The 2017 Music and Myth Awards

Image7

2017 has been a strange year for The Music and Myth. For the biggest part of it, the website was on hiatus while I focused all of my time and energy on taking my career as a full-time science fiction author to the next level. I’ve written a total of only six articles last year and one of them was the 2016 Music and Myth Awards. Despite that, 2017 has been the year when I discovered more great music than at any time since starting this blog back in 2012. So many quality records have been released last year by so many amazing musicians that it’s been torture not having the time to write about them. Today, I get to compensate for that a little bit by rounding up the best in my yearly awards article.

If you’re new to the website, the format is this: I start by discussing the year’s Grammy nominees in the Best Jazz Vocal and Best Jazz Instrumental Album categories, complete with my predictions. Because this is such an unusual edition of the Music and Myth Awards, the article will end up published sometime after the Grammys have taken place. Nevertheless, I’ll leave my predictions section intact, as it was written in the first draft on January 27.

The reason I traditionally include the Grammys stems from the fact that the Music and Myth Awards originated with my dissatisfaction over NARAS failing to nominate Patricia Barber’s Smash for best vocal record in 2014. I’ve grown to think of my awards article as a sort of Anti-Grammys and I’ve discovered that I enjoy the process of studying the nominees and predicting the winners.

Now, before we take a look at the anti-Grammy picks, let’s see what the Grammys have lined up this year.

After years of criticizing NARAS for featuring essentially the same dozen artists every time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this year’s ballots for Best Jazz Vocal includes many fresh faces. I was especially thrilled to see among them Jazzmeia Horn and Raul Midon, whose incredible performances I’ve caught at the 2014 Inntoene Jazz Festival.

Let’s start with Jazzmeia, nominated for her debut album, A Social Call. First of all, this 26-year old vocalist seems like a lab-grown prototype for a successful jazz musician. She’s got the look, the name, the attitude, the heritage and especially the talent. Most importantly, she has a mission – one that developed from a profound awareness of who she is as an artist. This became quickly evident when I interviewed her after her show at Inntoene. After finding out that she has a debut album planned for that autumn, I concluded the interview with the following phrase: Prediction: you will see Jazzmeia Horn at the 2015 Grammys, you’ve heard it here first folks!

Though my timing was off by a couple of years, as the self-christened Mama Jazz decided to focus on family and raising her daughters, the essence is that she immediately strikes you as destined for greatness. I’ll be reviewing the record in a separate article, so I’m just going to sum it up here by saying it’s a powerful, legacy-conscious album and a perfect introduction to this artist and her mission. Though I don’t think she’s quite ready to get the nod yet, A Social Call establishes her as a powerful contender for the upper echelon of jazz for years to come.

As for Raul Midon, I was really happy to see this phenomenally gifted artist get the proper recognition. A multi-talented, multi-tasking powerhouse performer, Raul Midon is simply an explosion of creative energy. I’ve described his live performance at Inntoene as a “profoundly spiritual experience” and this must-hear musician consistently delivers. In typical Midon fashion, Bad Ass and Blind is a high-energy record with a distinctive sound and an empowering vibe. That being said, I don’t feel like it’s Midon at his creative best and I do feel that this particular album, mislabeled as vocal jazz, might have benefited from increased exposure in another category.

Randy Porter’s Porter plays Porter, a record of – you guessed it – Cole Porter covers is built around the natural charisma of guest vocalist Nancy King and her very evident chemistry with the pianist, but feels neither comprehensive nor groundbreaking in its conceptualization. Meanwhile, The Journey, by husband-and-wife duo The Baylor Project featuring a plethora of amazing musicians is supremely lyrical and stylistically comprehensive, feeling celebratory in its sound. Ultimately, though, it’s surpassed in scope by the one album I feel stands way above the rest this year.

Dreams and Daggers brought Cecile McLorin Salvant her third Grammy nomination, following up on her Grammy award winning For One to Love and her Grammy nominated Womanchild. In 2016, I successfully predicted her win and I’m hoping to do so again this year because this record is just a fantastic display of talent from a complete musician.

Salvant brings the heritage and social awareness of Jazzmeia Horn, the energy of Raul Midon, the melodic diversity of the Baylor Project and the vocalist-band chemistry of Porter and King, combining them in a superb display of musicality on a double record that especially excels in one key aspect: storytelling.

