iguana mentioned Joni Mitchell, I’ll take this opportunity to confirm that yes, the artist does draw from Mitchell in her storytelling and delivery and she does so elegantly, giving a nod to a creative influence while still decidedly retaining her individuality.

“Rest in Pleasure”, a soft, sexy counterpoint to the previous two tracks – and once again notable for Matthew Stevens’ excellent contribution – allows Spalding to step back from the heavier narrative of the song’s predecessors and let her hair down, before returning to a more confrontational tone with “Ebony and Ivy” and “Noble Nobles”, where her improved poetry is placed front and center, from the sarcastic recital at the start of the former to the cynicism prevalent in the latter (talking founding fathers with a free philosophy/ that don’t mention me/ or the stain of red blood on their hands/ at all).

With her characteristic charm and wit, the songwriter tackles issues of history, racial heritage, white privilege and education, as is evident in the following example from “Ebony and Ivy”.

sage grows on the mountain

you can dig it with a silver

spoon

float it off to market hawk

and talk it

from hot-air balloons

get your good

old-fashioned learnin’

hear the bell and summer’s

endin’

underneath the apple tree

time to choose a branch

and build your nest of

animosity

now we’re really

really learnin’

it’s been hard to grow outside

growin’ good at act happy

and pretend that the ivy vines

didn’t weigh our branch down

The deceptively soft and harmonious “Farewell Dolly” brings forth pressing issues of gender roles while “Elevate or Operate” with its carnival-ride intro and shades of The Jimi Hendrix Experience comments on glass ceilings and unfulfilled ambitions (so honey stop your whining, wishing, scheming/ press a floor to waste your dreams in) while “Funk the Fear” extends on the topic, berating the very thought process exposed in the former.

The record closes with a dark, almost macabre rendition of “I want it now” (Veruca Salt’s piece in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – itself a rather dark and macabre moment), which the vocalist delivers with a gleeful voracity, refusing to withhold for even a second the fact that this album is meant as an adamant creative statement.

With this brilliant, experimental album, Esperanza Spalding has created not only the best work of her career, but also the best vocal record of 2016 and a surefire contender for The Music and Myth Awards.

Massive Attack’s Heligoland – The Art of Darkness and Despair

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Though it might sometimes appear that way, The Music and Myth is not only about jazz, world music and whatever new record John Zorn puts out. I write predominantly about the aforementioned genres and projects because I feel the most comfortable in that territory, but I listen to a lot of new music every week in a wide variety of styles. Most of these binges are during my 8-to-10 hour long writing sessions as I work on my science fiction novels (which you should absolutely check out if you’re into character-driven, philosophy-prone action and adventure SF in the vein of Frank Herbert).

Anyway, sometimes, I stumble across a record, a concert or a song that will haunt me for weeks, often months and – in some cases – can even shape (or re-shape) the creative direction of my stories. For my first book, Mindguard, that record was Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro and for The Vintages it was John Zorn’s 2013 Warsaw concert with The Song Project. Most recently, as I’ve been working on my third book, Ayers, I kept coming back to one particular album which made me gain a new appreciation for its creators: Massive Attacks’ 2010 release, Heligoland.

At this point I have to admit that I don’t have much experience with Massive Attack, or any form of electronic music in particular. Of course, I know who they are and I’ve heard some of their most iconic tunes, though not always conscious of the fact that I was listening to the Bristol trip-hop icons. This is something I thought about a lot as I read some of the feedback the record garnered over time and discovered that most people did not seem to enjoy it as much as I did. Reviews abound with comparisons to their earlier work and journalists continuously lament how the band has lost this-or-that perceived quality (depending on the reviewer’s personal inclinations) that used to make their music great. This is the first Massive Attack record I’ve listened to coherently and I can personally tell you I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it, so much so that it still feels fresh after more than five months. I needed no more than three seconds to know this record would follow me around for a long time.

“Pray for Rain” is the best opening track I’ve heard since Gregory Porter’s “No Love Dying” (and before that Patricia Barber’s “Code Cool”). I was already in love with its awesome baseline even before I realized, “Holy shit, this is Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio on vocals.”

