The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition – a veritable ode to synergy

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As a music journalist with a website dedicated to promoting the world’s most skillful musicians and composers, I listen to a lot of new material every year. I play records when I write, when I clean up the house, when I work out and often when I read. I try to cover as much “ground” as humanly possible in order to discover and write about the truly remarkable gems of this sublime form of artistic expression.This dedication to quantity makes it hard to get attached to a record. I simply don’t have time to return to a particular work as often as I’d like. If you’ve been following my website, you may have noticed that I don’t believe in “content writing”. I only write about a handful of records, those that truly stand out, even among noteworthy peers.

I do have my little desert island list, comprised of works to which I constantly come back and, let me tell you, they are few and far between. But every so often I come across a piece of music that just absolutely resonates with the core of my being. It becomes haunting, as unrelentingly vital as air or books.

Sometime in spring, while searching for John Zorn videos on Youtube, I came across this concert:

It was love at first sound. How could it not be? The Song Project features a distinguished cast of performers from all over the musical spectrum, coming together to bring to life the tunes of one of the most accomplished, groundbreaking composers of all time.

Anyone who has to ask why John Zorn is a genius is probably not reading The Music and Myth. In The Song Project, the composer summoned three world-caliber vocalists to write lyrics to some of his greatest arrangements. What resulted was a new musical project of profound poignancy.Backed by an amazing band that features Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Joey Barron, Cyro Baptista and Kenny Wollesen, vocalists Sofia Rei, Mike Patton and Jesee Harris each bring forth their own expressive insights. After a series of fantastic concerts, the composer fortuitously decided to capture the experience on vinyl, releasing a record simply titled The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition under the self-run Tzadik label.

The album opens with “Flying Blind”, based on Zorn’s “Batman”. With an instant explosion of his characteristically forceful and edgy sound, guitarist Marc Ribot does a perfect job of introducing the first vocalist and catering to my passion for a good opening track.

Long-time Zorn collaborator Mike Patton probably needs no introduction. This incredibly versatile musician possesses an impressive six octave range and a supremely charismatic stage presence. He is best known as the lead singer of Faith No More, though he’s been part of numerous bands like Mr Bungles and Tomahawk, among others. On “Flying Blind” Patton presents the screaming and growling incarnation of his monumental voice in a high-octane delivery that sees vocals and guitar embrace each other’s craziness. Living up to the creative intensity of a Zorn composition is no easy task, but Patton and Ribot – both brilliant musicians in their own right – expertly build anticipation for the rest of the album.

The record continues with “Sombra en el Espejo”, a 180 degree shift in tempo and ambiance, spearheaded once again by Ribot. This time delicate and soulful, the chameleonic guitarist compliments the next singer’s exquisite voice.

As a vocalist, Patton seems like a natural fit for Zorn’s work. The two artists share a creative vision and feed off each other’s energy. It comes as no surprise that their collaboration is a perfect union. Sofia Rei, however, is probably not the first singer who comes to mind when you think Zorn. This Argentine-American musician is known for her imaginative hybridization of jazz and South American themes, which she knowledgeably explores in her own excellent recordings.

When she takes the reins of this stunning ballad, she delivers one of the most passionate vocal performances you will ever come across. It was in The Song Project that I was first introduced to Sofia’s work and my opinion of her talent is already well-documented.  With her forceful and astonishingly gorgeous delivery, Sofia’s contributions are absolutely superb, the highlights of an overall powerful album.  She turns the mysterious and melancholic “Besos de Sangre” into a gorgeous recital of lost love.

Jesse Harris takes over for “The Wind in the Clouds”, formerly “Tamalpais”. Though his voice doesn’t match the fierceness of Patton’s or the heartfelt intensity of Rei’s, it would be a mistake to overlook this New York musician’s contribution. His even, low-key delivery, counterbalances the more emotionally charged moments, expanding the melodic scope and strengthening the overall narrative. In the end, the record is about expansion as much as it is about harmony, and the individual contributions of each singer speak to a different facet of the human emotional and intellectual sensitivity.