This superlative double-album is one of the best I’ve heard in this category in the last few years and the clear standout of this particular ballot. While I did have some quibbles with For One To Love, there is absolutely no reproach for any aspect of the flawless Dreams and Daggers. I think it should easily earn her the award.

While the Best Jazz Vocal category featured some exciting fresh faces, I was really disappointed in what I feel is a tepid, conservative selection for Best Instrumental. This is especially conspicuous in a year that presented such an amazing array of remarkable records. Now, don’t get me wrong, each of the nominated albums is masterfully crafted, as music tends to be at this level when produced by this caliber of musicians. However, in a year with so much daring new music, selecting a crop of mostly conservative covers seems like a decision that should have any serious music enthusiast scratching their head. Perhaps, after doing the complete opposite for the Best Vocal category, NARAS got cold feet and reverted back to its old ways.

Bill Charlap Trio and Billy Childs offer elegant, sophisticated piano in Uptown, Downtown and Rebirth respectively, while Fred Hersch takes a primal approach in his splendid and pensive solo-piano opus, Open Book. Joey De Francesco brings a touch of color to a rather monochrome batch of contenders with the bluesy, soul-funk Project Freedom, serving essentially the same role as last year’s Dr. Um by Peter Erskine. My personal favorite is Chris Potter’s The Dreamer is the Dream, a characteristically tender, introspective offering from ECM, the label that can do no wrong. I’m generally a fan of the trademarked ECM sound and I find Potter’s selection of original tunes an inspired and inspiring session. My pick for the Grammys, however, is Fred Hersch’s Open Book.

That being written, let’s take a look at this year’s Music and Myth Award winners.

Best Vocal Record: Sofia Rei (feat. Marc Ribot) – El Gavilan

ScreenHunter_184 Mar. 31 09.27

This one might feel, at once, predestined and surprising. Predestined because I’ve made no secret of the fact that Sofia Rei is my favorite vocalist (and slowly becoming one of my favorite composers and arrangers) and I’ve been even less secretive about the fact that Marc Ribot has been my favorite guitarist for over a decade, since he was largely responsible for my venturing into previously unexplored musical territories. In fact, the first time I’ve ever heard Rei’s spellbinding voice, it followed an exquisite guitar intro by Ribot himself, on the song “Besos de Sangre” from 2014 Music and Myth Award winning record The Song Project (Vinyl Singles Edition). It makes sense that any further collaboration between the two would be a personal dream come true. Last year, this dream-duo rekindled their preternatural chemistry on this groundbreaking minimalistic recording.

The surprising part I mentioned before might be the record’s subject matter. Built around the forceful song, “El Gavilan” the eponymous record marks Rei’s tribute to one of her musical heroes, Chilean songwriter Violeta Para. Featuring innovative reinterpretations of Parra’s work on the centennial of her birth, El Gavilan succeeds where almost everyone other album of its type fails: in paying tribute instead of merely gathering together a number of covers.

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

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.

To be clear: this is how you produce a tribute record! For years, I’ve picked on the Grammys for favoring cover albums over wholly original content, when these cover albums often amount to little more than so-and-so sings the music of such-and-such in an approach that relies almost entirely on nostalgia. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of good cover albums, albums that honor their source material by presenting it in a light that both celebrates and innovates, creating a new work of art that stands entirely on its own.

When Sofia Rei pays homage to Parra, she does so in a way that taps into the essence of Parra’s social message while reworking it around Rei’s own musical vision. Aided by one of the most talented guitar players in modern music history, Sofia Rei never attempts to channel her inner Violeta Parra. Instead, she chooses an established body of work with a profound sentimental relevance through which to reveal to us her innermost Sofia Rei. And what a splendid revelation indeed!

Best Instrumental Record: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy

61T3YLi4DcL._SY355_

For the first time, a Music and Myth Award goes to a work I haven’t had the opportunity to write about in advance. I will do so in the coming weeks, in a separate article. Thus, I won’t elaborate too much on the details of my selection, but rather talk about how I’ve arrived to it.

As I’ve mentioned, it was a year with an abundance of great instrumental records and I’ve truly had a tough time coming up with a clear favorite. Even the shortlist was staggering, with Linda May Han Oh’s unpredictable Walk Against the Wind, Steve Coleman’s cerebral Morphogenesis, Yazz Ahmed’s exotic La Saboteuse, Ambrose Akinmusire’s A Rift in Decorum, Dave Douglas’ fun and eccentric Little Giant Still Life, Vijay Iyer’s universally acclaimed Far From Over and Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which is essentially a dystopian scifi envisioned as a work of music. For the last few weeks, I’ve listened to these records ceaselessly until I cut the list down to Coleman, Akinmusire and Scott, but I still couldn’t decide. In the end, my wife decided for me.