I’ve loved Adebimpe’s style since hearing “DLZ” in an iconic moment of the tv show, Breaking Bad (quick note: if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad – do it! Aside from the fact that it’s one of the most well-written shows of all time it benefits from a stellar soundtrack that includes everything from Badfinger to Gnarls Barkley, from Los Cuates de Sinaloa to Wolfgang Amadeus fucking Mozart).

“Pray for Rain” is driven by Adembimpe’s powerful delivery to the extent that it feels more like a TV on the Radio tune in Massive Attack’s clothing, which doesn’t bother me, though it might bother others. Like any excellent opening track, it sets the tone for the rest of the record, which relies heavily on the contribution of its guest vocalists (sometimes to a fault according to some critics, though I personally consider the guest appearances beautifully conducted). And what about the aforementioned “tone”? It can be simply (and somewhat jokingly) described as: gloom and doom.

Heligoland is definitely a somber, almost morose work whose most intense moments come as a result of the dark, often outright disturbing lyrics.

To be clear, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But as a person who enjoys a touch of darkness in his music (from the grotesque characters populating Tom Waist records, to the self-destructive and often borderline suicidal energy of Florence Welch and the moribund regret ubiquitous in Johnny Cash’s American series) I can state that Massive Attack definitely understand the subtleties of conveying despair. This grasp of darkness and hopelessness is exemplified to perfection in “Pray for Rain”.

Dull residue of what once was

A shattered cloud of swirling doves

And their eyes change

As they learn to see through flames

And their necks crane

As they turn to pray for rain

From the apocalyptic anxiety of the opener to the psychotropic bubblegum plasticity of “Babel” (with Martina Topley-Bird on vocals) and the neurotic, techno-gospel of “Spitting the Atom”, the band essentially conveys various different nuances within the same spectrum of darkness. As opposed to many reviewers, I don’t see this as static or listless, but rather careful study of the record’s main theme.

This so-called study reaches its apex in the powerful “Splitting the Atom” where the deep mutters and ghostly lyrics of Daddy G and 3D contrast with the rapturous crooning of reggae legend Horace Andy to produce, in my opinion, the highlight of the record (alongside “Pray for Rain”).

It’s getting colder outside

Your rented space

They shadow box and they

Paper chase

It never stops

And we’ll never learn

No hope without dope

The jobless return

“Girl I love You” retains Horace Andy, whose angelic voice evokes the melancholic quality of a bitter, distant memory. The deep, metallic baseline and dissonant horns get more and more forceful, finally breaking down into utter sonic chaos, before the record swiftly shifts gears with the hypnagogic “Psyche”, where Martina Topley-Bird’s cyberspace delivery compliments the evocative lyrics.

Conjure me as a child

Slipping down a webside

Stretch up I cannot reach him

Jumping up they drag him from the water

[…]

Ridicule they won’t allow

Quench abuse and let love flower

Rip the cage out of your chest

Let the chaos rule the rest

Unfortunately, “Flat of the Blade” is a creative step backwards. In spite of Guy Garvey’s faultless vocals, the song’s atmosphere seems forced and flat. The dynamic recovers – if only for an instant – with “Paradise Circus”, spearheaded by the hushed, sensuous melancholy of Hope Sandoval’s near-perfect delivery (Oh well, the devil makes us sin/ But we like it when we’re spinning in his grip) over catchy claps and a resounding bassline. The song, another one of the record’s best, slowly builds up to a dramatic ending, but its energy is lost on the follow-up, the rather bland and overtly conspicuous “Rush Minute”.

The ending restores some of the record’s initial intensity, partly with “Saturday Come Slow” – a grungy lament by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame – but mostly with the exceptional “Atlas Air”, a fitting equivalent to the powerful opener.

I know the drill

Got cells to burn

I’m dressed to kill

A mortal coil

And time is still

On secret soil

Yeah pay the bills

Cells to burn

Mouths to fill

On Boeing jets

In the sunset make glowing threats

With these words, the band closes a record that is captivatingly sophisticated, if perhaps excessively prone to introversion. With its mastery of tone and contrast, its haunting musical themes and some outstanding contributions by guest musicians, Heligoland transcends the limitations of its genre and demonstrates the band’s profound talent in the art of darkness and despair.

