The 2016 Music and Myth Awards

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It’s almost the end of January, which means it’s time for the fourth annual Music and Myth Awards, wherein I nominate The Music and Myth’s favorite vocal and instrumental records of the preceding year. The concept is simple: a music lover’s honest, subjective and – given that I listen to countless hours of new music per week, dare I say – informed opinion.

The tradition started with my displeasure over the fact that NARAS failed to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for best vocal record of 2013 and has since evolved into a sort of anti-Grammy round-up article. I usually start by taking a quick look at the Grammy nominees in the best vocal and instrumental jazz record categories and trying to predict the eventual winner, before revealing my own winners and attempting to justify my picks.

So, let’s take a look at the Gammy line-up for this year. As always, there’s cover-records galore and the usual NARAS-approved crowd, consisting of musicians who seem to hold season tickets to the nominations. I feel like I have to repeat this every year: this is not a knock on these musicians or their beautiful records, rather on NARAS and their restrictive view of the music industry. I don’t think there’s a single musician or band that hasn’t been nominated – probably multiple times – over the last few years. Given the wealth of talent in this particular genre, I find it hard to believe that every year the “very best” music is produced by a sample of about two-dozen musicians. Anyway, it is what it is, so let’s move on to the round-up.

In the Best Instrumental category we find last year’s winner, John Scofield, with his record of quirky and sometimes outright funny reworkings of country music classics. In the cleverly titled Country for Old Men, Scofield covers everyone from Hank Williams to freakin’ Shania Twain and does so with impeccable technique and finesse. It’s a thoroughly entertaining effort, but ultimately one that doesn’t develop beyond the limitations of its concept.

Meanwhile, Peter Erskine’s not-so-cleverly titled Dr. Um, with its tribute to Weather Report-type fusion certainly adds some color to this ballot of straightforward and straight-faced piano-driven records, but it’s also the only one of the five that makes me wonder what it’s doing in a supposed selection of the best in the world.

There’s a lot of piano on this year’s ballot, with three marvelous and diversified exhibitions of the instrument’s evocative power. Book of Intuition by Kenny Barron is captivating, dynamic and splendidly crafted while Sunday Night At The Vanguard by Fred Hersch is pensive and subtle, making knowledgeable use of space and atmosphere. My personal favorite, however, is Nearness by longtime collaborators Joshua Redman (on saxophone) and Brad Mehldau. There is something refreshingly raw and unpredictable in its sound and the duo’s impressive chemistry makes for a fascinating dialogue. My head says they should win, but my instinct tells me the award will go to Hersch. So far, I’ve been one-for-one every year, so let’s see if I get it 50% right again this time around.

On the vocal side we’ve got Catherine Russell’s old-school and upbeat Harlem on my Mind that finds the singer at the top of her game, while perennial nominee Tierney Sutton puts forth The Sting Variations, a charming collection of songs from the English musician’s repertoire that ultimately suffers from the same drawback as Scofield’s cover album, namely the failure to outgrow its gimmick.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet teams up with Kurt Elling to offer the stylistically exquisite Upward Spiral. Of course, Marsalis and band are top-notch while Elling has perhaps the most educated voice in the business, so this alone makes for a record that aims for musical perfection. While the record exceeds in everything it seems to attempt, it’s exactly this focus on technical faultlessness rather than clever storytelling that I think hinders it from being a truly memorable work.

As opposed to other years, however, there are two thoroughly unforgettable records in the vocal category, and I’ll take a bit of a closer look at both of them.

Let’s start off with Gregory Porter’s Take Me To The Alley, which I’ve already written about this summer. Now, Porter is the kind of musician who’s reached a stage in his career where everything he touches turns to musical gold. He has a unique voice, a singular style and songs that have mainstream appeal, pushing him more and more into the pop landscape. If you don’t believe me, here’s Gregory singing “Purple Rain” with German pop icon, all-around entertainer and modern-day Spice Girl, Helene Fischer. Something tells me we won’t be seeing a Catherine Russell/ Helene Fischer duet anytime soon.

