Lluvia Fue – impeccable tango from an experienced, top-tier vocalist

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The Music and Myth has only recently returned from its long hiatus and already things are back in high gear. There’s a number of articles in queue for the next few weeks, with a concert review from Nick Cave’s spectacular, mammoth-show in Belgrade, Serbia, a study of a Grammy-nominated debut record from a familiar face and the upcoming 2017 Music and Myth Awards, spearheaded by a powerful front runner. I feel like I never left!

I’ll get to all those things during the winter holidays while I take a break from working on my books. But first: a substantial sampling of impeccable tango from an experienced, top-tier vocalist.

When Sofia Tosello sent me her latest record for review, I was immediately excited to hear it. Longtime readers might jokingly point to my affinity for Argentine-born vocalists named Sofia, but there’s more to it than that. Ever since writing about Bernardo Monk’s excellent A Toda Orquesta, I’ve developed a growing interest in tango culture, looking for further opportunities to study this dynamic and captivating art form. A complex, superbly orchestrated work, Lluvia Fue (Chamber Tango) provided me with just such an opportunity.

Arranged by Grammy-award-winning pianist Fernando Otero, Tosello’s fourth album had its official release only five days ago, on December 8th, with a concert at Minton’s Harlem, New York. Tosello’s experience with tango is evident from the record’s opening moments, as she tackles this emotionally demanding genre with ease and confidence.

Perhaps symbolically, the album begins with a tune by Astor Piazzolla, arguably the most recognizable name in tango. In “Sempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires”, Tosello instantly captivates with a delivery that feels honest and authentic, powering through this tempestuous ode to the “Paris of South America” with vivacity and emotion. In the title track, a soulful, delicate composition by Roberto Calvo, the orchestra’s timing and finesse enhances Tosello’s superb vocals. It quickly becomes clear that a great part of the vocalist’s impact is achieved through a careful, balanced arrangement by seasoned pianist Fernando Otero, whose understanding of the strengths and predilections of his vocalist is outstanding. Furthermore, the band, consisting of guitarists Yuri Juarez and Fede Diaz, with Pedro Giraudo on bass, Javier Sanchez on bandoneon and Nick Danielson and Brian Sanders on violin and cello respectively are at a constant apogee, providing an instrumental backdrop that serves as an evenly-matched partner/antagonist to Tosello’s voice.

Equal parts singer and actress, the vocalist runs an emotional gamut in Juan Carlos Cobia’s “Hambre” and “Nostalgias”, vociferous and confrontational in the former, vulnerable and expressive in the latter, whose final minute marks one of the record’s standout moments.

“Tortazos” focuses on the dynamic contribution of guest guitarist Adam Tully, whose fierce flamenco is complimented by Tosello’s high-strung delivery, while “Fuimos” a voice-and-piano duet stands as the highlight of the record. With just a touch of jazz, Otero’s piano gently accompanies Tosello’s voice, offering at once support and inspiration. With her cries of “Vete” (Go Away) the singer reaches a point of unrestrained emotion in an absolutely flawless track, spectacular for its evocative simplicity.

“Fuimos” transitions to an intense rendition of Sebastian Piana’s and Homero Manzi’s “De Baro” with a short but delectable guitar solo, followed by the anxious, droning “Al Mundo Le Falta un Tornillo”, which the vocalist once again infuses with her lively staginess. Though entertaining and energetic, Charlo and Homero Manzi’s “Tu Palida Voz” gets overshadowed by its much more forceful neighbors.

As a jazz enthusiast, I was delighted to hear “Vida Mia”, a song I’m familiar with from Dizzy Gillespie’s repertoire. In another voice-piano duet (and another of the album’s high points), Tosello’s voice calls out and Otero’s devoted instrument answers, engaging in an impassioned back-and-forth as rigorous and dynamic as tango itself. Perhaps it’s for the fact that I am still a novice in the world of tango, with its passion and discipline, that I found myself responding naturally to the simplest, most straightforward songs, a fact practically confirmed by my fondness for the equally tender pairing of voice and strings on “Conjura del Alba”.

The final sequence of “Contame una Historia” and “La Ultima Curda” ends the record on a powerful note, with the vocalist working up to a cathartic abandonment in the former, then falling back to a valedictory lament in the latter, augmented by the somber, haunting string section.

