There have been many changes to The Music and Myth since I published my first article back in 2012 but one thing has remained the same: I like to start off each new “season” of The Music and Myth with an “awards” article, wherein I name the Best Vocal and Instrumental albums of the previous year.
This tradition began as a quasi-satirical protest against the Grammys for not including Patricia Barber’s Smash in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category and has since become an enjoyable opportunity to gather my thoughts after a year of listening to a substantial amount of music.
Though the articles have distanced themselves from their satirical origin, I decided to keep the same structure, wherein I try to predict the Grammy winners in the Best Jazz Vocal and Best Jazz Instrumental categories, before announcing my own selections (which can be from any genre whatsoever). After a longstanding success rate of 50%, last year was the first time I managed to accurately predict both winners: Cécile McLorin Salvant for her album The Window and Wayne Shorter for Emanon. I felt disproportionately proud of that. Let’s see if I can repeat that grand achievement this year!
As a side note, I wrote the first draft of this article on the day before the Grammys. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
At this point, I’m not even going to continue joking about how NARAS seems to choose their yearly nominees from a group of about thirty musicians. I’m just going to casually mention that in the Best Jazz Instrumental category we have 2019 nominees Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, as well as 2018 nominee Joey DeFrancesco. I was going to check to see how many times Christian McBride and Branford Marsalis have been nominated, but then I didn’t bother.
Now, historically, NARAS loves giving the Best Jazz Instrumental Grammy to established veterans (50% of whom are Chick Corea), so it seems like Joey DeFrancesco’s In The Key of The Universe, benefiting from the reemergence of the legendary Pharoah Sanders, might have the edge. I’m not generally a fan of the spiritual/metaphysical take on jazz because I think it’s something that has to be done to perfection in order to truly work (Coltrane has set the bar really high for this one and A Love Supreme remains my all-time favorite jazz record). I’m also not a big fan of organ-fronted albums, perhaps for the same reason. Though In The Key of The Universe is a solid, beautiful work, it predictably falls into the trap of sounding overly nostalgic.
The three “quartet records” are outstanding. Unsurprisingly, the level of musicianship is tight and sensational. We have Joshua Redman’s soulful, laid-back Come What May, Christian McBride’s raw, gritty, sometimes aggressive New Jawn and Branford Marsalis’ The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul. My personal favorite is the latter, if only for its tense, sometimes dark atmosphere, which covers a wide emotional spectrum.
That being said, I think NARAS will once again lean towards the most grandiose of the albums, and rightfully so. Brad Mehldau’s Finding Gabriel is spectacular — an ambitious, genre-defying opus with a Biblical origin-story and a strong political message. Complex and cathartic, the album has an aura of foreboding that makes it a timely, relevant and supremely emotional experience, in spite of the sometimes cringe-worthy political statements (“They have guns, lots of guns! And they’re not for hunting!”). This is the standout album of this year’s lot. I’d pick it and I think NARAS will too.
On the Best Jazz Vocal Side we have charismatic Grammy rookie Sara Gazarek, who comes with the blessing of none other than the Patron Saint of Jazz Vocalists, Kurt Elling. Her album Thirsty Ghost is dynamic and evocative and the arrangements are crisp, but ultimately, I don’t think there is enough there to warrant a win this year. The same can be said for Catherine Russell’s swinging, old-school Alone Together, another beautifully-arranged album of standards that lacks something to make it truly remarkable.
My personal favorite is Tierney Sutton’s polished, elegant ScreenPlay. Though I generally favor original compositions over covers, this is one of the rare examples of flawlessly-reimagined music, as Sutton injects the timeless tunes with a dose of contemporary coolness. Unfortunately, this amazing musician is perennially overlooked by NARAS, so much so that I’ve identified a particular “Tierney Sutton Spot” in the category, which seems to generally be “reserved for a graceful, female-fronted record with a tinge of rock/folk and not a prayer of actually winning.” This year, Sutton is back in her eponymous spot and I don’t think things will be different.
The award seems to be contested between Jazzmeia Horn’s Love & Liberation and Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells.
Spalding is a true superstar at this point and undoubtedly one of the most consistently relevant musicians in the world right now. Meanwhile, Jazzmeia Horn looks and sounds like what would happen if you could build a jazz diva from the ground up. I’m certain that NARAS themselves will want to play a part in elevating what is sure to be one of the defining jazz vocalists of the next few decades, just like they’ve done with Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant. Without a doubt, there are many Grammy awards in her future, which is something I predicted when I first met her at a jazz festival back in 2015.
