JazzyBIT’s Touch the Sky – a solid debut record from a band that sounds wise beyond its years

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Back in October of 2013 a young trio of Jazz musicians announced that they will be playing their last concert before retreating to the studio to put the finishing touches on their debut record. The band in question is Timisoara’s own JazzyBIT and the record would become Touch the Sky. I attended the aforementioned concert and was very impressed with their performance about which I then wrote an article. I finished the article stating that I was counting the days until Touch the Sky hits the shelves, which will be February 2nd of this year, when the band have also planned an album launch concert. Meanwhile I have had the honor of being invited to host said concert and I have also been fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of Touch the Sky for review. Ever since I’ve laid my hands on it six days ago, I’ve been playing it over and over again. I went on record with great words of praise for their performance in October and they are no-doubt a great act to catch live. My main concern for this album, especially because it is a debut work, was whether the band would be able to capture the high energy and vitality of their dynamic live gigs or if the recording process will have toned-down that key aspect of their music. But let’s start from the beginning.

The record consists of ten tracks, a generous sixty minutes of entirely original compositions. That in itself is already an admirable quality from a band of such youthful musicians (none of the band members is over thirty years of age) and it makes me happy, especially in a year where three of the ten records up for a Grammy in the vocal and instrumental jazz categories are tribute records or cover albums. Again I find myself thinking back to my conversation with Al DiMeola who said that, with an abundance of great musicians there is an unfortunate shortage of good music which he attributed to the fact that the young guys just don’t write as much music as they should. Well, JazzyBIT do and I think it’s a sign of great courage and self-confidence. I recognized each of the songs from their gigs and, regarding my concern about capturing that live-performance-feel, I was happy to ascertain that if I closed my eyes I could easily imagine being at one of their shows. Again, a major argument in favor of the record.

Touch the Sky starts off with the title track, one of the more subtle and toned-down songs. In this situation, choosing this song to open the album was a bold and risky move. Being a debut work it would have definitely been tempting to come out swinging from the start with one of the rhythmically faster and instantly catchy Latin-influenced songs like “Curacao”, “Tumbao” or “Ocean Wave”. For an explanation as to why that would have been a safer approach I invite you to read this article , specifically the part with guitar-player Paul Kogut’s explanation about the relationship between “hitting the audience with a concise statement from the start” and getting airplay. Instead, JazzyBIT chose to forgo the safe approach in favor of constructing a coherent narrative. “Touch the Sky” is not a track that will instantly hook you like the aforementioned ones, its strength lies in its melodic subtlety and its structural balance. It is definitely the right choice as a starting point for the story this record is trying to tell and as a writer and a storyteller, it is a choice I applaud.

Speaking of stories, the album continues with “Story of the Heart” which is the song that best encapsulates the defining elements of JazzyBIT’s personality. Those elements are the band’s speed and  virtuosity, their feel for pure melody, the Latin sound that is the most accentuated in their work and especially the key factor – the fantastic interplay between the musicians. After seeing them live I wrote “you have a fresh and energetic band that plays like a veteran act” and that aspect of their music has been well-captured on the album.

Touch the Sky is well-balanced, reflecting the relationship between the musicians and all three of them get wonderful opportunities to shine throughout. “Winter Town” is a great example of a song that highlights each band-member’s individual talent (Mihai and Teo get some great moments in the spotlight on this one) while at the same time accentuating the intuitive way in which the band manage to play off each other.

Songs like “Curacao”, “The Chase” and “Tumbao” are the instant charmers, songs that hook the listener on a basic level, with catchy rhythms (Csongi’s percussion is just insane) and lively melodies (kudos to Teo’s piano), and also with an extra spark of humor, which is so incredibly difficult to successfully capture in music (just ask Erik Satie). Meanwhile, profound and contemplative ballads like “Poate de ce”(“Maybe Why”) and “Sus in Pod” (“Up in the Attic”)  cover the other end of the musical spectrum.