The record continues with “Dalquiel”, which becomes “Perfect Crime” under the haunting poetry of Sean Lennon’s lyrics and the hypnotic vigor of Patton’s modulation. In a cavernous voice, Patton ominously declares:

 When the first universe expanded

It was a perfect crime

For nobody knows who planned it

But the planets are doing their time.

So far, I have focused a lot on the vocalists and the way they each express their own vision of Zorn’s magnificent compositions but I also have to applaud the band. Living up to their collective experience, these accomplished musicians form a vast instrumental environment in which the singers’ stories can survive and evolve. Their irreproachable timing and the way they each manifest the subtleties of their respective personality without ever sacrificing balance is admirable. Nowhere is this equilibrium better realized than on “Perfect Crime”. Everything is well-timed, from Dunn’s bass, as ominous and resonant as Patton’s voice, to Baron’s dusty drums, Baptista’s  gravely percussion and Wollesen’s ghostly vibes. Everything “clicks” in a masterful way. The exceptional use of background vocals turns them into an instrument of their own. By the time Ribot once again takes over with his vehement solos, the song has already become a veritable ode to synergy.

It’s hard to speak of an absolute highlight in this exceptional record, but I feel most attached to “Para Borrar tu Andar” (or “La Flor del Barrio”). Sofia’s flawless control of emotion is unparalleled – a profoundly spiritual statement. When she hits the high notes the result is heartrendingly beautiful. Patton’s background vocals certainly help, as his low incantation, at times shadowing Sofia’s lyrics, helps create a distinct phonetic entity.

The song is followed by the spellbinding, if a bit docile, “Towards Kafiristan” (shortened to simply “Kafiristan”) where the standout moments are provided by the dialogue between Medeski’s piano and Wollesen’s vibe. Patton returns for “Do Not Let us Forget” (“Zapata Rail”), a sublimely energetic piece that builds up to a cathartic, frenzied and memorable apogee before Sofia gets to showcase the more buoyant, sinuous aspect of her voice in “La Despedida.”

For some reason, Zorn decided to forego “Book of Shadows” which, in the concerts, provided a tender duet between Sofia and Jesse. Its absence is unfortunate, primarily because I feel it was Jesse’s strongest outing, at least from their wonderful Warsaw set list.

“Osaka Bondage” is split up in two and renamed “Burn” (Take 1 and 2).  Patton’s hysterical barrage of wails and roars over the chaos of the instruments provides an almost humorous interlude and a supremely satisfying emotional discharge.

“Waiting for Christmas” continues in the vein of “Kafiristan”, preparing the listener for the record’s final act with Patton front and center. “The Man in the Blue Mask” is an absorbing ballad which finds the talented vocalist at his best: transitioning in depth and tempo from a slow, deep recount to an impassioned shriek and back. In a way, the narrative dynamic of this song mirrors that of the entire record, with its melodic ebb and flow.

Serving as closure, “Assasin’s Bay” showcases perhaps Patton’s most lyrical outing, as well as Medeski at his most gripping. The song concludes the story of the album in a powerful and pertinent way, leaving an opening for this excellent ensemble to continue telling its story – a story that begs for a sequel.

As you could easily infer from this article, The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition is an outstanding work. I’m immensely happy that this live project materialized into a physical record and I hope Tzadik will decide to make it available in other formats as well. Few musical outings are as deserving of large-scale exposure.

 

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The Mraz Trio returns to imagination in another outstanding performance at the Bohemian National Hall in NYC

After the success of their first concert, the George & Camilla Mraz Trio returned to the Bohemian National Hall on Thursday December 11th for another performance of Return to Imagination. On behalf of The Music and Myth, I’ve had the honor of once again being asked to write the playbill text, offering me the opportunity to elaborate on my initial examination of their outstanding work.

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You, Me and I – the creative promise of Carlton Holmes

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It has been a very busy 2014 for me. My main focus this year was launching my career as a novelist. I spent most of the year working on Mindguard and the rest of it learning the ropes of self-publishing. Unfortunately, that meant I had a lot less time to dedicate to The Music and Myth than I would have liked. Consequently, I’ve fallen behind on some records I was planning to review. One of my main writing goals for 2015 is to be able to generate more time and energy for my beloved “jazz writing”.