While I’ve been leaning heavily toward free jazz and avant-garde in the last few years, I try to keep a broad perspective when granting the Music and Myth Awards. Ioana often provides this perspective. Herself a long-time jazz aficionado, Ioana has never studied music in such an in-depth way as to fall into the trap of over-analyzing. While I’m often prone to immediately disassembling any piece of music I hear into its components, looking for patterns, stories and  historical anchor-points, Ioana merely listens and instantly knows what she loves. While I was listening to The Centennial Trilogy, she walked into my office to tell me that it sounds great.

Fascinated by the pugilistic motion of Coleman’s sax and, on the othe end of the spectrum, Akinmusire’s old-school atmosphere, I found a balance in Scott’s conceptual dichotomy. With his trademarked Stretch Music, Scott seems to be able to pay homage to the vast history of jazz while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the present. With melody that evokes modal nostalgia and modern influences from the techno, hip-hop and even rock spheres, The Centennial Trilogy  – a collection of three records, all released in 2017  – is a colossal work that manages the difficult task of instantly appealing to the neophyte while keeping the seasoned listener satisfied. When Ioana praised the music she made me realize the essential aspect of this collection of records: it has instant appeal but remains intriguing upon a thorough examination. Simply put, it’s complex enough to provide hours’ worth of study but also simple enough to be instantly delectable.

More on this fantastic work in its dedicated article. For now, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2017.

So, what did you think about the Music and Myth’s choices? What are your favorites? Sound off in the comments and let’s start a discussion.

Advertisements

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Belgrade Kombank Arena – A commanding Homily from the Prince of Darkness

IMG_2744

Traditionally, I start off every year with The Music and Myth Awards. Because of the website’s long hiatus in 2017, I decided to welcome this new year of music with some long-overdue articles.

First on the list is a recount of a truly spectacular event. For a while, I hesitated to publish it for fear that it was no longer relevant. I was supposed to post this review right after Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concluded their UK & Europe tour in November, with their second show at the Menorah Arena in Tel Aviv. Timing aside, however, the celebrated musician’s performance at the Kombank Arena (meanwhile the Stark Arena) in Belgrade was such a uniquely satisfying experience that omitting to publish the story would have forever felt like a missing link in the evolution of The Music and Myth.

The date was October 28th and our trip was almost a year in the making. When my cousin, Oana, suggested the concert and a family road trip to nearby Belgrade, I jumped at the opportunity.  Unlike Oana, I hadn’t stayed in touch with Cave’s work over the last decade, having become increasingly preoccupied with examining the international jazz catalog from A to Zorn. Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass on the prospect of seeing one of the best songwriters this side of Tom Waits before he decided to retire, turn into a raven and fly off somewhere never to be heard from again. Added to that was the fact that my best friend had just purchased tickets to see the Rolling Stones, so I considered this a bit of a challenge to “keep up”. Like the Stones and Waits himself, Nick Cave should be a bucket-list act for any serious music enthusiast, a fact that was emphatically reinforced on that night by the Prince of Darkness and his storied band.

Belgrade proved a deceptively suitable location for one to get reacquainted with Cave’s body of work. A vibrant, confrontational city, Belgrade feels like a European time capsule. Unbound by EU governance, the city seems to exists in a parallel timeline located somewhere in the early nineties, with its campy advertisements on communist-era buildings, taxi scams and nonexistent smoking regulations. It’s a spectacular place that feels urbanely wild and uncompromising but also honest and fearless. When we entered the large arena and found ourselves surrounded by cigarette smoke and booze vendors that sold beer and slivovitz, we knew it was going to be an old-school gig.

The artist’s presence already dominated the environment with the speakers continuously playing the haunting “Three Seasons in Wyoming” for the entire half hour that Cave and co. were late. Coupled with the delay, the eerie, repetitive tune created among the crowd a general feeling of anxiety and even irritation. Towards the half hour mark, there were more than a few calls of, “Let’s go, already!”