Though it’s hard to pick a favorite “Sus in Pod” is probably the song I enjoy the most because of the haunting piano melody at the beginning (and end), Teo’s intense Hammond playing in the middle (I don’t know if I’m just imagining this but Teo seems to have the most fun on the Hammond) Mihai’s smooth bass in the later stages and  generally because it’s an all-around tour-de-force of masterful playing by every member of the band. But it’s a toss-up because every track is wonderful in its own way and each song offers something to love demonstrating a very even and cerebral grasp on writing music especially for a debuting band. The record closes off with the tandem of “Ocean Waves” and “Two Souls” two witty and well-rounded songs that leave the listener with a feeling that this album, in its entirety, has not missed a single beat. Everything is in its place, everything makes sense and Touch the Sky doesn’t seem to have one hair out of place. There is little more you can wish for in a debut work.

With wholly original music that doesn’t wear thin after repeated listening (and I must have heard it now over a dozen times) Touch the Sky is a solid debut album from a band that sounds wise beyond its years. Now at the beginning of their musical journey it is difficult to say whether JazzyBIT as a band will stand the test of time but one thing is for certain: if their ambition for their first musical outing was to “touch the sky” they can rest assured that the quality of their debut work will catapult their name far beyond the stratosphere of Jazz.

The 2013 Music and Myth Awards

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Photograph by Andrei Cherascu

The Music and Myth returns in 2014 with the first annual “Music and Myth Awards”.  As always, there is a story behind this inaugural yearly tradition so sit back, relax, think Jazz and allow me to spin my yarn.

Chapter 1: The Story

The idea to start off 2014 with an article about the very best of 2013 came to me in summer of last year but until December I was not sure I would sit down and write it. I listen to a lot of music. Every day, as I sit down to work on my novels in writing sessions that can last up to 8 hours there is always a record playing in the background. Music has the purpose of guarding my sanity against the strain of a most repetitive activity and preventing eventual boredom. Simply put, it stimulates the desire to keep on working.

More often than not I play new records, albums I’ve never heard before because if I play records I already know it can get a bit distracting when my mind starts anticipating my favorite parts. In consequence, I go through a ton of new music every year. Still, the idea of Music and Myth Awards seemed too ambitious, as the relevance of such an article would, in the end, be limited by my own subjectivity (though it would be fitting for a very subjective blog whose sole purpose is to spread the word about good quality music).

I am a writer, an aspiring novelist, my sole knowledge of music comes from whatever understanding I may have gained from the extensive catalog of records I’ve listened to throughout the years and from my love and passion for this art form which makes me listen very carefully.  Still, I was unsure of what to do until a certain record helped me with my decision as well as the realization that any award, no matter how grand or well-known, could be flawed and subjective.

Back in May 2013 I’ve had the chance to listen to Patricia Barber’s Smash, an absolutely stellar album released under the Concord label. It was love at first sound. I don’t often have records I instantly adore and I don’t always listen to a record very often over a long period of time as I try to keep my experience as diverse as possible but Smash had it all and I must have played it over fifty times in the last six months, deeply engaged in my study of one of the best records of the last few years.

Sometime in December I read the nominations for the 56th edition of the Grammy Awards and was very disappointed to find that Smash was not nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That is not to say that I have a great deal of respect for the Grammys in general, after all, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is the same organization that awarded thirteen Grammys to Eminem while granting two to Tom Waits, one to Jimi Hendrix (and even that was for “Lifetime Achievement”) and none to Led Zeppelin, thus demonstrating that their views on genres that are more mainstream are equally peripheral. But this is JAZZ. I mean, is nothing sacred?

Anyway, the point is that Smash undoubtedly deserves to be on any serious and knowledgeable list of not only the best in Jazz but the best in music in general as do many other records that I am sure get overlooked every single year for a plethora of reasons. The fact that the Grammys overlooked this very good record made me realize how fallible any list of awards can be and also made me think that The Music and Myth has every bit the right to voice its opinion on the best of Jazz as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I have no golden statues of gramophones to hand out to the artists and no cash prizes to award. I only wish I did so that I may further support these brilliant musicians but for now all I have to offer is the recognition and admiration of a writer who holds music in the highest regard, who writes about Jazz (always with a capital J) and tries to help promote quality music through the exposure granted by a music website with an ever-increasing audience (and thank you for that my dear readers).

That being said I present the 2013 Music and Myth Awards. I am not a musician and have no authority to comment on a certain musician’s technical prowess on a given instrument. I am, however, a storyteller, very apt at judging a work of music in its entirety. I care about its story, first and foremost.

