Return to Imagination – thoughtful compositions and virtuous improvisations

On September 24th, the George Mraz and Camilla Mraz Trio (with Anthony Pinciotti) will be performing at the Bohemian National Hall in New York City. The concert is called Return to Imagination, and will feature the band’s own compositions as well as a demonstration of live film scoring. I have had the honor of being invited by the musicians to write a few words about their project, which I’ve seen live at the Inntoene Jazz Festival in Austria, earlier this year. You can read my thoughts on Return to Imagination in their program below.

On behalf of The Music and Myth, I highly recommend this concert for any knowledgeable jazz fan, and anyone with an appreciation for complex, cerebral music.

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Brainchildren by Elizabeth! – lyrically profound and disarmingly optimistic

Elizabeth

It’s been more than two months since I’ve had the chance to sit down and write another article for The Music and Myth. During this time, I’ve been working round-the-clock to finish my first novel and publish it before my wife’s birthday. I am happy to announce that my debut science-fiction story, Mindguard, is now available exclusively on Amazon.

I am, however, sad to announce that it does not feature an intergalactic singer-songwriter-jazz-alien with two heads and six arms, who simultaneously plays guitar, bass, baliset (google it!) trombone and sings. Perhaps in my next book.

However, since we’re on the topic of singing and playing trombone, there’s a great record I’ve been planning to write about for months. Naturally, this being The Music and Myth, there’s also a story.

Back in May, a buddy of mine, to whom I hadn’t talked in a while, wrote to let me know that a friend of his was going to be visiting my little corner of the world. Naturally, I was excited to meet her and hang out, so we got in touch. Because the gods of jazz work in mysterious ways, the friend in question happened to be jazz vocalist, trombone player and songwriter Elizabeth (formerly Dotson-Westphalen, currently Frascoia and/or exclamation-mark), who visited Romania together with her husband, Alan, and who stayed with my wife and me for a short part of their trip.

We instantly bonded, primarily over the fact that we own a Netherland dwarf bunny and that Elizabeth seems to know all my favorite jazz musicians (Marc Ribot, Esperanza Spalding, Kenny Wollesen and even Sofia Rei).

After spending some time together, which we all agreed was entirely too short, we had to say goodbye, hoping it wouldn’t be long until we see each other again. Before she left, Elizabeth gave us her most recent record, Brainchildren (hmmm…Brainchildren, Mindguard…I sense a common thread) as a gift. Needless to say, it instantly found its way into my record-player, where it spent a good amount of time.

The cleverly titled album was recorded in one single day and released in 2011. It features Elizabeth! on voice and trombone, Rob Jost on acoustic bass and backing vocals, Robert DiPietro on drums and percussion and Music and Myth mainstay, Jason Domnarski, on piano. All songs were written and composed by Elizabeth, with the exception of “Three”, where the songwriter added lyrics to a (great) tune by Paul Sanwald.

Brainchildren is not a jazz record. Rather it’s a hybrid of jazz and pop, displaying (dare I say) the best of both worlds: the soft and catchy melodies of pop and the depth and structural complexity of jazz.

To emphasize this, the first track, “Santiago Sunrise” is a straight-up pop tune that starts abruptly and captures the listener’s attention from the first note. I’ve written in various articles that this is not my favorite approach to starting a record, but I do understand the reasoning behind it. In this particular case it works, because it’s not only catchy but also an exceptional composition.

It’s goal is to hook the listener (which it effortlessly does) and also to introduce Elizabeth, who is the driving force behind this track, with both her mesmerizing vocals and her fun trombone solo. An important aspect to note is that this is not your regular, easy-listening pop tune. As is often the case throughout Brainchildren, the deep, sometimes dark lyrics contradict the alert, light-hearted melody. “Santiago Sunrise” speaks of loss, desperation and the struggle to find the strength to go on:

It’s been a long one
Time has not been kind
It’s been a long one
You reach inside to find
Your heart’s been broken,
You feel like smokin’,
‘Cause it’s all that you can do
To keep yourself from comin’ undone

Tonight I pray for you
I pray for her
[…]

For life, for love,
And the strength to see the Santiago sunrise

The album shifts into jazz gear with “Three”, one of my favorite tunes, a lot more straightforward in its self-explanatory lyrics:

Starting with one, the one you know

You can count on to stay

Then we were two, and this tired world

Became so brand new […]

So we

Start this journey

To where we

Become three.

“Three” also draws attention to the rest of the very solid band. The musicians now catch up with the vocalist and demonstrate just how cohesive a group they are, creating a sound that feels organic and energetic. Every member gets a chance to shine in his own individual way. I especially enjoyed Jost’s bass part, which is not a surprise since the bass solo was given extensive time.

The appropriately titled “Insomnia” is next, a moody and haunting instrumental, with a late-night feel that could easily be the background track to Tom Waits’ life circa 1976. Jost’s bass shapes the world that Elizabeth’s trombone brings to life, aided gracefully by guest musician Kiku Collins’ trumpet. “Melting Snow” continues the darker, haunting feel, this time with some poignant and penetrating lyrics:

Last night
While you slept, I
Took flight
Away from here
To bright
Blue skies where they don’t
Miss the world below

No one
Took my coat or
My gun
They never dreamed
The fun
Of sending
Your body to the crows

Elizabeth’s talent for writing powerful lyrics is demonstrated also in “Eye for an Eye”:

He brought me to life
Though I still can’t cry
He never knew me
But neither did I
And now here’s that light
They told me I’d see
And here I stand, horrified,
(I) finally know how to be…
…Alive.

This was the first piece written for this record and, in my opinion, it’s also the highlight. Everything works on this song. The excellent lyrics are vague and mysterious, shaping into a different personal experience for every listener; an experience which, I can attest, remains pertinent even after discovering the original inspiration behind the words. The melody is absolutely captivating, the band’s timing is top-notch (watch out for Dan Schlessinger’s tasteful contribution on soprano sax) and Elizabeth’s delivery is impeccable. Her voice has the distinct quality of sounding, at the same time, lively and melancholic, bold and timid, evocatively powerful and charmingly delicate. “Eye for an Eye” is probably the song that best encapsulates the strengths of Brainchildren, a gem of a tune that could be a number one hit on any international Top 40.

Similarly, “On the Ferris Wheel” and “I Won’t Even Tell You” play on Elizabeth’s talent as a pop songwriter. The short and effective “Bicycle”, another one of my favorites, beautifully captures the heartfelt generational message:

Long ago we knew the things that we liked
Pleasures were simple and life black and white

[…]

Bicycle
Bicycle
Who’s that you’re holding?
Bicycle

Bicycle
Bicycle
Tell him to go fast
Tell him it won’t last
Tell him to enjoy
His bicycle

“CB Radio” works as a pleasant instrumental interlude, and “The Word I Don’t Say” continues the melodic pop direction, featuring some very solid interplay between the band and the vocalist. It also is, in a way, the closing song of the record, at least as far as its ideatic narrative is concerned.

The final track, “Memphis Mix-Up”, is an instrumental song. Though structurally different from the rest of the album, the song is a ton of fun, a highly enjoyable opportunity for every member of the band to get their moment to “say goodbye”. Stick around for a few more seconds and you’ll also get the “a-capella” version, for some extra laughs (“I wasn’t paying attention!”).

All in all, I always enjoy playing this record – on a subjective level, because it reminds me of my dear friends and on an objective level, because it’s a really exceptional work, lyrically profound and disarmingly optimistic, even when dealing with heavier topics.


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover