Xela Zaid’s Orange Violet – the varied beauty of music on the fringes of conventional aesthetics

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In the first ever article I wrote for The Music and Myth, I explained that I created this blog in order to spread the word about quality music and to discover more of it along the musical and literary journey on which I have embarked. A couple of weeks ago I’ve been fortunate enough to come across the work of Miami musician Xela Zaid, the best solo musician according to the  Miami New Times. His EP, Orange Violet, is classified as “live experimental” on Soundcloud and everyone who knows me is aware that I have an interest in everything that can be considered “experimental music”. The problem is that, most of the time, it’s just someone playing guitar with their car-keys, someone blowing on a bass with a hair-dryer or someone who borrowed Tom Waits’ “Conundrum” for shock-value. The thing is that in order for such music to successfully transmit its message, the aspect that is considered “experimental” has to begin at the cerebral stage, the stage of structure and composition, and only then glissade towards the actual performance.

As an example of a well-imagined and well-executed work I present: Orange Violet. This collection of songs has been on a constant loop on my PC speakers for a few days now, and with each new “loop” I feel like I discover a new aspect of this mesmerizing music.

Let me get this out straight-off the bat: this isn’t “comfortable” listening, at least not at first. Thankfully, I say, because I’ve found that when it comes to art (and make no mistake this music is created to be art rather than mere entertainment), often times quality and the notion of “comfortable” are mutually exclusive. What is comfortable to listen to was probably also far too comfortable to produce, and most of the time that shows.

Then again, Xela Zaid makes little effort to make the experience easy on the listener, opting instead to start his EP with the most immediately unsettling and viscerally unnerving song of the bunch, “Whitney Whispers”. This track serves as a good way to sift the audience in order to instantly separate the easily-intimidated from those who opt to join the musician on his raw and honest journey of self-expression.

After the initial fight-or-flight response, those astute enough to entrust their ears are delighted to find themselves rapidly hypnotized by the mantra-like repetition of an indiscernible, near-alien voice. Accompanying it is the otherworldly and magnetic, almost confrontational background noise from which the artist’s own voice, an ethereal cry, emerges as if to guide the listener through this multi-faceted musical plane. The audience is then greeted with the sound of an harmonica, which flows right into the next song “Soft Sleep”, that sounds exactly as the title suggests. Everything dissipates leaving only the soothing notes of the harmonica, notes that introduce the singer’s voice, revealed in spell-like form. Again, the musician distances himself from conventional aesthetics as his underground ingenuity and his daring dissonance aim to cause unfiltered and unconstrained emotional reactions. “Twelve” follows with an eerie but at the same time calming sound that has an an “underwater” feel. The ghostly chords of the guitar are surprisingly gentle and suggest an endearing  frailness.

The next two songs, Santa Fe and Sprout, make for an extraordinary line-up and, to me, represent the highlight of this stellar EP. Santa Fe starts with a growling bassline over which the singer’s intentionally uneven singing and howling manages to sound incredibly melodious as the voice seems to purposefully fight the growing noise around  it. The fragile but confident voice, trembling in all the right places, reminded me greatly of the tramp in Gavin Bryar’s Jesus Blood and I feel like it manages the same type of impact. This feels like the flagship song of the EP and its effectiveness is greatly increased by the fact that it’s followed by easily the most melodious and instantly catchy track, namely “Sprout”. The haunting and lovely chords feel liberating after the heavy bass of the previous track as the two songs admirably potentiate each other and are important factors in making you want to continuously return to this music. “Outward” is a soft and reflective ( if a tad too low-key) guitar piece to conclude this well-executed album.

Orange Violet stands out as one of those rare sparks of modern musical brilliance which can be found only in art that is at the very fringes of what anyone can consider mainstream. Twenty-first-Century troubadour Xela Zaid (whose entertaining audio-visual live performance you can enjoy on Squelch TV – and please do have a look, it pisses me off that this only has a hundred and something views) offers a sentimental exploration of sound that is sincere and straightforward.

This twenty-two minute long EP is a testament to the varied beauty that we can find if we just turn off our goddamned radios and start paying attention to what is really happening on a music scene that is as vast and diverse as the minds and experiences of the people shaping it. Embrace this varied beauty and you will be rewarded with works that reveal to you the very essence of music, works like Orange Violet. Highly recommended by The Music and Myth.