In Lluvia Fue (Chamber Tango), Sofia Tosello, backed by an exceptional band following a an irreproachable arrangement, seems to want to to more than merely record a series of classic tango songs. The album feels like a statement and, at the same time, a form of liberation. A beautiful record, highly recommended.

 

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An exorcism every time I sing it – Sofia Rei talks Violeta Parra and recording her tribute album, El Gavilan

 

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Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

On March 30 of this year, I had an hour-long Skype conversation with my absolute favorite vocalist, Sofia Rei, prior to posting my advance review of her latest record. We talked about El Gavilan and how the idea of a tribute record originated in her mind, the influence of Violeta Parra on her life and career as well as recording an album with Marc Ribot, one of the greatest guitarists of any generation. The articles’ title is Sofia describing to me the sensation of performing the monumental title track, one of Violeta’s most haunting and anxiety-inducing works.

The idea was for me to work the conversation into a follow-up interview to our in-depth discussion from a couple of years ago.

As is often the case, life got in the way.

I had to dedicate all of my time and energy to my writing and publishing career and The Music and Myth was put on an indefinite hiatus.

Lots of things have happened since then, most notably the fact that I’m getting ready to publish my fourth novel, I’ve launched all of my books in paperback format and updated my author website, which you can check out at andreicherascu.com.

It’s been a difficult year with a lot of work but, as the year is coming to a close and work is winding down I can finally get to my last entry in my 2017 to-do list: relaunch The Music and Myth.

Fortunately, this interview is even more relevant today than when I’d initially wanted to publish it, especially with the 2017 Music and Myth Awards just around the corner El Gavilan a prime candidate for Best Vocal Record.

Received with universal acclaim, Sofia’s latest release seems to have surpassed in its cultural impact even her brilliant De Tierra y Oro and the charismatic songwriter seems busier than ever.

So, without further ado, here is The Music and Myth’s latest interview with Sofia Rei:

 

Sofia, when was the first time you heard Violeta Parra?

You know, it’s a really good question. Basically, I knew her work through Mercedes Sosa first. In 1971 Mercedes Sosa recorded an album that is essential to Latin American music, which was a tribute to Violeta Parra. That album I listened to endlessly. I remember listening to it when I was seven or eight years old –that’s how I initially discovered her songs. I can’t tell you the exact moment I actually heard Violeta’s voice. It was interesting because I already knew all of her music, yet I’d never heard her voice. And it’s so drastically different from Mercedes Sosa’s powerful sound. It’s kind of the opposite – it’s very raw, it’s very pure and direct and, at the same time, very fragile.

 

When did you first decide you wanted to make this record?

The starting point for this was a concert that happened last year in May in Bogota, Colombia. Marc [Ribot] and I shared a tribute to Violeta with Susana Baca, Dora Juarez, who’s a Mexican artist, Marta Gomez from Colombia and the granddaughter of Violeta herself, Tita Parra. This concert had a lot to do with it, because the producer asked me to do a version of “El Gavilan” with Marc. This was the seed for what happened later on. We put it together and did not end up performing it, for different reasons. But that’s when we had the idea of recording “El Gavilan” – just that one piece.

Then, I put together a tribute for my Stone residency last year. I did “El Gavilan” and several vocal arrangements of other pieces, adding to the ones that I had already put together for the concert in May. I felt that, because of the way her compositions are, it really fits this minimalist approach.

Violeta’s songs are very repetitive. They have a small structure that repeats six, seven times in each song, which fits perfectly with the idea of looping. I would sit down and the songs would just come out so easily and I gathered this little collection of arrangements. Then I thought that maybe I should do a full album of this because it would be great to work with Marc. Marc is a big fan of Violeta’s and he’s somebody who has a political and social commitment. He was very interested in the socially charged lyrics and the political content of her work. He asked me for the translations of some of the songs and we talked about it.

When I presented to him the idea of making this album, I had in mind having an A side and a B side – an A side that would be acoustic with “El Gavilan” and some other songs performed as a duo in the original voice-guitar format that she would use a lot and then this other “electric” format where we both would be providing the effects, him with his guitar and me with my vocals and the structures from my looper.

It ended up being more geared towards this experimental format. “El Gavilan” ended up being something really interesting, because he recorded both the acoustic and electric guitar and created a very specific ambiance for it.

 

I think this album is as much a departure for him as it is for you, because his playing is very subtle and understated here.

I think he is really brilliant in finding the perfect sound for every situation. That’s something very special and very unique of Marc. He really understands very deeply what sound is required for each given circumstance. I think he really did an amazing job and I’m happy and grateful that he was able to do it.

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Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

How did you select the songs?

I did quite a lot of research. I have many, many albums of Violeta’s at home and I had some collections of unknown recordings and songs. She was a composer but she was also an ethno-musicologist. She was very important in recovering forgotten and lost Chilean traditional music, which she kind of reshaped. So there are also these songs that she rescued and recorded in her own way.

I listened to a lot of these songs and some of them are really like the soundtrack of my childhood. I recognized the songs I grew up listening to, which is very special. And some of them just made a new impact now.

I thought it would be important to record “El Gavilan” because, to me, it’s Violeta’s masterpiece, where she can show her versatility and her musical genius in a way that’s very different from what you would normally expect from a folk artist. She’s exploring dissonance and sonorities that are very uncommon and more linked to contemporary classical music than the traditional music of Chile. I found that, in the way she uses the text and in the way the guitar and vocals interact, it’s a very unique and special piece. It hasn’t been recorded that much, for many reason. First, because it’s very long. Second, because it’s very challenging for a guitarist and vocalist to play and third, because it’s very deep and very heavy.

I think it’s a piece that people are increasingly recognizing as relevant, not only to her body of work, but in general. So I thought that it would be very important to record it because of that. And I thought Marc would be great on “El Gavilan” as well.

Then, “Casamiento de Negros”, “Maldigo del Alto Cielo” – these are songs that I heard since I was a child and they have a very relevant meaning today. Violeta’s songs talked about the people that were forgotten, invisible – the socially irrelevant.

 

I’ve noticed a dichotomy between the lively quality of the music and the heavy content of the lyrics.

She did that in many songs, where she is being super ironic and light in the presentation of the music, yet the lyrics are super hardcore. In this song that I was arranging yesterday – it’s called Mazúrquica Modérnica – she talks about very intense things and the music is almost like a children’s song. She had the mission of creating awareness and introducing the tradition of Chile to a broad audience. She had her own radio show, she tried to spread the awareness of all these situations. So I think it was a conscious choice sometimes to present the music in a lighter way or in a non-complex way, like “El Gavilan.”

The more I read about her and saw documentaries about her life, I discovered that she was a very complex woman. And she was a fighter, you know, she was a very special woman. She had to struggle so much and she was really brave. And I think she was really alone. I felt her pain and her struggle and it made me feel really sad that she ended up committing suicide as an act of despair for the indifference that most people had towards every effort she made.

It was also related to the pain of love and this guy who left her. “Run Run”, for instance, is one of the last songs she wrote and it talks about her lover, this guy who abandoned her and went North, to Bolivia, to remake his life and found another woman. He was a much younger guy. She was almost turning fifty when she committed suicide.

She created this kind of cultural center in the middle of nowhere in Santiago. She had a peña where people would gather and play music and she would always have artistic events and food and dance. This enterprise was really difficult because it was in a difficult place to access and all of that. I think the fact that this disintegrated in time and didn’t succeed and the fact that this guy left her and she was disappointed in the younger generation and the political shifting that was already palpable in Chile, I think all of that had to do with her suicide, it wasn’t just one thing.

 

How did you decide on the placement of the tracks? Is there any sort of narrative continuance from the point of view of their topic? As a writer, this is something I always ask musicians and the answer is almost always, “No.”  

(Laughs) It’s a good question. I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the order of an album, even though these days probably most people don’t listen to it as an album, which is interesting. But I still find that it’s important.

I take a lot of things into consideration. Not necessarily a narrative in a literary way, but sometimes I consider the styles of the songs and what makes sense as a cohesive portion of the album. You don’t want this schizophrenic skipping from one song to another, so it’s a lot of different things, even the keys of the songs. There is a musical part to consider. The different keys and the interventions of Marc and the types of arrangements. There is a lot of thought behind it but, in this case, not necessarily in the theme of each song, but rather in the music and intensity.

