With the Grammy awards ceremony concluded, it’s time for The Music and Myth to announce its annual “Protest Awards“.
Now in its 6th installment, my traditional awards article initially started as a lighthearted “protest” against the shortsightedness of NARAS and a comment on the subjective value of any kind of accolade. It has since evolved into a staple of the website, offering me a great opportunity to not only think more profoundly about the music I’ve heard over the previous year but also give a love-filled shout-out to the musicians and works that have enriched my life.
Though I’m trying to distance myself from the article’s reactionary, quasi-satirical origin (which you can read about more extensively in any of the previous posts), I’ve decided to keep the original format, wherein I take a quick look at the yearly contenders in the Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy categories and try to predict the winners, before announcing my own picks for Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental Record of 2018. These will be the works I feel best embody the spirit of The Music and Myth, with its focus on adventurous music, storytelling, community, empathy and complexity.
As a side-note, I have written the first draft of this article a few hours before the awards ceremony and it’s the first time I’ve managed to accurately predict the Grammy winners in both categories (so far I’ve had a 50% success rate every year). Make of that what you will!
So… the Grammys.
I’ve already made every possible joke I could about the fact that NARAS seems to think the jazz community is entirely comprised of about about thirty musicians, who keep popping up in rotation ever year. This time, we stumble upon the familiar names of Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, Raul Midon, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Kurt Elling, and freakin’ Wayne Shorter.
I feel I always have to reiterate that this is not a criticism of the musicians themselves or their very praiseworthy efforts, but with an ever-expanding music scene and a great number of artists producing daring new works, it is, at the very least, anticlimactic to see the Grammys feature the same people over and over again. I’m not going to spend too much time on this topic now, for two reasons. The first is that I would just be repeating stuff I said in the other articles. The second reason will become evident a little bit later on.
Now, the instrumental category has an interesting, geometrically-pleasing structure, with two piano trio albums, two saxophone-fronted (and entirely piano-less) albums and then Wayne Shorter. There’s no reason to pretend I could create any sort of suspense about who is going to win this year. There’s no way in hell Shorter isn’t getting the award, so let’s just get this out of the way first.
With his complex, if not very cleverly-titled Emanon (reverse-spellings always make me cringe – shout out to Fernando Camacho’s Dog Spelled Backwards and Rellik the pro wrestler) the legendary saxophonist seems determined to prove that he remains a creative force with grand ambitions. On some occasions, however, such ambitions can become too grand and a bit off-putting. Case in point: a three-disc album in collaboration with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, complete with a scifi/fantasy graphic novel co-penned by Shorter, who supposedly envisions himself as a rogue space-philosopher traveling among worlds to spread a message of truth. I say “supposedly” because I haven’t read the graphic novel, but I have heard the music and it’s definitely a powerful outing. It reminded me a bit of Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables, which I’ve chosen The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2016.
Historically, NARAS loves to grant the Best Jazz Instrumental award to grandiose works produced by decorated veterans, while sometimes going in the opposite direction with the vocal recognition and granting it to an up-and-comer. I think they have little reason not to give the award to Shorter, who brings, without a doubt, the most memorable album in the category.
In the piano-trio section, we have Brad Mehldau’s Seymour Reads the Constitution and Fred Hersch’s Live in Europe. Both unsurprisingly sound from the standpoint of technique and both with awesome origin-stories, to make them memorable (to someone like me, at least).
In Mehldau’s case, it’s the fact that the title came from a dream the pianist had wherein the (at the time, still living) Phillip Seymour Hoffman was reading the American constitution over a melody that he incorporated into one of the songs. In Hersch’s case, it was the fact that the pianist didn’t even know the show was being recorded and was surprised to discover how well the recording sounded (so surprised he decided to release it as an album).
Both are predictably solid works and choosing one over the other comes down to whether you prefer Mehldau’s laid-back vibe or Hersch’s tense, cerebral delivery. The same method can be applied when choosing between Tia Fuller’s smooth, soulful Diamond Cut or Joshua Redman’s dynamic, commemorative Still Dreaming, an homage to his late father’s band, Old and New Dreams.
While last year’s Best Vocal Jazz category was surprising in its embrace of fresh faces, this year, the Grammys have reverted to their old ways and that tried-and-tested template they seem to have established.