Blazzaj – fifteen years of funk and an evening of time-traveling

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Blazzaj is a band that I’ve been listening to for what seems like forever. I’m proud to say that this dynamic and tremendously entertaining group of musicians from my hometown of Timisoara was at the spearhead of my first forays into good quality music back in the tumultuous and acoustically confusing years of high-school. Let’s just say they are the first Romanian band whose “myth” I got really interested in and the musical journey we have been on together (the journey that always takes place when artists and their audience click) has come full circle last night on their 15 year anniversary concert.

Then:

It was 2003 and we were at a concert in a place called Club 30 (I think?!). A while before that, my best friend at the time had recommended we check out this awesome Jazz band that he described as “a breath of fresh air” on the local music scene. By then, Blazzaj had already been around for a while but we had just discovered them and to us they were brand new.

I recognized the lead vocalist, Tavi “Vita” Horvath, ‘cos he was one of the guys hanging out and working at this hip CD store that sold counterfeit records (made in Bulgaria if memory serves). The store was called Rocka Rolla and all the high-school kids loved it ‘cos it was the one place in the city where you could buy decent music. The owner was a 40-something long-haired rocker from back in the day and he also managed some local bands on the side. Sometimes he also seemed to serve as the sound engineer for some of the gigs and he and Vita were usually seen together.

Anyway, by the time we attended the aforementioned concert we were already pretty familiar with their work. The gig was in this little club and we were having a great time because the venue was nice and cozy and had no problems serving beer to underage kids. It also had pretty decent acoustics, at least for the sensibility of two seventeen-year-old high-school kids. When Blazzaj hit the stage we were super excited. First and foremost we were excited because we loved the band, because their music was funky and cool and clever and, most importantly, different from anything else you could find at the time. We were also excited because these guys were our home-town boys, because they were talented and funny and humble, because to us they were superstars and yet they were approachable and friendly and real.

At that point the band was just in the middle of a transition. Bass-player Florin Barbu had left and newcomer Uțu Pascu was struggling with the more difficult parts. Also, in a powerful blow, Eddie Neumann the sax-player and also the brain behind much of the music had just left both the band and the country in a fit of rage that I remember materialized into a post on the band’s official forum, an angry diatribe directed at the sorry state of the current (early 2000s) Romanian music scene (“I feel sorry for your ears!”).

Anyhow, since Eddie’s sax, a huge part of the show, was now entirely missing two of the other musicians had to step up to the plate and fill the gap. Those musicians were keyboard player (doubling on trumpet) Petrică Ionuțescu and guitar-player Horea Crișovan. Someone also had the clever idea of filling the void left behind by Eddie’s so-so vocals with the contribution of a female lead vocalist who at the time was a girl named Lavinia Pițu, who sounded pretty good but had about as much to do with Jazz and funk as auto-tune.

Nevertheless, the show was absolutely amazing. The band seemed driven by sheer energy and a charming honesty provided in great part by frontman and human high-capacity-battery Tavi Horvath. Tavi wore his heart on his sleeve and he never hesitated to pour said heart out on the mic with such disarmingly honest, sometimes even juvenile energy (and I mean that in the best possible way) that you could not help but get caught up in his enthusiasm. With a very capable band backing up the eccentric lead vocalist the band completely rocked that gig and turned two young and impressionable listeners into loyal fans.

Now fast forward to 2013!

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Now:

A few days ago I got a Facebook notification informing me that Blazzaj were going to be performing in the concert hall of a local music high-school named after Ion Vidu, a celebrated composer and choral conductor (I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought of the “soldiers of funk”).

In the ten years since the first Blazzaj concert I had ever attended so many things have changed in my life, my taste in music, the city and its music scene.  One thing that has remained constant though, is Blazzaj itself, as the band still plays gigs every once in a while promoting funk and good mood as only they can. But the band has also experienced many changes throughout the years. Lavinia Pițu was quick to depart but they did keep the female-vocalist formula and recruited Romanian Jazz woman of mystery Cristina Pădurariu, an immensely talented musician with a splendid voice and a quirky and awkward personality that made for a powerful stage presence.