El Tren del Sur by Serge Lopez & Anouck Andre – flawless cadence and finesse

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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by French guitar player Anouck André, who had some great news to share: the upcoming release of her debut record. I was extremely excited, as I’d been following her work for years and was looking forward to listening to her first studio release.

Anouck and I got acquainted a couple of years ago when the fusion enthusiast read my interview with Al Di Meola and contacted me to introduce herself and her work. I was immediately captivated not only by her evident skill, but also by the tenderness and affection with which she treated her instrument. She told me that she was hoping to put out a record soon and I asked her to send it to me whenever it was ready.

Though I already had high expectations of whatever the promising musician would come up with, when she sent me El Tren del Sur I was completely blown away.

For starters, it was entirely different from what I’d envisioned. I thought I was going to get an entertaining but inconsistent presentation of an ambitious young musician’s first attempt at putting together a coherent story. Perhaps a fast-paced fusionrama with just a bit too much flash and a bit too little depth. That would have been expected, and it would still have been a ton of fun.

What I received instead was a polished masterpiece, a work of maturity and finesse.

Here’s the catch: instead of exploding on the music scene with the aforementioned typical debut album, shouting “This is me and this is what I do!” from the top of her lungs a la Land of the Midnight Sun, Anouck softly whispers, “I’m here to tell you a story you will not soon forget.”

The story in question is penned by French flamenco guitarist and composer Serge Lopez.

Now, if you’ve never heard Serge before, you need to stop reading this article, click on this link and come back when you’ve exhausted the playlist, or – better yet – just let it play in the background while you read.

El Tren del Sur is a collaboration featuring, in Anouck’s own words “nylon string for [Serge] and folk guitar for me.” It consists of eleven tracks, nine of which are written by Lopez, all of which feature exquisite aesthetics and a delightfully homogeneous blend of the composer’s vision and experience and Anouck’s warmth and tenderness. The chemistry between the two guitarists and the level of mutual respect discernible in their interplay took me back to Mark Knopfler’s and Chet Atkins’ Neck and Neck, one of the most beautiful collaborative efforts in the history of guitar music.

The album begins with “Sueño Andaluz”, a surprisingly restrained song that gently eases the listeners into the story, rather than throwing them right in the middle of the narrative, as is usually the preferred method of the recording industry. This haunting, nocturnal tune reminds me a bit of Marc Ribot playing the works of Frantz Casseus – incidentally one of my all-time favorite albums – as it lulls the listener into the spell of its allegorical scenery. It’s an elegant point of departure that sends a resounding message about the mindset behind this splendid record.

“El Americano” demonstrates the skillful balance between folk melancholy and flamenco energy that lies at the core of this partnership. Its compositional texture is similar to Horea Crisovan’s My Real Trip – chosen Best Instrumental Record of 2014 by The Music and Myth – especially of Horea’s duet with Vlatko Stefanovski.

Next off is a delicate tribute to Claude Nougaro’s “Toulouse”, one of the album’s highlights for its flawless cadence and purity of emotion. Following it, the title track sets a melancholy tone that borders on anxiety, where you get a sense that the musicians not only play off one another, but fervidly depend on each other – a gorgeous, almost agonizing symbiosis and another one of the album’s best offerings.

This deeply emotional interaction turns into a festive, flamenco-infused display of stunning stringwork in “Esperando el Viento” and culminates in the provocative “A mi Amigo Jacky” where the musicians truly get to let their hair down, playfully switching mood and momentum several times. The intense “La Familia” stays true to its name. It’s heavier, laden with a generational dynamic that ranges from warm and cozy to strained and even slightly aggressive, down to its climactic finale.

Though certainly a satisfying track, “Viajando” feels like it falls just a bit short of the ambitious standard set by the rest of the songs. However, the tempestuous “Montañas” quickly directs the course, preparing the listener for the grand finale that consists of the up-beat and intimate “Maestro Rachid” and – perhaps a surprise (it certainly was for me!) – a superb rendition of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No 1”. As a long-time admirer of Satie’s work I was delighted by this tribute, which concluded the album on a note of reflection and compliment.