In consequence, there will be two categories:

Best Vocal Album and Best Instrumental Album.    

The categories are open, not limited to Jazz. However, since I feel it is a superior genre that sets a high bar in quality don’t be surprised to find it in my awards as you are bound to find it on my blog.

Also, since the Grammys have been part of what made me create my own award I would like to start by taking a moment to comment on the respective nominations for this year.

Chapter 2: The Grammys

My displeasure with the unfortunate omission of Smash should not be understood as a critique of any of the artists that have been nominated. Truly, all the works in both the categories are exceptional. But is any of them the best? Well, that is debatable, and I think it’s a subjective opinion no matter how you look at it. I will try to bring solid arguments to back up my views.

Two particular things have caught my attention, things I feel I need to address. First of all, in both categories, some of the records consist entirely of cover songs and some are so-called tribute albums. Tierney Sutton’s After Blue pays homage to Joni Mitchell, Terri Lynne Carrington’s Money Jungle reinvents the 1962 record by Duke Ellington and Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Womanchild  consists of Jazz standards. Now, I have nothing against covers when they are done correctly, with passion and respect for the original and without taking an approach that is too comfortable. Certainly these three records are very good and they deserve the highest recognition. However, I recall a conversation I had with Al DiMeola earlier this year. He was promoting his own tribute record All Your Life where he plays songs by the Beatles. I asked him about the effort of reinventing already existing tunes versus the strain of composing entirely new music and here is what he had to say:

It’s way harder to write new music, something original, something that’s complex. It’s a lot more evolved and far more difficult to come up with original music.  Each time you write for a record you’re challenging yourself to come up with something different which is very hard to do. […] Writing the music that’s mine […] is far harder than taking something from the Beatles or Piazzolla and adapting it to my style, because I’m basically reading music that’s already been written and then adapting it to my rhythmic focus. Even though it poses challenges that still is probably a third as much work as it is to compose something new.

I am not saying that a brilliantly executed record of cover songs could not be recognized as the best in a certain year, but if we have powerful records that are equally beautiful, comparably masterful in their delivery, should then not a record of wholly original work be granted that much more recognition? I think it should and I chose my records accordingly. The second thing is that, given the vastness of the Jazz scene I find it a bit curious to find Christian McBride and Gerald Clayton, both nominated with their own respective records, playing on Terri Lynn Carrington’s nominated album. I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying it makes the list of nominations appear a bit restrictive.

Anyway, in “Vocal Jazz” Andy Bey brings forth The World According to Andy Bey a soulful and intimate work that stands out due to its honesty and the brilliant use of the aging singer’s spectacular voice (which made me think of Johnny Cash’s American series) and Lorraine Feather presents the brilliant Attachments where her intelligent lyrics coupled with her charming wit and a beautiful orchestration make for a wonderful and sentimental album. Still, I think the Grammy should go to Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. Admittedly, it is in a way not as complex as some of the other recordings in the category but it does benefit from some great compositions (“No Love Dying” is one of the best opening songs I’ve heard in a long time) a very charismatic delivery of good lyrics and a genre-bending musicality that will attract many listeners that might normally not venture into Jazz. It also has a particular energy, an edge that instantly charms the audience and makes the music stand out.

In the “Instrumental Album” category we have the rhythmic diversity of Kenny Garret’s Pushing The World Away, the composed and time-honored sound of Christian McBride Trio’s Out Here, the impeccable compositions and flawless arrangement of Gary Burton’s Guided Tour and the raw, pulsating sound and general diversity of Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum.

I would have a hard time deciding between Life Forum and Guided Tour, both brilliant records in their own right. I’ve used the term “impeccable” to describe Burton’s work and truly, that is exactly what it is. Marvelous compositions by each of the band-members create a beautiful and diverse landscape that, at the same time, preserves the uniqueness of each individual song.  The fantastic technique of the players (especially the incredible 25-year-old guitarist Julian Lage)  regales the ears and the musicality and coherence of the arrangement (as I understand the record was produced by Burton himself) makes for a captivating story start to finish. Anyway you look at it, this record is flawless and it is exactly this aesthetic perfection and the slight predictability that ensues from it that I think will cost it the award. I would give it to Clayton’s Life Forum. There is a quality about this record that makes you feel it has a life of its own. Out of all the nominees for Best Instrumental Jazz Album this one is the least instantly-likable. It definitely takes a few start-to-finish plays to truly appreciate the many nuances of this great recording. Its compositions are varied and complex, sometimes mesmerizing and other times almost off-putting at first listen and yet its highlights are subtle and magnificently complex. From its spoken-word opening track, through its raw and edgy instrumentals and its few delicate vocal tracks this record shines through its complexity: a beautifully crafted and intelligent album.