Like Liquid Spirit before it, Take Me to The Alley is absolutely gorgeous start to finish, its simple tunes made memorable by Porter’s warmth, sincerity and almost supernatural talent for creating memorable melodies. This is the kind of record you can play for someone who hasn’t heard a single note of jazz in their entire life and be comfortable in your certainty that you’ve just converted them (then, when you’ve got them securely hooked, you hit them with the Zorn catalog).

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

Perhaps [Porter’s] greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition. With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.

Normally, I would have predicted that NARAS hands him the award just based on the album’s potential mainstream appeal but they already gave him a Grammy for essentially the same record only a couple of years ago.

In my opinion, a more deserving winner would be René Marie for the outstanding Sound of Red. In her first record of fully original material, the intelligent and charismatic vocalist sings her heart out in an impressive collection of powerful and memorable compositions, a veritable tour de force in storytelling and emotion.

I absolutely fell in love with this record from the first note and had a hard time deciding between it and my eventual pick for Best Vocal. It matches Take Me to the Alley in candidness and warmth, but clearly surpasses it in scope, due to Marie’s impressive emotional range. While Porter’s delivery can often fall into a formula, albeit a very pleasant one, Marie seems to adjust her articulation to match the essence of every song. It’s a stunning feat of characterization. I usually ridicule NARAS at every turn and trust neither their expertise nor their commitment to music, but I sincerely hope they make the right choice this time and hand the award to René Marie.

And now, on to the second part of the article for the actual Music and Myth Awards for 2016.

Best Vocal Record: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

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As I’ve mentioned above, I had a very difficult time choosing between The Sound of Red and Emily’s D+Evolution. Both are stunning, fearless, challenging works of exceptional beauty and intelligence and both carry the pronounced signature of their respective creators. While I instantly fell in love with The Sound of Red, it took me a while to warm up to Esperanza’s new endeavor. Her bold and unpredictable creative direction is a big departure from what the audience has come to expect based on her previous outings, but that is exactly what makes it so memorable. Once I played it a couple more times and got used to the structure, the record almost violently seized my attention, demanding to be experienced and respected. Esperanza’s study of the Emily persona is gripping in the most intimate way, the songs are enduring and remarkable for their ingenuous complexity. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism.

In the end, I chose this record first and foremost because it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Sure, the influences are there and they are undisguised, but the result feels fresh and exciting. In this profound yet playful record, Esperanza has not only found her own voice, it feels like she has invented her own language too. Absolutely breathtaking!

Best Instrumental Record: Tyshaw Sorey – The Inner Spectrum of Variables

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If the pick for best vocal record was difficult, this one could not have been easier. From the first time I heard it in August of last year, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that this would be the Music and Myth’s best instrumental record for 2016. I kept waiting to see if I would stumble across a work that might equal or even surpass it. Not even close!

Tyshawn Sorey’s monumental composition for double trio (piano jazz and classical string) is a universe of its own, similar in scope to last year’s winner, The Epic by Kamasi Washington, but completely different in almost every other aspect. Its blend of jazz and classical, of composition and improvisation, technique and imagination makes it as much a work of science as it is a work of art. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

Of course, the beauty of Sorey’s Variables is that, as the name suggests, the symbolism can take whichever shape the listener’s mind can conjure up. This allows the audience to participate in the work on an almost creative level, in a way achieved only by the topmost expressions of art. In this author’s opinion, the very best examples of literature leave enough room for the reader to fill with the contents of his or her imagination. Tyshawn Sorey’s compositions demonstrate that this effect can be achieved in music also.

[…] The Inner Spectrum of variables is a visionary work, masterfully imagined by a composer whose genius extends even beyond the brilliance exhibited by many of his distinguished peers and flawlessly executed by a band whose virtuosity is uncontested.

That’s a wrap for this year’s Music and Myth Awards. What did you think of the records? Have you already heard them? Are you planning to check them out in the future? Who do you think will wake away with a Grammy and what are your choices for best vocal and instrumental record of 2016? Sound off in the comment section!