This was, to me, the highlight of their career. Musically they had achieved a balance that was felt in their performances. Their material was top-notch. If their debut record Atentie Blazzaj! (Attention Blazzaj!) was a bit of an experiment, struggling at times to keep a musical balance and sometimes sounding a bit rushed, their follow-up Macadam is, in my opinion, one of the best records produced by the Romanian music industry (as in…ever!).  No doubt, it is also the music industry’s best-kept secret.

To this day Macadam is a musical treasure, a unique record that sounds as relevant today as it did ten years ago. With the powerful songs from this album front and center, and some from their first one thrown in for added fun, with talented and energetic musicians, a front-man who was eccentric and charismatic and one of the most versatile female Jazz vocalists in the country, Blazzaj had it all and it was a great time to be a fan. As a side-project, guitar-player Horea Crișovan and Cristina Pădurariu sometimes performed as a duo, playing songs from the international repertoire. These gigs were always amazing (I think I caught three of them) and, though they had nothing to do with Blazzaj, they still added to the band’s overall ”myth”.  Cristina Padurariu regrettably left the band somewhere around 2004/2005 and everything that happened afterwards is a bit foggy in my memory as my own musical interests shifted towards other things.

After 2005 I think I only caught them live a handful of times. I know they had some more female vocalists until they decided to drop that position and just keep Tavi Horvath on lead alone but unfortunately, their failure to produce the highly-anticipated third record made them lose a lot of steam and, perhaps, also some fans along the way (Some of my friends and fellow fans also tuned out around this time so I know it wasn’t just me).  Still, I did keep my eye on the career of Horea Crisovan, the band-member who always interested me the most (for reasons that have everything to do with his incredible talent that I’ve written about before and will write about again).

Alright, so I read online that the band would be holding a gig to commemorate fifteen years of existence, a gig that will be filmed and turned into a DVD. That in itself was enough to sell me on participating but the cherry on top was that Horea Crișovan and Cristina Pădurariu would be there as well; the best guitar player in the country and the charming chanteuse who could sing your eulogy and have you clapping. There was no way “The Music and Myth” would not be in attendance.

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The Gig:    

The moment the band walked onstage was surreal for me, it took me right back to that day I had first seen them. Things had changed, no doubt. The band was decidedly bigger this time. Aside from the guys I remembered from years ago (including Vali Potra on drums, Petrică Ionuțescu on trumpet and keyboard and Uțu Pascu on bass) they now had Lucian Nagy on sax, Sergiu Cătană on percussion, Gabi Almași on guitar and theremin and K-Lu on turntables.

You know how sometimes you haven’t seen a band in a few years and are really amped up for their performance only to see that the wear-and-tear on their creative forces has made them a far cry from what you remembered? Well, that is definitely not the case with Blazzaj. Unbelievable, the band’s intense delivery was every bit the same as I remembered and for that I have to give credit mostly to the ageless Tavi “Vita” Horvath who seems to have stepped straight out of a time machine and whose enthusiasm for performing remains unparalleled on the Romanian quality-music scene. The man is every bit as fun today as he was ten years ago and he seems as excited to be performing for his audience after a decade and a half on the music scene as he ever was. Tell me how often you see that in a performer!?!

The gig would have been great on Tavi’s energy alone but the band seemed determined to keep up the pace and brought nothing less than their A game. A standout as always was Horea Crisovan who is absolutely amazing and was given a fairly good amount of time to shine.

They started off with some of their newer songs (and by new I mean everything since releasing Macadam a decade ago) which was a great way to kick off the show because the newer ones are particularly high on energy and Vita’s trademark lyrics, purposefully silly most of the time, help you suspend your disbelief and just abandon yourself to the fun performance.  However, the number of songs they played from their second record was surprisingly low for an anniversary show and was a bit of a let-down.

At the beginning of the performance Tavi mentioned that two of the guest vocalists (musicians Mara and Alexandrina) had not made it to the show apparently due to some traveling misfortune so that might explain the conspicuous absence of some of the better vocal songs, like “De Partea Ta” (On Your Side) and “Faptele” (Facts). Luckily, Cristina Pădurariu had made it, which was the one guest appearance I was most excited about. I had seen Cristina lurking backstage and was eagerly awaiting her contribution. The first track to feature her was “Un Lucru” (One Thing) and I have to say that something seemed off. It wasn’t her singing, as her voice is always in excellent shape, but her timbre just did not seem to be very well reproduced within the arrangement of the sound. In fact, the whole sound engineering part of the show left a lot to be desired, which was disappointing for such an important event. Luckily, the experienced musician quickly adapted and regained her balance on the most important track in the set-list, “Urma” (The Trace). The song is the most ambitious in the band’s repertoire and easily one of the ballsiest and most well-constructed songs in the modern Romanian music scene; an eerie ballad that builds up to a crazy and cathartic explosion of hard rock courtesy of Tavi Horvath, who’s got plenty of experience in that field. It goes without saying that “Urma” is the constant highlight of any Blazzaj show and I was surprised that it wasn’t featured in a more prominent spot in the concert. Seeing Tavi and Cristina perform this song together again was a beautiful and emotional moment as the two musicians, vastly different as far as personalities go, always made for a great duo. Cristina stayed on board for “La Pensie” (Retired), where she played didgeridoo and sang background vocals.

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If I remember correctly they closed off the show with “Armata-i Antifunk” (The army is Anti-funk) and returned onstage for “Ograda” (The Barnyard) and “Rindea”  (Plough Plane), though I might be getting the final songs mixed up.

Overall the show was great and a ton of fun as Blazzaj shows always are but, for a landmark concert, I have to say it was lacking on the technical side (the sound was a bit “off” and the lights were constantly blinding and annoying the audience). Fortunately, as far as the actual performance went, the guys were wholly entertaining and went on to demonstrate why they are considered some of the country’s most talented musicians.

For me, the show also had a major nostalgia factor that made me happily relive the days when I was loyally following the career-path of this band. It also made me regret having given up on them in recent years. Hopefully the DVD will turn out great and prove a successful move in the career of this band that has certainly demonstrated its staying power.

Blazzaj is as much a part of Timisoara as the canal that flows through the city or the architecture that defines its character. The band is a local musical landmark and, as long as they will be around, I’m sure the audience will love to listen to them. I know I will definitely keep them on the radar again and, who knows, perhaps someday soon we will see a third record after all.

Marius Pop & The M Theory – a first step in the right direction

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Guitar-season continues on The Music and Myth as today I focus on the debut solo-work of a very talented Romanian musician (and on the man’s birthday no less), namely guitar-player and composer Marius Pop .

First Step is a record that came out in 2009 so it is by no means new. Still I wanted to write about it because I am in a phase of my musical “research” where I want to focus specifically on Romanian guitarists and see what my country has to offer in this department.This interest has been sparked by two things: the insightful interview I landed with guitar-legend Al Di Meola (which apparently I plug in every one of my articles) and the experience of a stellar performance from Horea Crisovan a while back. I already wrote about the very talented Nicu Patoi and the incredible Horea so let’s see what Marius has to offer.

So far Marius Pop’s biggest claim to fame is playing guitar for Smiley, a Romanian pop musician of questionable musical value. However, his solo-endeavors are fortunately well-anchored in the Jazz fusion genre. First Step is an album that was released under the moniker Marius Pop & The M Theory and it features a variety of very competent musicians like Joe Balogh, Oliver Bader, Radu Miculiță (guitars), Gabriel Drăgan, Marcel Moldovan (drums), Dan Georgescu, Radu Niculescu (bass) and Alex Racoviță, Mihai Ardelean (keyboard). The sheer amount of talent involved in this record should be more than enough to at least offer a comfortable diversity and range of styles, all held together by the common thread of Marius Pop’s songwriting (almost all of the ten tracks have been composed by Pop).

