The 2017 Music and Myth Awards

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2017 has been a strange year for The Music and Myth. For the biggest part of it, the website was on hiatus while I focused all of my time and energy on taking my career as a full-time science fiction author to the next level. I’ve written a total of only six articles last year and one of them was the 2016 Music and Myth Awards. Despite that, 2017 has been the year when I discovered more great music than at any time since starting this blog back in 2012. So many quality records have been released last year by so many amazing musicians that it’s been torture not having the time to write about them. Today, I get to compensate for that a little bit by rounding up the best in my yearly awards article.

If you’re new to the website, the format is this: I start by discussing the year’s Grammy nominees in the Best Jazz Vocal and Best Jazz Instrumental Album categories, complete with my predictions. Because this is such an unusual edition of the Music and Myth Awards, the article will end up published sometime after the Grammys have taken place. Nevertheless, I’ll leave my predictions section intact, as it was written in the first draft on January 27.

The reason I traditionally include the Grammys stems from the fact that the Music and Myth Awards originated with my dissatisfaction over NARAS failing to nominate Patricia Barber’s Smash for best vocal record in 2014. I’ve grown to think of my awards article as a sort of Anti-Grammys and I’ve discovered that I enjoy the process of studying the nominees and predicting the winners.

Now, before we take a look at the anti-Grammy picks, let’s see what the Grammys have lined up this year.

After years of criticizing NARAS for featuring essentially the same dozen artists every time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this year’s ballots for Best Jazz Vocal includes many fresh faces. I was especially thrilled to see among them Jazzmeia Horn and Raul Midon, whose incredible performances I’ve caught at the 2014 Inntoene Jazz Festival.

Let’s start with Jazzmeia, nominated for her debut album, A Social Call. First of all, this 26-year old vocalist seems like a lab-grown prototype for a successful jazz musician. She’s got the look, the name, the attitude, the heritage and especially the talent. Most importantly, she has a mission – one that developed from a profound awareness of who she is as an artist. This became quickly evident when I interviewed her after her show at Inntoene. After finding out that she has a debut album planned for that autumn, I concluded the interview with the following phrase: Prediction: you will see Jazzmeia Horn at the 2015 Grammys, you’ve heard it here first folks!

Though my timing was off by a couple of years, as the self-christened Mama Jazz decided to focus on family and raising her daughters, the essence is that she immediately strikes you as destined for greatness. I’ll be reviewing the record in a separate article, so I’m just going to sum it up here by saying it’s a powerful, legacy-conscious album and a perfect introduction to this artist and her mission. Though I don’t think she’s quite ready to get the nod yet, A Social Call establishes her as a powerful contender for the upper echelon of jazz for years to come.

As for Raul Midon, I was really happy to see this phenomenally gifted artist get the proper recognition. A multi-talented, multi-tasking powerhouse performer, Raul Midon is simply an explosion of creative energy. I’ve described his live performance at Inntoene as a “profoundly spiritual experience” and this must-hear musician consistently delivers. In typical Midon fashion, Bad Ass and Blind is a high-energy record with a distinctive sound and an empowering vibe. That being said, I don’t feel like it’s Midon at his creative best and I do feel that this particular album, mislabeled as vocal jazz, might have benefited from increased exposure in another category.

Randy Porter’s Porter plays Porter, a record of – you guessed it – Cole Porter covers is built around the natural charisma of guest vocalist Nancy King and her very evident chemistry with the pianist, but feels neither comprehensive nor groundbreaking in its conceptualization. Meanwhile, The Journey, by husband-and-wife duo The Baylor Project featuring a plethora of amazing musicians is supremely lyrical and stylistically comprehensive, feeling celebratory in its sound. Ultimately, though, it’s surpassed in scope by the one album I feel stands way above the rest this year.

Dreams and Daggers brought Cecile McLorin Salvant her third Grammy nomination, following up on her Grammy award winning For One to Love and her Grammy nominated Womanchild. In 2016, I successfully predicted her win and I’m hoping to do so again this year because this record is just a fantastic display of talent from a complete musician.

Salvant brings the heritage and social awareness of Jazzmeia Horn, the energy of Raul Midon, the melodic diversity of the Baylor Project and the vocalist-band chemistry of Porter and King, combining them in a superb display of musicality on a double record that especially excels in one key aspect: storytelling.

This superlative double-album is one of the best I’ve heard in this category in the last few years and the clear standout of this particular ballot. While I did have some quibbles with For One To Love, there is absolutely no reproach for any aspect of the flawless Dreams and Daggers. I think it should easily earn her the award.

While the Best Jazz Vocal category featured some exciting fresh faces, I was really disappointed in what I feel is a tepid, conservative selection for Best Instrumental. This is especially conspicuous in a year that presented such an amazing array of remarkable records. Now, don’t get me wrong, each of the nominated albums is masterfully crafted, as music tends to be at this level when produced by this caliber of musicians. However, in a year with so much daring new music, selecting a crop of mostly conservative covers seems like a decision that should have any serious music enthusiast scratching their head. Perhaps, after doing the complete opposite for the Best Vocal category, NARAS got cold feet and reverted back to its old ways.

Bill Charlap Trio and Billy Childs offer elegant, sophisticated piano in Uptown, Downtown and Rebirth respectively, while Fred Hersch takes a primal approach in his splendid and pensive solo-piano opus, Open Book. Joey De Francesco brings a touch of color to a rather monochrome batch of contenders with the bluesy, soul-funk Project Freedom, serving essentially the same role as last year’s Dr. Um by Peter Erskine. My personal favorite is Chris Potter’s The Dreamer is the Dream, a characteristically tender, introspective offering from ECM, the label that can do no wrong. I’m generally a fan of the trademarked ECM sound and I find Potter’s selection of original tunes an inspired and inspiring session. My pick for the Grammys, however, is Fred Hersch’s Open Book.

That being written, let’s take a look at this year’s Music and Myth Award winners.

Best Vocal Record: Sofia Rei (feat. Marc Ribot) – El Gavilan

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This one might feel, at once, predestined and surprising. Predestined because I’ve made no secret of the fact that Sofia Rei is my favorite vocalist (and slowly becoming one of my favorite composers and arrangers) and I’ve been even less secretive about the fact that Marc Ribot has been my favorite guitarist for over a decade, since he was largely responsible for my venturing into previously unexplored musical territories. In fact, the first time I’ve ever heard Rei’s spellbinding voice, it followed an exquisite guitar intro by Ribot himself, on the song “Besos de Sangre” from 2014 Music and Myth Award winning record The Song Project (Vinyl Singles Edition). It makes sense that any further collaboration between the two would be a personal dream come true. Last year, this dream-duo rekindled their preternatural chemistry on this groundbreaking minimalistic recording.

The surprising part I mentioned before might be the record’s subject matter. Built around the forceful song, “El Gavilan” the eponymous record marks Rei’s tribute to one of her musical heroes, Chilean songwriter Violeta Para. Featuring innovative reinterpretations of Parra’s work on the centennial of her birth, El Gavilan succeeds where almost everyone other album of its type fails: in paying tribute instead of merely gathering together a number of covers.

Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

Often times, the enormous difference between Violeta’s organic, unrefined delivery and Sofia’s faultless, all-encompassing vocals leads to a sort of transcendent interpretation of the songs. By the very nature of her voice and the energy of her delivery, the vocalist has, in a way, liberated these songs from the bondage of their intrinsic emotional weight, preserving them in a timeless and boundless form.

Through this carefully crafted tribute, Sofia Rei manages to outdo herself, paying homage to her influences as she claims new territory. El Gavilan continues to add depth to one of the most interesting musical résumés of the last decade.

To be clear: this is how you produce a tribute record! For years, I’ve picked on the Grammys for favoring cover albums over wholly original content, when these cover albums often amount to little more than so-and-so sings the music of such-and-such in an approach that relies almost entirely on nostalgia. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of good cover albums, albums that honor their source material by presenting it in a light that both celebrates and innovates, creating a new work of art that stands entirely on its own.

When Sofia Rei pays homage to Parra, she does so in a way that taps into the essence of Parra’s social message while reworking it around Rei’s own musical vision. Aided by one of the most talented guitar players in modern music history, Sofia Rei never attempts to channel her inner Violeta Parra. Instead, she chooses an established body of work with a profound sentimental relevance through which to reveal to us her innermost Sofia Rei. And what a splendid revelation indeed!

Best Instrumental Record: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy

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For the first time, a Music and Myth Award goes to a work I haven’t had the opportunity to write about in advance. I will do so in the coming weeks, in a separate article. Thus, I won’t elaborate too much on the details of my selection, but rather talk about how I’ve arrived to it.

As I’ve mentioned, it was a year with an abundance of great instrumental records and I’ve truly had a tough time coming up with a clear favorite. Even the shortlist was staggering, with Linda May Han Oh’s unpredictable Walk Against the Wind, Steve Coleman’s cerebral Morphogenesis, Yazz Ahmed’s exotic La Saboteuse, Ambrose Akinmusire’s A Rift in Decorum, Dave Douglas’ fun and eccentric Little Giant Still Life, Vijay Iyer’s universally acclaimed Far From Over and Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which is essentially a dystopian scifi envisioned as a work of music. For the last few weeks, I’ve listened to these records ceaselessly until I cut the list down to Coleman, Akinmusire and Scott, but I still couldn’t decide. In the end, my wife decided for me.

While I’ve been leaning heavily toward free jazz and avant-garde in the last few years, I try to keep a broad perspective when granting the Music and Myth Awards. Ioana often provides this perspective. Herself a long-time jazz aficionado, Ioana has never studied music in such an in-depth way as to fall into the trap of over-analyzing. While I’m often prone to immediately disassembling any piece of music I hear into its components, looking for patterns, stories and  historical anchor-points, Ioana merely listens and instantly knows what she loves. While I was listening to The Centennial Trilogy, she walked into my office to tell me that it sounds great.

Fascinated by the pugilistic motion of Coleman’s sax and, on the othe end of the spectrum, Akinmusire’s old-school atmosphere, I found a balance in Scott’s conceptual dichotomy. With his trademarked Stretch Music, Scott seems to be able to pay homage to the vast history of jazz while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the present. With melody that evokes modal nostalgia and modern influences from the techno, hip-hop and even rock spheres, The Centennial Trilogy  – a collection of three records, all released in 2017  – is a colossal work that manages the difficult task of instantly appealing to the neophyte while keeping the seasoned listener satisfied. When Ioana praised the music she made me realize the essential aspect of this collection of records: it has instant appeal but remains intriguing upon a thorough examination. Simply put, it’s complex enough to provide hours’ worth of study but also simple enough to be instantly delectable.

More on this fantastic work in its dedicated article. For now, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2017.

So, what did you think about the Music and Myth’s choices? What are your favorites? Sound off in the comments and let’s start a discussion.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Belgrade Kombank Arena – A commanding Homily from the Prince of Darkness

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Traditionally, I start off every year with The Music and Myth Awards. Because of the website’s long hiatus in 2017, I decided to welcome this new year of music with some long-overdue articles.

First on the list is a recount of a truly spectacular event. For a while, I hesitated to publish it for fear that it was no longer relevant. I was supposed to post this review right after Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concluded their UK & Europe tour in November, with their second show at the Menorah Arena in Tel Aviv. Timing aside, however, the celebrated musician’s performance at the Kombank Arena (meanwhile the Stark Arena) in Belgrade was such a uniquely satisfying experience that omitting to publish the story would have forever felt like a missing link in the evolution of The Music and Myth.

The date was October 28th and our trip was almost a year in the making. When my cousin, Oana, suggested the concert and a family road trip to nearby Belgrade, I jumped at the opportunity.  Unlike Oana, I hadn’t stayed in touch with Cave’s work over the last decade, having become increasingly preoccupied with examining the international jazz catalog from A to Zorn. Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass on the prospect of seeing one of the best songwriters this side of Tom Waits before he decided to retire, turn into a raven and fly off somewhere never to be heard from again. Added to that was the fact that my best friend had just purchased tickets to see the Rolling Stones, so I considered this a bit of a challenge to “keep up”. Like the Stones and Waits himself, Nick Cave should be a bucket-list act for any serious music enthusiast, a fact that was emphatically reinforced on that night by the Prince of Darkness and his storied band.

Belgrade proved a deceptively suitable location for one to get reacquainted with Cave’s body of work. A vibrant, confrontational city, Belgrade feels like a European time capsule. Unbound by EU governance, the city seems to exists in a parallel timeline located somewhere in the early nineties, with its campy advertisements on communist-era buildings, taxi scams and nonexistent smoking regulations. It’s a spectacular place that feels urbanely wild and uncompromising but also honest and fearless. When we entered the large arena and found ourselves surrounded by cigarette smoke and booze vendors that sold beer and slivovitz, we knew it was going to be an old-school gig.

The artist’s presence already dominated the environment with the speakers continuously playing the haunting “Three Seasons in Wyoming” for the entire half hour that Cave and co. were late. Coupled with the delay, the eerie, repetitive tune created among the crowd a general feeling of anxiety and even irritation. Towards the half hour mark, there were more than a few calls of, “Let’s go, already!”