On The Music and Myth, I often feature records whose sound is unorthodox, avant-garde, sometimes confrontational and other times downright courting the grotesque. I’ve written about trailblazers and mad scientists, people who turn their inner turbulence into a wild emotional catharsis and reimagine their medium in complex ways. El Tren del Sur is not one of those records. What it is, however, is something that made me aware of its increasing rarity: a collection of straightforward, simply beautiful music that is neither reductive nor – as is sometimes the way of the ECM catalog – cold and spectral.

A charming and tasteful record, El Tren del Sur receives a standing ovation from The Music and Myth!

Tin Pan’s Yes Yes Yes – drunken-dixieland, rudo-jazz, mock’n’roll, gritty blues and Tom Waits Noiricana

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The Music and Myth starts off 2016 with a dynamic record from Tin Pan, a band that – in their own words – “originated out of an innate need for music that meets people exactly where they are, providing an immediate, pure and energetic release from the everyday routine.”

Yes Yes Yes is the band’s sixth album, a 2015 release. I’ve received it for review from composer, lead vocalist and trumpet player Jesse Selengut a few weeks ago and was planning to publish the article sooner, before a personal matter got in the way of work. Nevertheless, here it is, and the timing is great. I was actually looking for something just like this for a while now.

The sound is a mesh of what I can only describe as drunken-dixieland with a slap of rudo-jazz, a pinch of mock’n’roll and a cough of gritty blues, set against the backdrop of Tom Waits Noiricana. The band describes it as American roots music. Tomato, tomahto!

Anyhow, I knew I was going to love this record from the first chords. As has been well-documented on this website, I’m a sucker for a great opening track and “Yes Yes Yes” delivers just what it should: a five minute synopsis of the “story” (read: the narrative of the record). You immediately get the sense that Tin Pan is a well-oiled machine, a tight-knit unit extremely comfortable with the sound they’ve perfected throughout years of street performances all over NYC (most notably in Central Park, the band’s apparent “base of operations”).

The driving creative force is Selengut, whose expressive vocals and natural charisma are supported by a stellar band, in which every player adds his personal flavor, contributing to a beautifully homogenized sound. Towards the end of the first track – roughly around the time the preacher, sister and the chicken started doing the eagle rock and then the boogaloo (seriously, you need to check this out!) – I was already a fan of the sound, on my way to becoming a fan of the album.

I must have listened to the title track a dozen times (and the part with Sean E Z Cronin’s bass solo a few extra times) before moving on to track number two, “Lord Help Me Now, delivered in the same extroverted vein and once again spearheaded by Selengut’s spot-on vocals.

The record peaks early with the intense “In A Van”. This murky, gravelly track pays heavy homage to post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits, not only by means of the Waitsian scenery evoked by Selengut’s splendidly grotesque delivery, but also through the performance of guitarist Adam Brisbin, who channels his inner Marc Ribot to the extent that I had to double-check to make sure Ribot wasn’t actually a guest musician on the record. Given that he is my all-time favorite guitarist you can imagine that the artful tribute scored extra points with me.

In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to applaud Brisbin’s superb work throughout, because if I stopped to mention every time the talented guitarist absolutely kills it on this album the review would end up twice as long as intended. Watch out for this guy!

Another standout on this particular song (and in general) is drummer Anders Zelinski, whose timing enhances both Brisbin’s bluesy awesomeness and Selengut’s spit-shine delivery. Speaking of spit-shine, the vocalist embodies his character with the intensity of the most dedicated method actor, howling, growling and barking things like:

I’m gonna lay my head in my hands. IN A VAN down by the river.

Looks like I done messed it up again. IN A VAN down by the river.

IN A VAN down by the riverside, yeah.

I’m gonna smoke up all my friends. IN A VAN down by the river.

Guess I’m gonna smoke up all alone again. IN A VAN down by the river.

(…) Get back Betty, Wendy and Sue. IN A VAN down by the river.

Get back Betty. What they done to you? IN A VAN down by the river.

IN A VAN down by the riverside, yeah.

