A canvas of chaos – John Zorn’s Bagatelles live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna

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In January 2012 I accidentally fell off my bed and landed on the lower part of my spine. The impact jolted my brain and I had a seizure. I was taken to the ER and was eventually hooked up to an EEG device to monitor my brain’s electrical activity. Though the technician carrying out the procedure did not have the authority to set a diagnosis, she just couldn’t refrain from giving me her personal opinion: “It’s epilepsy.”

It absolutely wasn’t epilepsy. I haven’t had a seizure before or since. It was merely a very unfortunate accident coupled with what seems to be an all-around peculiar brain.

The neurologist who studied the results concluded that I’m fine. It’s just that my brain activity is slightly unusual – something she called “being a bit cuckoo”. She would be in a unique position to know since she also happens to be my mother-in-law.

This little story from 2012 will be relevant towards the end of the article but, for now, let’s focus on 2016.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across a Facebook post promoting a John Zorn marathon at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. The prolific composer would be presenting his new opus, the Book of Bagatelles.

This project for live performance consists of three hundred short, atonal, improv-minded compositions meant for what Zorn often calls his “community” – a legion of long-time collaborators and young prodigies that excite the fiercely selective musician.

The lineup for the Sarajevo marathon was incredible, with eleven acts slated to perform for roughly twenty-five minutes each. Among them were such legendary projects as the Masada Quartet, the Nova (Express) Quartet and Asmodeus, but also exciting new bands and collaborations like the hard rock trio Trigger and the acoustic guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. That’s about eighty percent of my bucket list gigs in one single show, including people like John Medeski, Craig Taborn, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and freakin’ Marc Ribot.

Unfortunately, the show was scheduled on a Friday evening and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Sarajevo in time.

Desperately, I started looking at Zorn’s other tour dates only to discover that he was taking his Bagatelles Marathon to Vienna the very next day for a weekend-long show at the legendary Porgy & Bess. It seemed only fitting to hold an event of such magnitude at the distinguished venue located right in the heart of the European capital of music. One six hour drive later, I found myself staring at the familiar picture of my favorite songwriter as the queue was slowly moving forward towards what would become one of the defining musical experiences of my life.

When John Zorn hit the stage, he seemed delighted by the enthusiastic reception he received from the knowledgeable Porgy & Bess audience, who were asked not to photograph or record the performance.

The Bagatelles are designed for a concert experience. It’s an openly constructed, freely evolving manifestation of music which would lose its mystique and its very raison d’etre in a recording of any form.

“This music is meant for you,” the avant-garde mastermind explained. “It will never exist in the same form again.”

He went on to add that taping the show would not only diminish the audience’s intimate relationship with this music but also influence the musicians’ performance. “Musicians play differently when they know they’re being filmed,” Zorn confessed. To their credit, the audience respectfully complied.

This argument for a personal relationship with the music predicted a raw, intimate exhibition. What followed was perhaps one of the most spectacularly dynamic and narratively diverse performances an aficionado of serious music can experience today.

The evening started with the Masada Quartet, fronted by Zorn himself on alto saxophone and Dave Douglas on trumpet and backed by the incredible duo of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron on bass and drums respectively. It took me a while to fully comprehend that I’m actually getting to hear  this legendary project live.

Wasting no time with formalities, the band went full throttle from the first note. Instead of inviting the listener to join them on their musical journey, the veterans opted instead to grab the audience by the throat and hurl them straight into a loud, dissonant soundscape of schizophrenic intensity and boundless complexity. There was less klezmer and more free jazz than in other Masada gigs, with the Bagatelles feeling less like a series of melodic anchor points for improvisation and more like a canvas of chaos on which the inventive musicians sometimes deviated from action painting to coordinate their brushes for brief glimpses of expressionism. It was an improv enthusiast’s dream and, in my opinion, the perfect choice for an opening act because it already raised the bar for the upcoming bands.

