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
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
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.