Some songs need to be where they are. “Run Run” was definitely a very conscious choice to finish the album. This song is actually very long, it has four verses and I only took the first verse, because the first verse finishes with the line, “and tell an adventure that’s starting like this.”

I felt that was a very beautiful line to close the album, to summarize the idea that this is Violeta’s legacy. She left us 50 years ago, yet that’s exactly when her legend starts, when she becomes an iconic figure.

El Gavilan by Sofia Rei featuring Marc Ribot – a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment (advance review)

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A little over a week ago, during a flight to Berlin, I re-read an old National Geographic article called The Real Price of Gold. In this cover story from January 2009, author Brook Larmer describes the harsh working and living conditions of the modern-day miner, focusing on the town of La Rinconada in Peru, the highest permanent settlement in the world.

When, just a few days later, I heard the words “mejor habita en su concha el caracol” (a snail lives better inside its shell), I was immediately reminded of the article and its vivid description of labor under the cachorreo system (which entails working thirty days without payment for the chance to claim as much ore as you can carry on day thirty-one – a questionable arrangement resulting in a dangerous lottery). The coincidence of this recurring theme was as profound as it was uncanny, not just because I’d randomly picked out the old magazine from my collection or because the song’s lyrics closely reflected the article’s content, but mostly because “Arriba Quemando El Sol” was written more than half a century ago.

This acute reminder of an unchanging reality was indeed sobering, but it was just one of many things I found fascinating about this latest record I’d received for review – El Gavilan, by Sofia Rei and guest artist Marc Ribot, scheduled for release on April 25th.

If you’re familiar with The Music and Myth, you probably know how I feel about these two musicians. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Sofia Rei the most exciting vocalist in the world at the present moment. The reasons for this are manifold: from her powerful, educated voice, exhaustive in its expression of the human experience, to the daring playfulness with which she combines modern arrangement techniques with age-old South American themes, to the captivating manner in which her natural charisma brings those timeworn stories to life.

But the most important quality that makes Sofia such an interesting musician to follow is simply the profound dedication with which she researches her subject matter. In many ways, listening to a Sofia Rei song is akin to reading a National Geographic article in that it manages to condense an impressive catalog of information into the limitations of its concise form. One need only revisit La Gallera for a convincing demonstration of her evocative talent. When I found out this self-described “song researcher” had recorded a tribute album to legendary Chilean artist and tragic figure, Violeta Parra, I was already interested.

If you’re searching for proof of Sofia’s ability to produce a memorable tribute, look no further than her superior take on La Llorona, arguably the most imaginative modern version of the song currently in existence. My excitement only increased when I found out she had invited one of the most intense and eclectic guitar players of this generation to be a guest artist.

The idea of this record became as mysterious as the concept was promising. How did Marc Ribot fit into the vocalist’s vision? It wasn’t hard to imagine that John Zorn’s go-to guitarist and one of the key-figures in Tom Waits’ abrupt, mid-eighties shift to the experimental side would make his presence felt, but what shape would the sound of this shape-shifting musician take? And how would the dynamic, colorful vocalist tackle Parra’s distinctively despondent poetry?

I have to be honest: it’s the first time in a while that I wasn’t sure what to expect from an album. On the one hand, this was a dream-collaboration, featuring my favorite vocalist and my all-time favorite guitarist, a pairing that had contributed to some of the most beautiful vocal songs of the last few years as well as the Music and Myth’s best vocal record of 2014.

On the other hand, I’m a documented fan of Sofia’s previous record, De Tierra y Oro, and I wasn’t sure how that would influence my experience with the bold musician’s first solo release in five years.

El Gavilan starts with “Casamiento de Negros”, in hindsight, the right choice for an opening track, though I was initially ambivalent about its placement since it’s immediately followed by one of the most powerful compositions in the set. All of the chosen songs are time-tested, so the record’s primary challenge was to bring them back to the forefront in a form that would make its existence musically relevant (the lyrics, as I’ve mentioned before, are still frightfully relevant today).