Paradoxically, this tension only served to increase the cathartic release of excitement once the band, led by Warren Ellis, took the stage. Having all but forgotten the frustrating anticipation, the Serbian crowd welcomed Cave with a love and enthusiasm that bordered on the fanatical. “George told me this was going to be an awesome crowd,” Cave observed.

The set started with “Anthrocene”, which felt like a strangely lethargic way to open a two-and-a-half-hour mammoth-show, despite the song’s apocalyptic atmosphere and flawless lyrics. Nevertheless, for someone who’d never seen the band live, Cave’s tall, dark frame and almost cartoonish presence was fascinating to witness. I also have to admit that, as an author, merely hearing the word “anthrocene” spoken out loud was awe-inspiring. Even more so was discovering the depth and power of Cave’s voice in a live environment with impeccable sound engineering.

After the somewhat unorthodox beginning, for which he sat on a chair near the piano, the vocalist rose to engage with his audience for the equally hypnotic “Jesus Alone” and “Magneto”. With outstretched arms, Cave dangled precariously over the edge of the stage, at times stroking the hands of his spellbound audience, at times balancing himself with their support.

“You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief now. You’re an old man sitting by a fire. You’re the mist rolling off the sea. You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?” he professed with a seer’s confidence, sounding like Lenny Belardo from The Young Pope delivering his homily. This level of familiarity with the crowd continued ceaselessly throughout the show, during which the vocalist took the term ‘audience engagement’ to a level I’ve never seen before. I’ve thought about this for a while since then and came to the conclusion that my unfamiliarity with Cave’s work over the last decade and my unawareness of the tragic events surrounding the creation of The Skeleton Key might have increased the intensity of my reintroduction to his work.

Finally, after the somber beginning, the band departed Skeleton Key territory with “Higgs Boson Blues”, a crowd-pleaser by the sound of the enthusiastic reception. Afterwards, the performance abruptly abandoned its pensive origin, thundering forward with “From Her to Eternity”, the raucous “Tupelo” and “Jubilee Street”, whose frenzied finale made for one of the evening’s most intense moments. As somewhat of a neophyte, I can’t imagine a more poignant introduction to who Nick Cave is as an artist in 2017 than the aforementioned trio of songs, each presenting a different creative side of this multifaceted artist.

“The Ship Song”, one of the band’s most beautiful ballads, provided a welcome change of pace for an emotionally exhausted audience. It laid the foundation for the next part of the show, where the musicians built up towards a final catharsis with “Girl In Amber” and “Into My Arms”, culminating with the heartbreaking “I Need You” – the absolute highlight of the night.

In a recent interview, where he spoke about the tragic death of one of his sons, Cave said, “I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came, not some sort of empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk out feeling like shit. I don’t want that. Because I’m not feeling that way. On stage I feel great.”

After the heartfelt moment, Cave dissipates the mournful atmosphere with classics “Red Right Hand” and “The Mercy Seat”. The latter especially was a personal highlight for me. Famously covered by Johnny Cash, the song became one of my favorites in the American Recordings series.  I still prefer Cash’s version, but the experience of hearing the song live was exhilarating and reminded me of the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler performing “Telegraph Road” at the László Papp Arena in Budapest.

The set closed with a touching rendition of “Distant Sky” and “Skeleton Tree” before the band politely bowed and vacated the stage. Of course, the audience was not going to let them off the hook so easily. When they returned for an encore of “The Weeping Song” and “Stagger Lee”, Cave was a changed man, his energy seeming to increase the closer he got to the evening’s finale. For the former, he went out into the audience, balancing above them on a fence as though he were on stilts before inviting some of them on stage with him for the profanity-ridden ode to the bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee.

They closed with “Push The Sky Away” and Cave delivered the tune with all the manic devotion of a delusional faith-healer, an effect unquestionably enhanced by the audience’s reverent gazes. Only after the show was over and we were silently walking back to our Air B’n’B through the empty streets of Novi Beograd did the magnitude of the evening truly hit me. I knew that I would be seeing one of the all-time greats, a man known for his dark and evocative poetry. I was aware that Cave and the band had a reputation for putting on awe-inspiring performances and, as I mentioned, I thought of this as a bucket-list gig. What I didn’t expect, however, was that I was going to experience a group of musicians at the creative height of their careers.