Now, here are my own picks for records of the year and the reasons why I chose them over all others. Naturally, they are records I have already reviewed as I only take the time to write about albums I consider great.

Chapter 3. The 2013 Music and Myth awards go to…

Best Vocal Album: Patricia Barber – Smash (Concord)

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Obviously the first one is not a shocker since it is the very record that convinced me to create The Music and Myth Awards. Here’s what I said about it in the review:

Barber’s voice is flawless, her piano-playing is wonderful and the general instrumental arrangement of the record is brilliant; still neither of these things is the defining trait of Patricia Barber’s work. The qualities that stand out the most are her extraordinary intelligence and her articulacy, evident in the songwriting. Trust me, brilliant lyrics are not always a given, even in Jazz. […]Overall, Smash is the Meryl Streep of records: intelligent, elegant, with a disarmingly honest intensity but also well-timed humor.

 

Now, half a year after reviewing it I can tell you that there is not a single week that goes by without this record being played in my house and for good reason. The compositions are crisp and intelligent, written with an admirable balance between reason and sentiment, Patricia’s voice is flawless, powerful and charismatic but also with an attractive enunciation that makes all the difference. Her songwriting is top-notch. The record seems to combine all the qualities that make the other Grammy nominees great: the honest and intimate character of Andy Bey’s record, the wit and intelligence of Lorraine Feather’s compositions and the edge and energy of Gregory Porter’s work. In my opinion, Smash is the best vocal record not only of this year but of the last few years.

 

Best Instrumental Album: Iva Bittova – Iva Bittova (ECM)     

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In 2013 this avant-garde Czech violinist made her debut on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label with a one-of-a-kind album that features twelve tracks called “Fragments” on which Iva plays violin and kalimba and occasionally sings. It is only fitting that this should be a self-titled record as it carries the distinct mark of Iva Bittova’s unique style of music and encapsulates the essence of this talented musician’s performances (I know because I’ve seen her live in October of last year).

This work is a world of its own, bearing no resemblance to anything you’ve heard. It isn’t really Jazz but I don’t think there’s an actual name for her style of music.

Here’s what I wrote about the record in my review:

I have always had a deep admiration for musicians who just disregard what everyone else is doing and go out there and do whatever the hell they feel like. Same with Iva Bittova. This lady is a hoot, her music is unlike anything you’ve heard before. […] I’m a fan of the way in which the tracks are open to interpretation, offering just enough material to stimulate the listener into using his or her imagination and connecting the dots.  In music, as in literature, leaving a few “empty” spaces and structuring the product well is a sign of good storytelling. It is interesting that “Iva Bittova” cannot be thought of as a violin recording and neither a vocal Jazz recording as we might have expected glancing upon the letters ECM. Instead, the backbone of this album is represented by the way in which Iva’s voice relates to the sound of her violin, you almost feel like her voice is an instrument shaped by her trance-like reactions to the sound of her violin and vice-versa. She is always aware of her surroundings making her delivery as important a factor as the art itself.  […]a good, well thought-out record, sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate.

Though she heavily employs her voice I can’t think of this as a vocal album. Her voice is used as an instrument all of its own and the focus of the record is the dynamic, almost sentient musical entity that results from the symbiosis between Iva’s voice and her violin. Iva Bittova is a hypnotic, innovative record that is more performance art than mere music. As the artist herself so wisely put it “Everything is music” and this record reflects that enlightened mentality. Indeed, beautiful and original music created with great awareness and personal involvement and deserving the highest praise. In my opinion, the best in its league.

So here they are, my picks for the 2013 Music and Myth Awards. Thank you for your attention and I am interested to hear your opinions.