At this point, I have to take a moment to commend Greg Cohen’s impeccable playing. If the bass has a tendency to be underrated on Masada records, somewhat obscured by the boisterous brass and Joey Baron’s frantic drums, in the live performance I couldn’t look (or listen) away from Cohen’s dexterous delivery.

Next off was the acoustic tandem of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. On the flyer, they were promoted as a “delicate guitar duo that sets the standard for what the bagatelles is all about” and even when Zorn was introducing them you could tell he was extremely excited about this collaboration.

I was too, partly because I was dying to see how these bagatelles would translate to this particular arrangement but mostly because when something gets John Zorn this amped, you know you are in for an exceptional time.

I was familiar with Julian Lage from his work with Gary Burton and Jorge Roeder, so I already knew the depth of this young man’s talent. I was happy to discover that Gyan Riley matched him in skill and elegance.

Needless to say, their set was spectacular, a veritable celebration of timing and instinct as the expertly handled instruments succeeded in capturing the mysterious, almost metaphysical nature of these compositions. The touching chemistry shared by the young musicians translated into a moment that was wild, yet delicate. Judging by the audience’s reaction it was also the highlight of the evening. Zorn himself did not miss an opportunity to praise their work afterwards.

The third act was the Nova Quarter (of Nova Express fame), an all-star ensemble built around vibraphone wildman Kenny Wollesen, with John Medeski on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and, once again, Joey Baron on drums. The most conventionally melodious (read: least discordant) of the projects, Wollesen and co. delivered a pensive and graceful set and perhaps the most cohesive interplay of the evening.

They were followed by violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who’d worked with Zorn in duo form on Masada Recital and Malphas: Book of Angels Volume 3, and whose personal eccentricities on their respective instruments sounded like a perfect fit for Zorn’s idiosyncratic vision.

The result was a dark and spectral meditation on the traditional musicality of piano/violin duets which, in my opinion, brought out the best in these bagatelles. From Feldman’s wailing banshee moments to Courvoisier’s downright abusive treatment of her instrument, this performance was a delight from start to finish. It was the one I was looking forward to the most and, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire evening.

The show was supposed to end with the proverbial bang courtesy of the hard rock meltdown of Will Greene (guitar), Simon Hanes (bass) and Aaaron Edgcomb (drums) – collectively known as Trigger. However, Zorn urged us to stick around for a special guest appearance by Craig Taborn afterwards. I’m a big fan of Taborn’s playing, so I was extremely excited. He’d been on the Sarajevo roster, but wasn’t promoted for Vienna.

Before the  remarkable pianist could take the stage, it was time for the three “young twenty-something punks” to do their thing.

After a couple of minutes of technical difficulties, during which Zorn assured us that these kids can “play the shit out of their instruments”, the trio exploded into a powerful, loud, electric and electrifying performance which was highly reminiscent of Ceramic Dog (to my great satisfaction) .Clearly, Will Greene has been hanging out with Marc Ribot, and all three musicians seemed positively honored to share the stage with such legendary artists.

At first, the jazz crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of this relentlessly turbulent brand of bagatelles, but, by the end of the gig, almost everyone seemed charmed by the “young punks”. For their part, the trio never looked out of place, delivering their music with poise and – to be candid – with giant fucking balls. That didn’t come as a surprise since no one in their right mind would doubt Zorn’s instinct for picking musicians.

The show concluded with Craig Taborn’s solo performance, which he delivered with typical convulsive intensity. It was a suitably memorable finale to an evening that contained so much music it would take weeks for its broadness of scope to be fully processed. Which brings me back to my personal story from the beginning of the article.

I don’t know if this electrical particularity in my brain has anything to do with my restless nature, my ongoing battle with depression, the fact that I don’t sleep particularly well and can’t quite stay focused on a single activity or with the fact that I have a hard time winding down at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult to rest, particularly to stop a torrent of disorderly thoughts from perpetually inundating the repository of my lucidity. That’s about as eloquently as I can put it and I write books for a living.