An enormous part of an album’s appeal, at least for me, is what I call its narrative coherence. Ironically, this appeal seems to increase in importance during a time when only the most ardent music enthusiasts listen to records as complete, cohesive bodies of work instead of just random piles of songs in a playlist. For that reason, I feel “Casamiento” was ultimately the right pick to start the journey, purely because of its straightforward introduction to the album’s stylistic direction – minimalist, experimental, centered around the multi-faceted use of vocals in creating atmosphere. Marc’s presence is beautifully understated throughout, his subtle but targeted contributions doing a perfect job of enhancing the effect of Sofia’s unearthly voice.

The song’s subject matter – a tragic recount of a “black” wedding and a destiny of inescapable poverty – clashes with the upbeat rhythm and melody, creating a certain discrepancy that brings to mind Parra’s original version. Here, it’s greatly enhanced by Sofia’s layered vocals and Marc’s unprecedented use of pedal steel to create a sort of sepia-toned, historical reverberation. Disturbingly, the listener discovers that the music is a lie, as the words reveal the burdensome truth: marriage, sickness and untimely death under the sign of abject poverty.

Se ha formado un casamiento

todo cubierto de negro,

negros novios y padrinos

negros cuñados y suegros,

y el cura que los casó

era de los mismos negros.

Cuando empezaron la fiesta

pusieron un mantel negro

luego llegaron al postre

se sirvieron higos secos

y se fueron a acostar

debajo de un cielo negro.

(A wedding has taken place

All covered in black

Black were the groom and the bride

Black were the in-laws

Black also was

the priest who married them

When the party started

They placed a black tablecloth

When they got the desserts

Black figs were served

And they went to bed

Under a black sky)

Spearheaded by Sofia’s use of the caja vidalera (an Argentinian drum) and the guitarist’s electric, confrontational approach, “Arriba Quemando El Sol” plays like a call to war, quickly becoming the record’s unofficial anthem. Summoning the ghost of Violeta Parra, the vocalist manifests her voice in its rawest, most single-hearted form to lament the historically unchanging fate of the miners.

Cuando vi de los mineros

dentro de su habitación

me dije: mejor habita

en su concha el caracol,

o a la sombra de las leyes

el refinado ladrón

Y arriba quemando el sol

(When I saw the miners

Inside their rooms

I said: a snail lives better

inside its shell,

Or under the shadow of law

the refined thief

and above the sun is burning)

The final line of each stanza – repeated for emphasis – is delivered with complete abandon, breaking off into a banshee’s shriek to create a fitting impression of perpetuity.

“Una Copla Me Ha Cantado” is a mournful ballad where Sofia draws from her work with John Zorn’s Mycale to tackle another important theme in Parra’s work: the agony of lost love. Reminiscent of the most delicate moments in Frantz Casseus and Silent Movies, Marc’s guitar seems to haunt Sofia’s voice. Meanwhile,  the singer delivers this splendid ballad with an almost reverent restraint.

In “Maldigo Del Alto Cielo”, the only track that features only the vocalist, Sofia makes the most pronounced use of her layering techniques (to an almost distracting extent) in order to symbolize the character’s infinitely echoing curse. The song gets off to a bit of a rough start as the combination of vocal percussion and piercing charango makes it difficult to warm up to, but the course is quickly restored by the inspired use of tempo and echo to create the illusion of space-time dilation. Ultimately, it becomes one of the most interesting songs on the album.

“La Lavandera” is as simple and straightforward as a ballad can get. A traditional duet that sees vocalist and guitarist on equal footing, this gorgeous piece relies entirely on instinctive force and calculated frailty. Here more than anywhere else, the two musicians seem to have an almost otherworldly understanding of each other’s strengths. Parra’s incisive poetry serves to emphasize the raw, romantic interplay, making for another one of the album’s highlights.

Reminiscent of “Arriba Quemando El Sol”, the aggressive and visceral “Corazon Maldito” again shows Sofia unhinged, banging on her caja from amid a veritable wilfdfire of guitar effects. With unparalleled vigor and more than a hint of madness, the vocalist cries:

Corazón maldito

sin miramiento, sí,

sin miramiento,

ciego, sordo y mudo

de nacimiento, sí,

de nacimiento.

Me das torment

(Wicked heart,

You have no mercy,

You have no mercy on me,

Blind, deaf and mute

from birth

from birth

You torment me)

This introspective hymn increases in intensity, building up towards the record’s uncontested thematic centerpiece.