There’s the sort-of “lifetime achievement” nomination (see Andy Bey and Al Jarreau in the years past) which goes out to Freddy Cole’s mellow, elegant My Mood is You. Then, we have what I like to call the “Tierney Sutton spot”, generally reserved for a graceful, female-fronted record with a tinge of rock/folk and not a prayer of actually winning. This year, the Tierney Sutton treatment goes to Kate McGarry’s The Subject Tonight Is Love. It has a beautiful premise and a heartfelt delivery, but it never really feels like it outgrows the limitations of its concept.
Then there’s the one “exotic” entry, which usually features an artist presenting a work that’s just on the fringes enough to bring some weight to the idea that the people at NARAS aren’t just a bunch of financially-motivated elitist with a very narrow field of vision. In the past years, this spot featured the likes of Luciana Souza, with her bossa nova vibe, Jamison Ross, with his little drop of blues and Rnb and Raul Midon with his Latin-infused Bad Ass and Blind that isn’t really a jazz record by any stretch of imagination – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This year, Midon returns to this spot with If You Really Want, an album in collaboration with the Metropole Orkest. It features some memorable tunes but, ultimately, its own concept becomes its biggest drawback. Midon’s greatest characteristic has always been his persona – a “bad-ass and blind” one-man orchestra with inextinguishable energy, addictive groove and heaps of positive energy. I should know, I caught his performance live at Inntoene Jazz Festival in 2015 and described it as a “profoundly spiritual experience”.
By placing Midon in this context – backed by an orchestra – you essentially invalidate his biggest asset, which is his stage presence, while drawing attention to the fact that he simply does not have a voice that fits very well within this orchestral environment (as opposed to the likes of Florence Welch, Serj Tankian or Mike Patton).
This basically narrows it down to two major contenders: Kurt Elling’s The Questions and Cecile McLorin Salvant’s The Window. Personally, I would give the award to Elling. Although I am a well-documented opponent of favoring cover albums over works presenting original material, there is no denying the fact that, if you’re going to entrust someone with a cover, it might as well be the best pure jazz vocalist of the moment. His elegance, timing and fluency bring force and verve to everything he touches. When he tackles serious contemporary issues, as he does in The Questions, it adds a fitting sense of gravitas.
However, I think the award will once again go to Cecile McLorin Salvant. Her duet record with pianist Sullivan Fortner has a raw, sometimes mischievous quality to it that perfectly potentiates the singer’s natural charisma. While I don’t feel it’s as powerful as last year’s Dreams & Daggers, nor as impeccably crafted as The Questions, there is no denying that Salvant has a lot of momentum, winning two Grammys over the last three years and being nominated a total of three times. It feels like the industry is hoping to create a new jazz superstar, like they did just a few years ago with Gregory Porter. I think NARAS will play its part.
That being said, here are The Music and Myth’s best vocal and instrumental records for 2018.
Considering that I spent much of last year covering the release of The Book Beriah, the final chapter in John Zorn’s twenty-five year Masada project, it makes sense that the chosen albums would either be part of that project or at least tangentially related.
Best Vocal Record: Sofia Rei & JC Maillard – Keter: The Book Beriah Volume 1 (Tzadik)
I have consistently criticized the Grammys for their tendency to select from a very small sample of musicians (at least in the jazz categories) and here I am picking an album by Sofia Rei for the second year in a row. For that reason only, I hesitated a moment before featuring it, but I quickly realized that I shouldn’t. If anything, this only strengthens the validity of my argument against the Grammys. Here’s how:
While NARAS tends to feature the same musicians over and over again, it’s also very often the case that the creative works for which these musicians are nominated are very similar. Let’s use Gregory Porter’s Take me to the Alley as an example. I adore the record but, in all honesty, it sounds like it could be the B-side to a double LP also featuring Liquid Spirit.
In contrast, Keter has almost nothing in common with El Gavilan, other than the presence of the actual singer, the fact that she sings in Spanish and that both records are duets pairing Sofia’s unmistakable voice with a stringed instrument handled by a world-class musician (the legendary Marc Ribot for El Gavilan and the soon-to-be legendary JC Maillard for Keter). This is where any similarities end.
The records come from vastly different genres, with completely different backstories. El Gavilan is a masterful tribute re-imagining the work of Chilean icon Violea Parra through the boundless imagination of the eclectic Argentine singer-songwriter, while Keter is something entirely unique, with no previous reference point, really. Everything about this record embodies the spirit of what The Music and Myth is trying to be. Keter’s story is as fascinating as its music. Though the term “unique” is often overused, this exceptionally lyrical album is well-deserving of the adjective.