Lluvia Fue – impeccable tango from an experienced, top-tier vocalist

6782a97e7163246267f33f461d88982d69e522df - Copy

The Music and Myth has only recently returned from its long hiatus and already things are back in high gear. There’s a number of articles in queue for the next few weeks, with a concert review from Nick Cave’s spectacular, mammoth-show in Belgrade, Serbia, a study of a Grammy-nominated debut record from a familiar face and the upcoming 2017 Music and Myth Awards, spearheaded by a powerful front runner. I feel like I never left!

I’ll get to all those things during the winter holidays while I take a break from working on my books. But first: a substantial sampling of impeccable tango from an experienced, top-tier vocalist.

When Sofia Tosello sent me her latest record for review, I was immediately excited to hear it. Longtime readers might jokingly point to my affinity for Argentine-born vocalists named Sofia, but there’s more to it than that. Ever since writing about Bernardo Monk’s excellent A Toda Orquesta, I’ve developed a growing interest in tango culture, looking for further opportunities to study this dynamic and captivating art form. A complex, superbly orchestrated work, Lluvia Fue (Chamber Tango) provided me with just such an opportunity.

Arranged by Grammy-award-winning pianist Fernando Otero, Tosello’s fourth album had its official release only five days ago, on December 8th, with a concert at Minton’s Harlem, New York. Tosello’s experience with tango is evident from the record’s opening moments, as she tackles this emotionally demanding genre with ease and confidence.

Perhaps symbolically, the album begins with a tune by Astor Piazzolla, arguably the most recognizable name in tango. In “Sempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires”, Tosello instantly captivates with a delivery that feels honest and authentic, powering through this tempestuous ode to the “Paris of South America” with vivacity and emotion. In the title track, a soulful, delicate composition by Roberto Calvo, the orchestra’s timing and finesse enhances Tosello’s superb vocals. It quickly becomes clear that a great part of the vocalist’s impact is achieved through a careful, balanced arrangement by seasoned pianist Fernando Otero, whose understanding of the strengths and predilections of his vocalist is outstanding. Furthermore, the band, consisting of guitarists Yuri Juarez and Fede Diaz, with Pedro Giraudo on bass, Javier Sanchez on bandoneon and Nick Danielson and Brian Sanders on violin and cello respectively are at a constant apogee, providing an instrumental backdrop that serves as an evenly-matched partner/antagonist to Tosello’s voice.

Equal parts singer and actress, the vocalist runs an emotional gamut in Juan Carlos Cobia’s “Hambre” and “Nostalgias”, vociferous and confrontational in the former, vulnerable and expressive in the latter, whose final minute marks one of the record’s standout moments.

“Tortazos” focuses on the dynamic contribution of guest guitarist Adam Tully, whose fierce flamenco is complimented by Tosello’s high-strung delivery, while “Fuimos” a voice-and-piano duet stands as the highlight of the record. With just a touch of jazz, Otero’s piano gently accompanies Tosello’s voice, offering at once support and inspiration. With her cries of “Vete” (Go Away) the singer reaches a point of unrestrained emotion in an absolutely flawless track, spectacular for its evocative simplicity.

“Fuimos” transitions to an intense rendition of Sebastian Piana’s and Homero Manzi’s “De Baro” with a short but delectable guitar solo, followed by the anxious, droning “Al Mundo Le Falta un Tornillo”, which the vocalist once again infuses with her lively staginess. Though entertaining and energetic, Charlo and Homero Manzi’s “Tu Palida Voz” gets overshadowed by its much more forceful neighbors.

As a jazz enthusiast, I was delighted to hear “Vida Mia”, a song I’m familiar with from Dizzy Gillespie’s repertoire. In another voice-piano duet (and another of the album’s high points), Tosello’s voice calls out and Otero’s devoted instrument answers, engaging in an impassioned back-and-forth as rigorous and dynamic as tango itself. Perhaps it’s for the fact that I am still a novice in the world of tango, with its passion and discipline, that I found myself responding naturally to the simplest, most straightforward songs, a fact practically confirmed by my fondness for the equally tender pairing of voice and strings on “Conjura del Alba”.

The final sequence of “Contame una Historia” and “La Ultima Curda” ends the record on a powerful note, with the vocalist working up to a cathartic abandonment in the former, then falling back to a valedictory lament in the latter, augmented by the somber, haunting string section.

In Lluvia Fue (Chamber Tango), Sofia Tosello, backed by an exceptional band following a an irreproachable arrangement, seems to want to to more than merely record a series of classic tango songs. The album feels like a statement and, at the same time, a form of liberation. A beautiful record, highly recommended.