At almost fifteen minutes long, “El Gavilan” merits perhaps its own, separate review. Essentially documenting a person’s psychological breakdown, this story of love and betrayal is constructed almost like a play. With a method actor’s dedication, the vocalist brings to life a tortured character, running the gamut of emotion, from anxiety to sorrow, rage and, ultimately, delirium. This bipolar frenzy is aided by Marc’s dual use of his instrument. Its ominous, acoustic form builds up tension while the faded, electric effects allude to the character’s perceptible aura of madness.

This is a truly colossal work, a veritable study in storytelling and emotional expression by two of the best in the industry today. It’s a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment that would have completely carried the record even on its own. As it stands, it’s a climactic conclusion to an unbelievable stellar recording.

The final track, a beautiful, pensive version of “Run Run se fue pa’l Norte” features Angel Parra on guitar. Sofia’s arrangement feels ethereal, ending a bleak story on an almost encouraging note. The words “y cuenta una aventura que paso a deletrear” (and speaks of an adventure that I now begin to spell out) signal the end of Violeta’s life and the beginning of her legend.

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.

Update on current projects

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A quick update for the Music and Myth fans.

The reason for my recent “radio silence” is that I’m working on a bigger article about John Zorn’s Masada records, which implied listening to every single Masada work in existence. So, I haven’t ignored the Music and Myth – quite the contrary. The article will be called A Beginner’s Guide to Masada and it will be out in a few weeks. In the mean time, I’ve had the chance to return to the quaint Yorkschlösschen in Berlin and hear the charming Desney Bailey. Definitely looking forward to seeing her on stage again soon.

Also, last evening, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with my absolute favorite vocalist, Sofia Rei. We talked about her new record, El Gavilan (out April 25th), her other projects and plans for the future. You’ll be able to read an advance review of El Gavilan on The Music and Myth in the following few days and the full interview in about a week. Meanwhile, I’m working on my fourth novel, giving my first a little “facelift” and catching up on some proofreading for a joint project so… wish me luck! There’s a lot of work ahead in the coming months.

René Marie’s Sound of Red – a splendid, sincere and sobering record for troublesome times

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We are just a few hours away from the 59th Annual Grammy Awards and this year The Music and Myth is taking a particular interest in the ceremony. For the first time in years, I’ve found myself actually rooting for someone.

Longtime readers of my website will (correctly) point out that I don’t take NARAS very seriously. In fact, I go out of my way to ridicule their shortsightedness and blatant disregard for the breadth and variety of the music industry. However, even I can’t deny the level of exposure a win can bring and there is one particular record I think is highly deserving of the largest possible audience.

While, historically, the nominees in the Best Vocal and Instrumental Jazz categories consist of the same twenty names popping up in rotation alongside the ever-present Chick Corea, every so often, a truly outstanding work will find its way on the ballot. That was the case with Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit in 2014, whose undeniable value and crossover appeal were recognized by NARAS and rewarded with a Grammy. This year’s standout is René Marie’s Sound of Red.

The charming, energetic vocalist was nominated once before for I Wanna Be Evil, an Eartha Kitt tribute record, ultimately losing out to Beautiful Life by Diane Reeves. This time, Marie makes her debut as a composer and what a spectacular way to introduce the world to her songwriting ability.

I’ve discussed all the nominees and their respective works in The 2016 Music and Myth Awards. While they’re all unsurprisingly praiseworthy, Sound of Red just has that unmistakable aura of a musical milestone. So, in this article, I’d like to take a closer look at this album I’ve been listening to incessantly for the past few weeks.

Sometimes, when I play an album, I can tell from the first notes that I’m listening to something special. That was the case with Patricia Barber’s Smash, Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro or Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables. Now, Sound of Red joins this elite group of love-at-first-sound records, an achievement it owes to its powerful and memorable opening track.

In the song’s very first second, the singer’s voice establishes the setting as “a lonely night”, providing the cue for the band’s forceful introduction. Already, the listener’s attention is undivided and it remains that way throughout the album’s eleven tracks.

The first thing that stands out, aside from Marie’s beautiful voice and captivating diction, is just how incredibly capable her band is. Pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin Baxter provide a complex backdrop for Marie’s poetry, raising the bar when it comes to timing and force and absolutely exceeding at enhancing the impact of the vocalist’s delivery.