Paradoxically, this tension only served to increase the cathartic release of excitement once the band, led by Warren Ellis, took the stage. Having all but forgotten the frustrating anticipation, the Serbian crowd welcomed Cave with a love and enthusiasm that bordered on the fanatical. “George told me this was going to be an awesome crowd,” Cave observed.

The set started with “Anthrocene”, which felt like a strangely lethargic way to open a two-and-a-half-hour mammoth-show, despite the song’s apocalyptic atmosphere and flawless lyrics. Nevertheless, for someone who’d never seen the band live, Cave’s tall, dark frame and almost cartoonish presence was fascinating to witness. I also have to admit that, as an author, merely hearing the word “anthrocene” spoken out loud was awe-inspiring. Even more so was discovering the depth and power of Cave’s voice in a live environment with impeccable sound engineering.

After the somewhat unorthodox beginning, for which he sat on a chair near the piano, the vocalist rose to engage with his audience for the equally hypnotic “Jesus Alone” and “Magneto”. With outstretched arms, Cave dangled precariously over the edge of the stage, at times stroking the hands of his spellbound audience, at times balancing himself with their support.

“You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief now. You’re an old man sitting by a fire. You’re the mist rolling off the sea. You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?” he professed with a seer’s confidence, sounding like Lenny Belardo from The Young Pope delivering his homily. This level of familiarity with the crowd continued ceaselessly throughout the show, during which the vocalist took the term ‘audience engagement’ to a level I’ve never seen before. I’ve thought about this for a while since then and came to the conclusion that my unfamiliarity with Cave’s work over the last decade and my unawareness of the tragic events surrounding the creation of The Skeleton Key might have increased the intensity of my reintroduction to his work.

Finally, after the somber beginning, the band departed Skeleton Key territory with “Higgs Boson Blues”, a crowd-pleaser by the sound of the enthusiastic reception. Afterwards, the performance abruptly abandoned its pensive origin, thundering forward with “From Her to Eternity”, the raucous “Tupelo” and “Jubilee Street”, whose frenzied finale made for one of the evening’s most intense moments. As somewhat of a neophyte, I can’t imagine a more poignant introduction to who Nick Cave is as an artist in 2017 than the aforementioned trio of songs, each presenting a different creative side of this multifaceted artist.

“The Ship Song”, one of the band’s most beautiful ballads, provided a welcome change of pace for an emotionally exhausted audience. It laid the foundation for the next part of the show, where the musicians built up towards a final catharsis with “Girl In Amber” and “Into My Arms”, culminating with the heartbreaking “I Need You” – the absolute highlight of the night.

In a recent interview, where he spoke about the tragic death of one of his sons, Cave said, “I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came, not some sort of empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk out feeling like shit. I don’t want that. Because I’m not feeling that way. On stage I feel great.”

After the heartfelt moment, Cave dissipates the mournful atmosphere with classics “Red Right Hand” and “The Mercy Seat”. The latter especially was a personal highlight for me. Famously covered by Johnny Cash, the song became one of my favorites in the American Recordings series.  I still prefer Cash’s version, but the experience of hearing the song live was exhilarating and reminded me of the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler performing “Telegraph Road” at the László Papp Arena in Budapest.

The set closed with a touching rendition of “Distant Sky” and “Skeleton Tree” before the band politely bowed and vacated the stage. Of course, the audience was not going to let them off the hook so easily. When they returned for an encore of “The Weeping Song” and “Stagger Lee”, Cave was a changed man, his energy seeming to increase the closer he got to the evening’s finale. For the former, he went out into the audience, balancing above them on a fence as though he were on stilts before inviting some of them on stage with him for the profanity-ridden ode to the bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee.

They closed with “Push The Sky Away” and Cave delivered the tune with all the manic devotion of a delusional faith-healer, an effect unquestionably enhanced by the audience’s reverent gazes. Only after the show was over and we were silently walking back to our Air B’n’B through the empty streets of Novi Beograd did the magnitude of the evening truly hit me. I knew that I would be seeing one of the all-time greats, a man known for his dark and evocative poetry. I was aware that Cave and the band had a reputation for putting on awe-inspiring performances and, as I mentioned, I thought of this as a bucket-list gig. What I didn’t expect, however, was that I was going to experience a group of musicians at the creative height of their careers.