 

An exorcism every time I sing it – Sofia Rei talks Violeta Parra and recording her tribute album, El Gavilan

 

Sofia 2

Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

On March 30 of this year, I had an hour-long Skype conversation with my absolute favorite vocalist, Sofia Rei, prior to posting my advance review of her latest record. We talked about El Gavilan and how the idea of a tribute record originated in her mind, the influence of Violeta Parra on her life and career as well as recording an album with Marc Ribot, one of the greatest guitarists of any generation. The articles’ title is Sofia describing to me the sensation of performing the monumental title track, one of Violeta’s most haunting and anxiety-inducing works.

The idea was for me to work the conversation into a follow-up interview to our in-depth discussion from a couple of years ago.

As is often the case, life got in the way.

I had to dedicate all of my time and energy to my writing and publishing career and The Music and Myth was put on an indefinite hiatus.

Lots of things have happened since then, most notably the fact that I’m getting ready to publish my fourth novel, I’ve launched all of my books in paperback format and updated my author website, which you can check out at andreicherascu.com.

It’s been a difficult year with a lot of work but, as the year is coming to a close and work is winding down I can finally get to my last entry in my 2017 to-do list: relaunch The Music and Myth.

Fortunately, this interview is even more relevant today than when I’d initially wanted to publish it, especially with the 2017 Music and Myth Awards just around the corner El Gavilan a prime candidate for Best Vocal Record.

Received with universal acclaim, Sofia’s latest release seems to have surpassed in its cultural impact even her brilliant De Tierra y Oro and the charismatic songwriter seems busier than ever.

So, without further ado, here is The Music and Myth’s latest interview with Sofia Rei:

 

Sofia, when was the first time you heard Violeta Parra?

You know, it’s a really good question. Basically, I knew her work through Mercedes Sosa first. In 1971 Mercedes Sosa recorded an album that is essential to Latin American music, which was a tribute to Violeta Parra. That album I listened to endlessly. I remember listening to it when I was seven or eight years old –that’s how I initially discovered her songs. I can’t tell you the exact moment I actually heard Violeta’s voice. It was interesting because I already knew all of her music, yet I’d never heard her voice. And it’s so drastically different from Mercedes Sosa’s powerful sound. It’s kind of the opposite – it’s very raw, it’s very pure and direct and, at the same time, very fragile.

 

When did you first decide you wanted to make this record?

The starting point for this was a concert that happened last year in May in Bogota, Colombia. Marc [Ribot] and I shared a tribute to Violeta with Susana Baca, Dora Juarez, who’s a Mexican artist, Marta Gomez from Colombia and the granddaughter of Violeta herself, Tita Parra. This concert had a lot to do with it, because the producer asked me to do a version of “El Gavilan” with Marc. This was the seed for what happened later on. We put it together and did not end up performing it, for different reasons. But that’s when we had the idea of recording “El Gavilan” – just that one piece.

Then, I put together a tribute for my Stone residency last year. I did “El Gavilan” and several vocal arrangements of other pieces, adding to the ones that I had already put together for the concert in May. I felt that, because of the way her compositions are, it really fits this minimalist approach.

Violeta’s songs are very repetitive. They have a small structure that repeats six, seven times in each song, which fits perfectly with the idea of looping. I would sit down and the songs would just come out so easily and I gathered this little collection of arrangements. Then I thought that maybe I should do a full album of this because it would be great to work with Marc. Marc is a big fan of Violeta’s and he’s somebody who has a political and social commitment. He was very interested in the socially charged lyrics and the political content of her work. He asked me for the translations of some of the songs and we talked about it.

When I presented to him the idea of making this album, I had in mind having an A side and a B side – an A side that would be acoustic with “El Gavilan” and some other songs performed as a duo in the original voice-guitar format that she would use a lot and then this other “electric” format where we both would be providing the effects, him with his guitar and me with my vocals and the structures from my looper.

It ended up being more geared towards this experimental format. “El Gavilan” ended up being something really interesting, because he recorded both the acoustic and electric guitar and created a very specific ambiance for it.

 

I think this album is as much a departure for him as it is for you, because his playing is very subtle and understated here.

I think he is really brilliant in finding the perfect sound for every situation. That’s something very special and very unique of Marc. He really understands very deeply what sound is required for each given circumstance. I think he really did an amazing job and I’m happy and grateful that he was able to do it.