This band has impressed me in every single song. I’ve tried to pick out a favorite among them, but couldn’t. Collectively, this might be the most powerful, cohesive unit in the modern jazz scene and, with her natural wit and enthusiasm, Marie makes for the perfect leader. On the title track, her voice is complemented with an enjoyable saxophone solo courtesy of guest musician Sherman Irby.

An engaging bassline introduces “If You Were Mine”, a simple, old-school tune that continues to establish the band’s ingenious interplay and serves up perhaps the record’s most vibrant piano solo. On “Go Home”, pianist Chin completely switches gears and demonstrates his feel for melody, evoking an early-Tom-Waits vibe to accentuate Marie’s raw and sentimental statements. In a clever spin on the adulterous affair motif, the vocalist casts herself in the role of a reluctant “other woman” singing:

I see where this is heading

And I’d love to go along

But you’ve got some ties that bind you

To a place I don’t belong

I know your heart is aching

And you think I’ve got the cure

But once the dawn is breaking

You might not be so sure

Later, she urges the object of her affection to “go on home to the woman you love, tell her you didn’t mean to be unkind, go home […] before I change my mind.”

Though I’m not a big fan of power ballads, this unorthodox approach and impeccable delivery makes it one of the best tracks on what is already shaping up to be a superlative record.

The highlight of said record is, in my opinion, the intense and dynamic “Lost”, a veritable tour-de-force of musical storytelling. It’s hard to pick out the best on an album where every song sounds like a new genre classic but “Lost” is exceptional in its cadence, complexity and humor. The middle section – starting with the piano solo all the way through Marie’s scat singing and, ultimately, her hilarious evocation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – is the greatest thing I’ve heard in months. The band amps up before the bass halts the pace and Rene’s battle hymn reawakens the dormant narrative. Just an all-out flawless piece.

With its mesmerizing vocals and straightforward lyrics, “Stronger Than You Think” has all the makings of a hit that transcends the genre, while the honest and whimsical “Certaldo”, featuring guest guitarist Romero Rubalbo, does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of charming Italian small towns.

The Earth shook beneath me

The full moon glazed above

The cobbled stones, the narrow streets,

Of course I fell in love

Of course she did. Of course we do! As a lover of all things Italy, I can completely relate and the song brings back some wonderful memories. Indeed, una canzone molto divertente.

“The Colorado River Song” is an unassuming track born from playful improvisation on a road trip, as the artist herself recounts during this excellent NPR gig. Reflecting the joyful, unrestrained energy of a fun day out, this song wouldn’t be out of place in Louis Armstrong’s repertoire. It also provides a welcome break from some of the heavier tracks like “This Is (not) a Protest Song”.

The mood turns serious in this ode to people on the fringes of society, written as a result of “some personal situations that developed in [the composer’s] own family”. This raw, beautiful ballad with shades of country music stands as perhaps the unofficial anthem of the record. A sobering song for troublesome times, Rene’s non-protest anthem is another one of the record’s highlights.

Perhaps because of its position behind such a powerful, socially relevant track, “Many Years Ago” remains rather understated with its bygone-era blues, in spite of the fact that’s it’s an absolutely lovely song.

The record closes with the dynamically contrasted “Joy of Jazz” and “Blessings”. The high energy and unabashed optimism of the former serves to increase the disarming beauty and tenderness of the latter. I’m not ashamed to say that I was literally brought to tears by this song, which is notable given that it happens so rarely, especially for someone who listens to countless hours of new music every week. Indeed, the effect of the vocalist’s tender, honest delivery is enhanced by the fact that she is just a genuinely likable person, making her blessings sounds as if they’re coming from a friend, not a performing artist.

In “Blessings”, Rene Marie delivers one of the most beautiful closing songs I’ve heard in many years of studying music. It left me feeling good and fulfilled and left the artist with a new lifelong fan.

With lengthy tracks that have ample time to set up a premise and deliver the narrative at a satisfying pace, with a band that seems to have an almost supernatural understanding of its vocalist’s strengths and a lead singer who can convincingly express the whole spectrum of human emotion, Sound of Red is a masterpiece and one of the best albums of the last five years. Absolutely flawless!

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!