Rarely is my mind so engaged that it doesn’t seem to want to compete in an exhausting race against itself. Even when listening to music, my favorite activity along with writing and drinking wine, I find it hard to stay focused. Conventional musicality, with its repetitions, predictable patterns and harmonical spoon-feeding leaves ample room for distraction. That’s why I’ve been drawn to the coarse vocals and grotesque imagery of Tom Waits’s work and, later on, to the complexity and syncopation of jazz. That’s also why I’m drawn to John Zorn.

To me, the Bagatelles Marathon was the quintessential John Zorn experience: loud, aggressive, unpredictable, capricious and unrepentant. It was one of the rare moments when my mind was entirely engaged, so completely hung up on every note and elated by its inability to predict the erratic movements of this music that it left no room for distractions. This is as close to meditation as my cognitive construction will ever allow me to get.

Unfortunately, personal commitments forced me to return home the next day, thus missing part two of this unique musical experience, consisting of the John Medeski Trio, Erik Friedlander/ Jay Campbell Duo, Uri Caine Trio, Ikue Mori and Asmodeus.

Nevertheless, the amount and diversity of music I got to hear in one concert left me with a year’s worth of musical aesthetics to ponder and an evening’s worth of  inner peace.

 

 

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Authenticity through awareness – an in-depth interview with Sofia Rei

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Photo by Sandrine Lee

If you are familiar with my work, then you know The Music and Myth is very dear to me. It’s a project I set up almost three years ago for no other reason than to share with the world my sincere passion for music and my fascination with this superb form of storytelling. I dedicate countless hours of my life to sifting through the latest in excellent music and then writing about it in order to help promote the artists I love and the products of their extraordinary talent.

But that doesn’t mean that the Music and Myth is not a personally rewarding creative outlet.  On the contrary, whenever I receive an e-mail from a reader telling me they’ve checked out a particular artist’s work, bought their record or went to their concert because they read about it on my website, I am on top of the world, both as a fan and as an independent artist myself. But it goes beyond that.

Through this website I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to musicians I’ ve admired for years, discover exciting new music  and even make new friends. Whenever I have the chance to interact with these wonderfully talented and dedicated artists, it is a creatively inspirational and all around soul-enriching experience.

I consider the following article my crowning achievement as a music writer. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with my absolutely favorite vocalist, the exceptionally gifted and disarmingly brilliant Sofia Rei. Her work has been a staple of my musical experience for over a year, as well as a spring of creative energy.

I met Sofia a day before her concert in Vienna, which was part of her most recent European tour. I had a chance to sit down with her for an in-depth interview. From the start, my ambition was to write the most comprehensive article ever written about this talented musician, as a tribute to her always inspiring work. The lengthy feature contains the story of my feverish (literally) six hour car ride, a review of the concert as well as the interview, which I have left almost verbatim so that the reader can really experience the personality of the artist.

Take your time with this one for a glimpse into the thought process of one of the world’s greatest musical minds.

Authenticity through awareness – an in-depth interview with Sofia Rei

“This next song is about all the different masks we have to wear as performers, all the personalities and emotions we have to summon up. It’s a very schizophrenic process.”

With these words, Sofia introduces my favorite song in her outstanding repertoire, the intense and dynamic title track of her most recent record De Tierra y Oro. Against the backdrop of the ornate Mozart hall, Sofia is looking radiant in a bright red dress that reflects her warm and colorful personality. Her long hair is tied in a side braid and she is wearing a pair of large, round silver earrings, looking for all the world like the embodiment of her music: simultaneously elegant and unrestrained, impassioned and cerebral. In the solemn atmosphere of the Mozart Hall, one of the venues in the Wiener Konzerthaus, the New York based Argentine musician stands out as a vibrant presence.