What We Leave Behind by Soul Basement and Jay Nemor – unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor

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The Music and Myth starts off 2017 with good vibes and a great big serving of soul courtesy of What We Leave Behind. This upbeat, high-spirited collaboration between Italian musician Soul Basement and American/Icelandic singer-saxophonist Jay Nemor served as a welcome break from my month-long study of John Zorn’s catalog, its smooth, simple, old-school sound in stark contrast with Zorn’s complex, eclectic avant-garde experimentation.

There’s neither experimentation nor much metaphor in this live studio recording, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear, powerful message. I received the album for review from Fabio Puglisi, the man behind the Soul Basement project, who described it as “all about jazz, soul and those good old-fashioned moods, yet still looking towards the future”. This forward-looking is achieved through to-the-point, socially conscious lyrics by Nemor as well as a delivery that aptly switches from impassioned to delicate, remaining hopeful and determined throughout.

The first words the listener gets to hear are definitely meant to establish the tone the artists wish to grant the recording: “Got a smile on my face, things are going my way, I’m doing fine.”

Though not nearly as memorable as a “No Love Dying” or a “Code Cool”, this simple, self-explanatory track succeeds in marking a clear direction for the rest of the record and getting the listener in a persistent feel-good mood. The song’s major revelation is Nemor’s deep, spellbinding voice. Whether it’s his soulful singing or his unambiguous spoken-word interludes, the vocalist’s delivery is a constant high point throughout the record, adding gravitas to a playlist that might otherwise have felt too light. His unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor carry over to the second track, “Noise Pollution”, which seems poised to become the album’s anthem, with its funky beat and resounding contemporary message.

Talking loud ain’t saying nothing

Tired of all these politicians faking and fronting

Misleading the people with destructive illusions

It’s a foregone conclusion

That we gotta find some kind of solution

Telling all them lies

just to get inside

So that they can do

Not a thing they promised to

For me and you

What else can we do

A change is overdue

Nemor’s frankness is both his strength and his weakness as a lyricist, with effective songs like “Noise Pollution” countervailed by the likes of “It’s Time”.

Even after countless have stood at the frontline

time after time after time

to show us the way to a better day

yet still here we are looking for a new leader to come and save the day

Does another have to put their life on the line

in hopes that we will finally make up our mind

to develop a collective mind set

so that we can fight, proclaim and protect

our human rights

which when you think about it’s a damn shame we even have to fight

for our so called inherent God given birthright

Here, the writer’s lack of subtlety translates to an articulation that falls dangerously close to preaching and distracts from an otherwise well-crafted song. As a lyricist, Nemor is at his best when delivering simple, heartfelt statements such as “With You”, a beautiful, unassuming ballad à la Gregory Porter, with captivating instrumentation and exceptionally tender vocals.

“Love Will Find You” again features – as they say in writing – a bit too much telling and too little showing. However, the somewhat flawed lyrics are outweighed by a catchy dynamic arrangement and a short but fresh-sounding saxophone solo, making it a more-than-enjoyable listen.

“The Joy Inside”, with its lively percussion and crisp vocals is an understated gem while “Angel of Mine”, a gorgeous ballad wherein Nemor does his absolute best work, wouldn’t be out of place in Barry White’s repertoire – high praise for any soul musician. To me, this is the highlight of the record and a truly memorable moment.

The soft, nostalgic “Future Reminiscence”, a spoken-word serenade to bygone times and enduring memories sounds unspectacular at first, but its heartfelt message, smooth sax and low-key vibe leave a pleasant aftertaste and a general feeling of well-being to close the record.

Crafted with care and obvious dedication to the spirit of modern jazz and soul, What We Leave Behind is a heartfelt effort with a strong, consistent message, an endlessly charismatic vocalist and a couple of outstanding compositions. The duo of Soul Basement and Jay Nemor clearly possess great chemistry. There’s a multitude of ways for them to further cultivate this successful collaboration and I’m looking forward to hearing the future fruits of their labor. Recommended by The Music and Myth!