After going through the obligatory phase of establishing a creative identity by tackling standards in her debut album, Horn presents her own compositions in Love & Liberation, all the while maintaining the same legacy-conscious direction. Meanwhile, Spalding continues on her own path of “creative and spiritual experimentation” with her unorthodox 12 Little Spells, which I’d considered for a Music and Myth Award last year. It all depends on which direction NARAS will choose to go. Will they once again embrace the experimental vision of a young creative genius or will they go with the charismatic new exponent of an old tradition. I think they’ll pick Jazzmeia Horn but, in truth, it’s a coin-toss.
The Music and Myth Awards
I usually spend a lot of time pondering the legitimacy of my selections, making notes, diagrams and having conversations with myself about why I should pick a certain album over another. This year, I’ve decided to make it easier on myself.
The truth is that I listen to a huge volume of new music every year, which makes it improbable that I will go back and listen to something several times. If that happens, as was the case with this years’ winners, that’s more than enough reason to feature them. So I’ve simplified the process. Going forward, The Music and Myth Awards will go to the records I’ve returned to the most in the previous year. Which leads me to…
Best Vocal Record: Lady Wonder by Annique and Koby Israelite (Randell Time Records)
As I’ve pretty much stated last year, when I chose Zion 80’s fun, addictive Warriors as Best Instrumental Record, one doesn’t need to create an opus or tackle a mind-bending concept in order to produce a memorable work.
Annique and Koby’s elegant, reflective and quirky brand of what I’ve coined “counterclock pop” brings some much-needed solemnity to a genre that is often lacking in creative depth. Here is what I wrote in my review:
The pairing is intriguing for its contrast. Annique has an elegant presence, with a retro vibe and a pop-rooted voice while Koby is the kind of musician you could just as easily imagine headlining the most prestigious jazz festivals as playing accordion out of the back of a van at a local flea market. In Lady Wonder, which he produced and on which he plays drums, piano, ukulele and guitar, the versatile instrumentalist provides the wonderland to Annique’s Alice, creating a kaleidoscopic musical landscape for the singer to explore.
In this dreamlike world, Annique’s voice is the agent of reality — always natural, always true. This grants her delivery an aura of vulnerability that is intensified by the unconventional arrangements, some of which would not sound out-of-place supporting the caliginous growls of Tom Waits. Yet the singer never feels out of her element, maneuvering within this unorthodox structure with grace and self-confidence. Indiscriminately introspective, the songs reveal a lyricist with a penchant not only for self-reflection, but self-confrontation.
Supported by the talent of one of the most intriguing multi-instrumentalists in the business today, the fearless vocalist powers through the haunting compositions with disarming honesty, making Lady Wonder an album you just can’t help but play over and over again.
Best Instrumental Record: Retronyms by Carlos Cipa (Warner Classics)
On his third album, Cipa abandons the solo piano format and sets out to experiment with orchestrating his music in order to create a broader color palette. The result is a splendid, near-perfect neo-classical work that never ceases to reveal new facets of the seemingly boundless universe the composer has created. Over the past year, I’ve heard it countless times and it always feels like I’m listening to something new. Meanwhile, my wife Ioana has become Cipa’s biggest fan, playing the album on a daily basis on vinyl, CD or her iPhone.
In my review, I wrote:
The resulting work is a spectacular study of space, sound and natural growth, an album whose complexity and elegance are on a par with the finest recordings in the ECM catalog. By titling the album, Retronyms, a neologism used to describe “a subsequent name change that provides a new term for something old”, Cipa all but confirms that this shift in his compositional approach is not the result of the passive progress inherent in creative evolution but rather a conscious, intentional act, revealing a musician with a profound understanding of personal and artistic identity.
[…] While the word masterpiece is certainly overused, it feels almost like sacrilege not to refer to this album as such. A remarkable, near-flawless work from one of the most insightful, profound and evocative musicians of the present moment.
Carlos Cipa has recently released an EP called Retronyms B-Sides and has talked about working on a new record. I can’t help but feel excited at what the future has in store for one of the most interesting, insightful musicians of the present moment. Retronyms is The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2019, but also a definite entry in my personal “desert island survival list”.
That’s it for this year. What did you think of the Music and Myth Awards? What were some of your favorite records of 2019?
I’d love to hear from you, so shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or sound off in the comments!