With compositions by John Zorn and arrangements by the featured musicians, Keter is the only traditional vocal record in the twenty-five year history of the Masada project. That, in itself, grants it a singular, quasi-mythical status, not only in the Masada catalog but in modern music history.
Longtime collaborators with an established chemistry, Sofia and JC have delivered a collection of songs that truly rises to the record’s predestined status. The music is exceptional, managing to reflect the independent spirits of the performing musicians while also staying true to the established Masada aesthetic. Personally, I don’t think the range of Sofia’s voice has ever been so thoroughly explored in a recorded project, nor have her ever-evolving lyrics been so expressive. Meanwhile, the mystical quality of the source material seems a perfect fit for the narrative resonance of JC’s instrument.
In a recent interview, the exceptionally skilled musician promised that this would be the reference album for the saz bass, an instrument of his own design. To say that he delivered would be an understatement. Everything about this record is perfect, at least in the context of something like The Music and Myth.
Interestingly enough, the only other record I considered for this recognition was also by someone I had featured before, namely Esperanza Spalding. With 12 Little Spells, the charming musician continues on her path of creative and spiritual experimentation, with a superb album that once again presents her as a fearless visionary. But 12 Little Spells seems like an organic development, one that started with Emily’s D+Evolution and continued with Exposure, while Keter represents something entirely unprecedented.
With her most recent record, Sofia Rei gets her second, consecutive Music and Myth Award and once again demonstrates the breadth of her vision and creative spectrum.
Best Instrumental Record: Zion80 – Warriors (Chant)
Also somewhat-related to Masada, Zion80’s Warriors was being developed at the same time with their Book Beriah submission, Hod. In the words of guitar player and bandleader Jon Madof:
I knew what I wanted to do with Hod because I had been working on it for about a year and going back and forth with Zorn about what the record was going to be. I always thought of Warriors as a contrast to Hod. It was like, “We’re going to take it as far out as we can go and then we’re going to come in a few days layer and make a party record.” (laughs)
This so-called party record has been my go-to album of 2018, no matter the time of day or my state of mind. Over the last couple of years, Zion80 has slowly become one of my favorite bands. Born from the imagination of Jon Madof, who wanted to combine the Afrobeat vibe of Fela Kuti with the passion of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, this fun, 10-piece lineup includes some of the most exciting young talent in the New York scene, with names like Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, Brian Marsella, Greg Wall, Frank London, Jessica Lurie, Zach Mayer, Yoshie Fruchter, Yuval Lion and Marlon Sobol.
Zion80’s music is always a profoundly emotional experience. Released from the historical and mystical “weight” of the Masada legacy, the band is able to channel its talent into an album that feels warm and thoughtful.
There is something intrinsically uplifting to the music of Warriors and it transforms a simple, straightforward “party-record” into a cathartic experience. Without wishing to exaggerate or come off as schmaltzy – that something is love. This is a record made by musicians who love each other, who love hearing and playing music, who love the community and simply the fact that they were in that place, at that time, making this album. This love – this positive vibe – is evident throughout. It grants the album a level of emotional depth that could not have been achieved synthetically, so to speak. I’ll talk about it in more detail in an upcoming review. For now, here is why I chose it as this year’s best instrumental record:
Warriors is not a work that aims to change the music industry. It is not a prolonged statement on the aesthetics of post-modern Noiricana (I think I might have just made this up), nor is it a three-disc album complete with a graphic novel of philosophical wanderings. Instead, it’s something I think the music industry desperately needs at this time: an honest, straightforward album with an incredibly positive vibe delivered by a group of undeniably talented people who love each other, love you – the listener – and just generally love music. It’s complex without being restrictive, respectful of its influences without being overly reverent, dynamic without being loud and just generally fucking fun!
This is the record you hand a person who has never heard a note of music if you want to make sure they will grow to love the art. Not Emanon, The Inner Spectrum of Variables or Naked City, but Warriors. It worked for me through one of the most difficult years of my life and it will work for you!
These have been the Music and Myth Awards for 2018. What do you think of the featured records? What did you think of the Grammys? Sound off in the comments and I’ll get back to you asap. In the mean time, let me leave you with my absolute favorite music video. Watch this and try not to feel better about yourself, about music and the world in general!