On December 5th I will receive a very nice birthday present: the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will be announcing the nominations for next year’s Grammy Awards, which means yours truly will start preparing his predictions, as well as the Music and Myth Awards for 2014.

But, until then, let’s take a look at one of the albums I have been meaning to write about since summer. Back in June, I had the wonderful opportunity to be in the audience at the INNtoene jazz festival, held at Paul Zauner’s bio-farm. This hidden gem of a yearly jazzfest brings together musicians from all over the world in a unique ambiance. It was there that I was introduced to the music of Carlton Holmes, who had a solo gig on the third day of the event. Here’s what I wrote about his performance:

As the New York pianist tells his tuneful story, he completely captivates the audience with his hypnotic playing, that is as delicate as it is delectable.

Afterwards, I managed to get my hands on his debut album,  You, Me and I,  released in 2010. I have since been looking for an opportunity to write about it.

Joining the pianist for the duration of over an hour are bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Donald Edwards. The records starts with a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Edda” and Holmes already gets Music-and-Myth points for an inspired choice for an opening track. The trio’s version is charming and does a good job of introducing the musicians and inviting the listener to get a feel for their interplay. From the get-go, it is obvious that Holmes is a grand instrumentalist, but also that he is a seasoned musician, because he is wise enough to know how to showcase his skill without sacrificing the flow and musicality of the songs (like, for example, the incredibly talented but sometimes downright tiring Hiromi).

The record continues with the first of Holmes’ six compositions, “Theme to Ginger’s Rise”. I loved the tension from the opening moments of the song and the way the pianist gently transitions to a softer sound. There’s a well-constructed, dynamic narrative, heightened by the thoroughly enjoyable interplay between Holmes and drummer Edwards. As a first contact with Holmes’ creativity, this track definitely sets a high standard for the rest of the record.

“Theme for Gregory”, originally written by Bill Kirchner,  offers some enjoyable moments from Holmes and bassist Nakamura, who has a very good solo around the midpoint. However, I felt this track wasn’t really as strong as the first two and, as a result, the album loses a bit of steam. Fortunately, it gains a second wind with “My Isha”.

Written by Holmes, this excellent, high-energy tune feels fresh and displays some masterful playing from all three musicians. I applaud the decision to finish the piece with a spectacular drum solo, a layout you don’t often get to hear in songwriting.

Nearing the halfway point, the record changes pace with a beautiful and tender rendition of “Here’s to Life”, followed by “The Glass Slipper”, which reminded me of the sound of Jason Domnarski’s Here and There.

They follow it up with a fantastic version of Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots”, in my opinion one of the best tracks on the album. Here, the already cohesive band-members display their most captivating interaction. “Soul Sanctuary” is another solid Holmes composition where the pianist gets to highlight his excellent timing and innate understanding of atmosphere and the narrative complexity of sound. Nakamura once again has a brilliant solo in one of the standout moments of the entire record.

After an energetic take on Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream”, the musicians close with a trio of Holmes’ own compositions. The first one is the brilliant “A Meditation”, with its vision of rain prickling over a freshwater lake (well, at least that’s my vision), which seems to belong in the ECM catalog – always a compliment for any piece of music. Though it sounds like it should be divergent to the rest of the record, it somehow manages a completely fluid transition and is another one of the album’s highlights. “Kenny’s Song Goodbye” is a soft and pleasant ballad that threatens to be unspectacular until it builds up to a powerful, emotional finale. The emotion carries over to “Yumi and I”, which closes the record in powerful, dramatic fashion. With its masterful display of expression, where the energy builds up to a stunning, and very coherent conclusion, “Yumi and I” is one of the better closing songs I’ve heard in a while.

Overall, the album does a fine job of showcasing the talent of all three musicians. However, it really excels at revealing the creative promise of Carlton Holmes as a composer. While “You, Me and I” is enjoyable in its entirely, with no weak song among the generous twelve tracks, it’s in Holmes’ own compositions that the band truly gets to shine. I definitely recommend this record. It may not instantly hook you, but give it a careful listen and I guarantee you will be drawn to the depth and consummate musicianship of Holmes and his band.


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.

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