Overall, a brilliant composition where everyone gets to look good. Unfortunately, the muse doesn’t carry over to “Fat Baby”, where the band trades the clever and sometimes dark humor of tracks like “Never Gonna Call” and “Lady Doc” for simple chuckles and giggles. The song’s lack of substance is somewhat offset by the consistently capable band whose playing turns it into a fun and catchy tune, but nothing more.

The record quickly regains its balance with the moody and intelligent “Gambler’s Blues” where the vocalist laments:

Roll me slowly like those loaded dice.

You take your chances when you take a wife.

Lyin’. Cheatin’. Sleeping in the sun all day. (You know you’re cloudy inside now, baby.)

Well hear me talking. I gambled my life away.

The song further drives home the idea that the band is best when they’re at their darkest.

And, as if to contradict my previous statement, the album continues with the mock-rock’n’roll (mock’n’roll?) energy of “Walk Right In” and a quick trip through the repertoires of Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, with “Buck Them Dice” and “Minnie”. Again, the band’s chemistry translates into raw enjoyment for the listener –  on “Minnie”, Selengut’s call and response is pure gold.

Tin Pan’s gritty vision of the old-timey “Deep Ellum Blues” sounds like it could have been written by a young Johnny Cash and sung by an old Mason Casey. It introduces the closing line-up of “Swing Gitanes” and “Handyman”. The former offers a surprising change of pace and sentiment (not to mention language) – a brilliant track that I feel would have worked better as the album’s closer, especially because of its tidal dynamic. Instead, the finale comes in the form of “Handyman”, finishing off a loud record in an uncharacteristically subdued manner. Switch up these two and you have an exceptionally consistent narrative flow, which is always relevant when you’re trying to tell a story (in music, as well literature). Instead, if you’re fussy about this sort of thing (which I am) the strange track placement disrupts said flow. Nevertheless, it does little to hurt the overall quality of the album.

With clever compositions (old yarns spun by new voices), an immensely talented band that clearly enjoys the heck out of playing this music and a charming “method” vocalist who knows when to be funny and when to be serious, Yes Yes Yes is a roguish, hilarious, confrontational record and simply a ton of fun.

So, in case you were wondering, The Music and Myth gives Tin Pan a thumbs up and an emphatic “Yes, yes, yes!”

 

 

 

The 2015 Music and Myth Awards

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In 2013 I came up with something I like to call The Music and Myth Awards. Angry that the boneheads at NARAS failed to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for a Grammy, I decided to create my own awards in the form of an article wherein I discuss the very best works of music I’ve come across all year.

There are two categories: Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental Record. The scope is not restricted to jazz or world music, though those are the genres I write about the most, so there’s a higher likelihood of such a record getting the nod. The primary criterion is storytelling: how well does the artist convey his or her vision and does the narrative flow seamlessly. This narrative is achieved through everything from lyrics to the dynamics of the sound and the placement of the tracks (which is why I’m always so excited about a good opening track).

In 2013, The Music and Myth’s Best Vocal Record was Patricia Barber’s Smash, and in 2014 it was John Zorn’s impressive The Song Project. The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Records so far have been Iva Bittova’s self-titled album, released under the ECM label in 2013 and Horea Crisovan’s My Real Trip, released independently the following year.

The very first article I post every January, my subjective but thoroughly love-filled coronations are meant as a comment on the restrictive and often ridiculously political nature of “big” awards, as well as the sheer absurdity of a certain group of people pretending they possess the authority to objectively choose the very best in something as subjective as art, be it music, literature or cinematography (I’m looking at you, Oscars!). In the end, there is no intrinsic value to any form of recognition, it’s just somebody’s opinion. This is exactly what The Music and Myth Awards represent: my own personal opinion as a music writer and lifelong audiophile.

There is so much wonderful music in the world. Many artists deserve the highest praise but will never be recognized by big organizations like NARAS and come into possession of that ugly little gramophone statue. That is mostly because they don’t have a big marketing machine behind them to place them on the radar of something like NARAS, who, by the looks of their yearly nominees (at least in the jazz categories, which are the only ones I follow) seem to believe that there is a total of around forty jazz musicians on the planet, and thirty of them are named Chick Corea.