Sofia 1

Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

How did you select the songs?

I did quite a lot of research. I have many, many albums of Violeta’s at home and I had some collections of unknown recordings and songs. She was a composer but she was also an ethno-musicologist. She was very important in recovering forgotten and lost Chilean traditional music, which she kind of reshaped. So there are also these songs that she rescued and recorded in her own way.

I listened to a lot of these songs and some of them are really like the soundtrack of my childhood. I recognized the songs I grew up listening to, which is very special. And some of them just made a new impact now.

I thought it would be important to record “El Gavilan” because, to me, it’s Violeta’s masterpiece, where she can show her versatility and her musical genius in a way that’s very different from what you would normally expect from a folk artist. She’s exploring dissonance and sonorities that are very uncommon and more linked to contemporary classical music than the traditional music of Chile. I found that, in the way she uses the text and in the way the guitar and vocals interact, it’s a very unique and special piece. It hasn’t been recorded that much, for many reason. First, because it’s very long. Second, because it’s very challenging for a guitarist and vocalist to play and third, because it’s very deep and very heavy.

I think it’s a piece that people are increasingly recognizing as relevant, not only to her body of work, but in general. So I thought that it would be very important to record it because of that. And I thought Marc would be great on “El Gavilan” as well.

Then, “Casamiento de Negros”, “Maldigo del Alto Cielo” – these are songs that I heard since I was a child and they have a very relevant meaning today. Violeta’s songs talked about the people that were forgotten, invisible – the socially irrelevant.

 

I’ve noticed a dichotomy between the lively quality of the music and the heavy content of the lyrics.

She did that in many songs, where she is being super ironic and light in the presentation of the music, yet the lyrics are super hardcore. In this song that I was arranging yesterday – it’s called Mazúrquica Modérnica – she talks about very intense things and the music is almost like a children’s song. She had the mission of creating awareness and introducing the tradition of Chile to a broad audience. She had her own radio show, she tried to spread the awareness of all these situations. So I think it was a conscious choice sometimes to present the music in a lighter way or in a non-complex way, like “El Gavilan.”

The more I read about her and saw documentaries about her life, I discovered that she was a very complex woman. And she was a fighter, you know, she was a very special woman. She had to struggle so much and she was really brave. And I think she was really alone. I felt her pain and her struggle and it made me feel really sad that she ended up committing suicide as an act of despair for the indifference that most people had towards every effort she made.

It was also related to the pain of love and this guy who left her. “Run Run”, for instance, is one of the last songs she wrote and it talks about her lover, this guy who abandoned her and went North, to Bolivia, to remake his life and found another woman. He was a much younger guy. She was almost turning fifty when she committed suicide.

She created this kind of cultural center in the middle of nowhere in Santiago. She had a peña where people would gather and play music and she would always have artistic events and food and dance. This enterprise was really difficult because it was in a difficult place to access and all of that. I think the fact that this disintegrated in time and didn’t succeed and the fact that this guy left her and she was disappointed in the younger generation and the political shifting that was already palpable in Chile, I think all of that had to do with her suicide, it wasn’t just one thing.

 

How did you decide on the placement of the tracks? Is there any sort of narrative continuance from the point of view of their topic? As a writer, this is something I always ask musicians and the answer is almost always, “No.”  

(Laughs) It’s a good question. I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the order of an album, even though these days probably most people don’t listen to it as an album, which is interesting. But I still find that it’s important.

I take a lot of things into consideration. Not necessarily a narrative in a literary way, but sometimes I consider the styles of the songs and what makes sense as a cohesive portion of the album. You don’t want this schizophrenic skipping from one song to another, so it’s a lot of different things, even the keys of the songs. There is a musical part to consider. The different keys and the interventions of Marc and the types of arrangements. There is a lot of thought behind it but, in this case, not necessarily in the theme of each song, but rather in the music and intensity.

Some songs need to be where they are. “Run Run” was definitely a very conscious choice to finish the album. This song is actually very long, it has four verses and I only took the first verse, because the first verse finishes with the line, “and tell an adventure that’s starting like this.”

I felt that was a very beautiful line to close the album, to summarize the idea that this is Violeta’s legacy. She left us 50 years ago, yet that’s exactly when her legend starts, when she becomes an iconic figure.

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

ScreenHunter_184 Mar. 31 09.27

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

ScreenHunter_184 Mar. 31 09.27

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

cover-600

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!