Before I start writing about the record itself I want to share with my readers a piece of information I’ve come across this summer, one that I found very interesting. A while ago I wrote about Turn of Phrase, a brilliant album by The Music and Myth’s favorite guitar-player, Paul Kogut. The record also featured Jazz-legends George Mraz and Lewis Nash. I found the album itself absolutely brilliant (in fact, it was hands down one of the best Jazz records of the year) but I was not a big fan of the rather precipitated beginning. I wrote:

The record begins abruptly with the track “So That Happened” wasting no time on intros or build, not usually my favorite approach but very effective when handled correctly.

I’ve always emphasized in my articles the importance of structure and well-planned track placement so I always find it a bit disappointing when a record just sort of starts without giving the listener a proper introduction. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my profession. As a writer I am accustomed to the vital importance of a good opening line. The fate of your whole 600-page novel can hang on that one opening line in the first chapter so I have always had a hard time understanding why a work of music would not attribute the same structural importance to the first track. Paul wrote to me and offered some very interesting insight into the recording industry. Here’s what he had to say:

I dig what you’re saying about jumping in with no intro or build, I’ll generally open a concert that way. “So That Happened” [the opening track on Turn of Phrase] was a last minute addition to the record, inspired by a conversation with Steve Khan. I gave him a call a few weeks before the recording since he was familiar with the studio we were using. He answered the questions I had about floor plan and such, and then he offered this advice. “With George and Lewis on the record, it will probably get noticed by the program directors, but they’ll probably only listen to the first 30 seconds. If you can hit them with a concise statement right out of the gate, it will help with airplay” I didn’t have a tune that fit the bill, so I came up with a line on It Could Happen To You inspired by Steve’s tune Buddy System.

I found this explanation absolutely fascinating and it cleared up some confusion I had about opening tracks on certain records. It seems that sometimes a musician simply has to dive into the music head-first to get decent airplay. Makes sense. That being said if I were a program director and I only played the first 30 seconds of First Step  (both the record and the track) I would probably not continue playing the rest. Unfortunately, I’d be missing out on some great music.

I am not at all a fan of the way the record begins. If this is your first interaction with Marius Pop and you are unfamiliar with the man’s extraordinary talent then the first few seconds, which intentionally sound crude and hard-edged, might instantly turn you off from the entire album. It would have been a fitting start for last week’s album but not this one. Nothing wrong with the track in itself, it’s a very decent tune which does a great job of showcasing the technique of the musicians, I just would have placed it somewhere else on the record, but maybe that’s just one of my quirks.

The album continues with “Groove Del Sol” where a funky and very well-inspired use of the bass instantly hooks the listener and makes them want to hear more (now this would have made a great opening track!). The record does take a bit of time to become comfortable with its sound and general direction, which often happens on a composer’s first outing. In that respect, it’s a bit of a slow starter. The first four tracks (“First Step”, “Groove del Sol”, “The Way It Is” and “Divide and Conquer”) are all good-quality songs that benefit from a great delivery but they do seem to lack a bit of personality which would have turned them from good to really great.

However, with “The Hacker”, a bluesy, catchy and well-executed song written by Joe Balogh -also the first truly memorable track – the album finally gains some serious momentum which it manages to keep throughout. “Hey Dude” introduces some elements of rock and entertains with cool interplay between drums and guitar while “Marbri” seems to borrow from Marius’ experience on the pop music scene with its easy-listening vibe. Normally that would make me instantly dislike the song but Marius pulls it off to perfection with his amazing mastery of the instrument and his feel for melody.

“Nefertiti” follows with shades of Al Di Meola – a great compliment, I feel, to any guitar-player, especially one so young – and it’s easily the best track of the bunch. “Liquid Sountrack” is smooth, with great timing and, again, slight hints of Di Meola on Consequence of Chaos  (but maybe I’m just “in the zone”)  and “Home” provides a short and delicate acoustic send-off for this well written and generally very fun record.

First Step is primarily a testament to Marius Pop’s enormous talent as a guitar-player. He is a very young musician who plays like a very experienced musician, wise beyond his years and with stunning technique and a flair for the instrument. As a songwriter, there is still room for growth as the record at times sounds a bit “vanilla”. Still, Marius Pop definitely takes a first step in the right direction and he will convince any listener of his of his talent as a guitarist and his potential as a composer. Seeing as how it’s been four years already, The Music and Myth hopes a sophomore release is in the making. Definitely looking forward to it!