Alas, not much has changed since 2013. You still see the same names nominated over and over again, and NARAS is still overlooking fantastic records. This year, the “Patricia Barber treatment” went to Kamasi Washington, whose phenomenal The Epic has most, if not all, listeners agreeing that it is deserving of its title. But, fear not, The Music and Myth is here to right the wrongs. First, the predictions:

The Grammy Awards

Traditionally, I like to start my awards articles by trying to guess the winners in both categories (Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Jazz Instrumental Album – I think the concept of a “Large Ensemble” category is a bit silly). So far, my success rate is 50%. In 2013, I correctly predicted that the vocal award will go to Gregory Porter, whose Liquid Spirit is truly magnificent (and, in my opinion, the best record nominated in the last 5 years), but I thought the instrumental one would go to Gerald Clayton’s very deserving Life Forum, when it went to Terri Lyne Carrington’s (slightly less deserving) Money Jungle. Last year, I thought Gretchen would take best vocal, but they gave it to Diane Reeves. I did, however, correctly predict that Chick Corea’s Trilogy would get the nod (not really a prophetic feat on my part, since you can never bet against Chick at the Grammys).

Let’s see if I can improve my record this year!

Once again, I must state in advance that I am not a big fan of cover or tribute albums being nominated. I thoroughly appreciate that certain tribute records can be groundbreaking, and in my next article I will talk about Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane, which might very well be the very best cover record I’ve ever heard. In fact, even my pick for Best Vocal Record last year – John Zorn’s The Song Project – is technically a cover album, since none of the tracks are originals (Zorn asked three talented vocalists to write lyrics for some of his most popular instrumental tracks). The result is sublime.

But it’s difficult to catch lightning in a bottle. Patton’s album was amazing because he put his powerful voice and heavy-metal delivery to ’50s and ’60s Italian pop music. Zorn’s worked because the musicians added a level of poetry to already splendid instrumental tunes, in effect, creating entirely new songs.

Another example of a great cover record would be Al Di Meola’s All Your Life, the Beatles tribute where the guitar virtuoso employs his impressive technique to add an instrumental complexity that the originals – with all due respect – simply did not possess. But even Di Meola admitted in an interview I did with him that re-imagining existing music takes about one third of the effort it takes to write entirely new songs. In most cases, these cover albums merely boil down to: so-and-so sings/plays so-and-so’s music. For that reason, I feel that – unless breathtakingly original in the vein of the records I’ve just mentioned – cover albums are simply at a creative disadvantage. With John Zorn putting out roughly seventeen thousand projects each year, I find it hard to believe that there isn’t enough great new music in the running.

Anyway, let’s look at this year’s records:

In the instrumental category, we have Robert Glasper’s suggestively titled Covered (ahem!). In this elegant live album, Glasper’s piano trio (Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums) play some of the pianist’s own existing compositions as well as covers of songs by everyone from Kendrik Lamar to Joni Mitchell.  I found it a pleasant and well-balanced record, but not the best of the bunch (though I immensely enjoyed Reid’s percussion).

John Scofield offers Past Present, a warm, bluesy and very melodic set of new compositions, allegedly inspired by the loss of his son. One of the most memorable records in this year’s ballot, Past Present would have been my pick to win if not for certain circumstances surrounding Jimmy Greene’s Beautiful Life, but more on that later.

Young Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander makes an interesting appearance with his debut record, My Favorite Things. There is certainly a bright future ahead for the gifted preteen pianist and just being nominated for this award should place many eyes on him. From the standpoint of technique, it’s certainly beyond reproach – a masterful display of skill. However, it just lacks the charisma of Glasper’s album, or the emotional depth of Scofield’s, Greene’s and Blanchard’s records.

Speaking of Terrence Blanchard, I think the Grammy should go to his record, Breathless. It feels like the most complex work out of those nominated, with sprinkles of Miles-Davis-fusion over a complex soundscape that incorporates everything from classical to funk. It reminded me a bit of Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum, nominated in this category in 2013. Though Blanchard is – I feel – the most deserving, I think the award will go to Jimmy Greene’s Beautiful Life.

This mellow but profoundly musical recording is as beautiful as its backstory is tragic. Greene’s six-year-old daughter was a victim of the infamous Sandy Hook school shooting. Her beautiful life defines this album, and her lovely voice can even be heard on one of the tracks. One can’t help but have a special affection for this profoundly sentimental – though never melodramatic – album and I don’t think NARAS will pass up the opportunity to make a political statement by giving the award to Greene.

On the vocal side, we have Jamison Ross’s self-titled debut, benefiting from a fairly unique sound with an RnB energy, but suffering from a weak opening track and inconsistent lyrics. Lorraine Feather is once again nominated for the polished and clever Flirting with Disaster, while Karryn Allison’s Many A New Day and Denise Donatelli’s Find a Heart – both collections of standards and covers – are beautifully crafted, but nothing you haven’t heard before.

I think the Grammy will go to Cecile McLorin Salvant’s old-school For One To Love. This splendid, charming and often humorous record contains five original compositions and seven covers and mostly stands out because of Salvant’s top-notch vocals. Her last record, Womanchild, was also nominated. This young vocalist is clearly a charismatic presence on the microphone with a wonderful ear for timing. Her feminine vigor, sometimes flirtatious, other times confrontational, gives the record an air of honesty and authenticity, but it also somewhat narrows its pensive scope, making it difficult for some listeners to relate. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference, but I think tracks such as “Growlin’ Dan” really don’t age well and I can’t help but cringe when I hear someone singing, “She shook her hoochie-coochie, tried to steal my man” in the year 2016.

Nevertheless, I still think this will be Salvant’s year.

The Music and Myth Awards

Best Vocal Record of 2015

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For the first time, The Music and Myth and NARAS actually agree on something, and that something is Florence and the Machine’s How Big How Blue How Beautiful (from this point on referred to as HB3). The band’s third studio record is up for Best Pop Vocal Album at the Grammys, going up against the works of Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Mark Ronson and James Taylor.

I’ve been a fan of Florence and The Machine for years, since my wife introduced me to Lungs, which I’ve called “a breath of fresh air” in my review. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them live and Florence Welch’s voice can often be heard cooing and screaming from our speakers.

However, I have to admit, I did not take an instant liking to HB3. Welch’s songwriting is always very personal but on this one there is a degree of intimacy, a raw, almost aggressive energy that makes the aftertaste linger, even if the music isn’t instantly likable. I found myself returning to it almost every single week, to the point where I must have listened to it about a hundred times. Like Smash and The Song Project before it, How Big How Blue How beautiful has forcefully seized my attention and simply refused to let go.

The lyrics, documenting the composer’s disastrous love-life, are honest and personal while remaining relatable. As mentioned before, that wasn’t the case with Salvant’s “gee-golly-gosh-I-can’t-find-my-man” approach. An expert storyteller, Welch manages to take her memories and emotions and make them yours, and that’s what makes this record a deserving Best Vocal Record of 2015.

Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

With profoundly personal lyrics telling of failed relationships, almost debilitating vices and emotional aimlessness, How Big How Blue How Beautiful is definitely an acquired taste. It’s certainly a powerful album, but it doesn’t have the instant charm of Lungs and Ceremonials. However, it makes up for that with a disarmingly honest narrative that will almost certainly help cement the record’s legacy over time.

It seems that my words then were prophetic, as “over time” I obsessively returned to it, beckoned by Welch’s manic-depressive call until I decided it’s the best I’ve heard all year.

 Best Instrumental Record of 2015

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This one is not a surprise, since I mentioned it at the beginning of the article. Of stunning complexity, both in composition and delivery, The Epic is just that – an epic feat of storytelling and the new measuring stick for instrumental jazz records. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

The soundscape is immensely varied, an atlas of the classical and modern jazz world with stunning attention to detail and a plethora of information, though ultimately lacking in true novelty. The last statement is not really a criticism. The Epic isn’t about shaping the future of jazz with a cutting edge sound, but rather encompassing the essence of its past and present.

With talent and confidence, Washington managed to create perhaps one of the all-time great jazz records. Only time will tell!

This is it for this year! Starting next week, I will return with the regular review articles, but I’d love to hear what you think about this year’s Music and Myth Awards.