With her on stage, looking focused and determined, her band mates JC Maillard (guitar, saz bass) and Tupac Mantilla (drums, percussion) are joined by guest musicians Eric Kurimski (guitar) and Raynald Colom (trumpet). I’m leaning back in my chair, realizing how lucky I am to have made it here. As Sofia starts singing, my mind is spinning the events of the last few days like the fragile thread of a spider’s web.

Chapter 1: “I hope she was number one!” (The Story)  

We’re in the lobby bar of the Lindner Hotel on Belvedere Rennweg 12, about an hour early. My wife and I had initially planned to take a short stroll on the beautiful streets of Vienna before meeting Sofia at 7 PM for the interview, but the absolute shit weather is literally raining on our parade. The heavy rain and skin-piercing wind are nature’s contribution to what feels like an organized effort by the entire universe to compromise the trip we have been meticulously planning for over six months.

I’m sipping on raspberry flavored tea instead of my usual red wine because I’m still on freakin’ antibiotics. Merely three days ago, I was laying in bed with high fever with the upcoming trip looking increasingly like a physical impossibility.

Bent on seeing my favorite vocalist with a determination that spat in the face of reason and self-preservation, I managed to bring my health to a marginally stable condition just in time for the concert. After what turned out to be the most miserable six-hour car ride of my life, where I often felt like passing out and/or throwing up, I finally found myself in Vienna, feeling like I had just enough strength to conduct my interview before ending up in the emergency room reciting my medical history in German.

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Photograph by Sandrine Lee

Had it been any other concert with any other musician, I would have probably remained at home, safely tucked in my bed. But there is a certain quality to Sofia Rei’s singing that makes you want to fight rain, high fever and fatigue, just to see her performance.

In the past year, since getting acquainted with her talent through a Youtube video of the Song Project’s concert at the Warsaw Summer Jazz days in 2013, I have written several articles about her and developed a deep fascination with her work. She has an unparalleled way of conveying emotion, so much so that I established a rapport with her work that I’ve only shared with that of a handful of musicians in my life. As a music writer who listens to a vast amount of new music every year, I have little opportunity to return to a particular project very often. Yet, over the past year, I must have listened to the Warsaw concert over a hundred times, as well as the other incarnations of Sofia’s art, whether it was her excellent solo records or the plethora of videos of her performing anything from this breathtaking rendition of Mexican classic “Luz de Luna” to this fun display of street music.

While working on my novel, I often found myself playing her music in moments of creative stagnation. Like the legendary Tom Waits, Jan Garbarek and Patricia Barber before her, Sofia has grown into more than just a musician whose work I enjoy: she has become a muse.

Her art is a constant presence in my life, as is her voice. That voice, coming from somewhere in the hotel lobby, is shaking me out of my febrile daze. For the past few minutes I’ve been staring at Raynald Colom, whom I recognize from the promotional pictures. He came down to the bar a few minutes after my wife and I sat down. He took a seat at the bar, his back turned to us. I didn’t want to approach him because I didn’t want to impose, so I decided to just wait for Sofia to show up. To my left, a wall is blocking my view of the rest of the lobby, but I hear Sofia’s unmistakable voice and so does Raynald.  He turns to his left, cries out “Querida!” and disappears from my sight. In a few seconds probably spent hugging after not having seen each other for a long time, they both show up and sit down at the bar.

I walk up and introduce myself and she greets me like an old friend. Sofia Rei smiles just like she sings: with the entirety of her being. Her warmth and friendliness instantly shine through, also key elements of her spellbinding stage presence. She quickly introduces me to Raynald as I introduce my wife.

“He is a writer,” Sofia explains. “We got in touch when he wrote some stuff about me. Which was the first one? The top female vocalists?” I nod. “I hope she was number one,” Raynald says with a mischievous smile. “She is now,” I answer and Sofia chuckles. “No, no… it was someone else.”

She thinks I’m kidding, or that I’m just trying to flatter her, but I’m being entirely honest. Life is like a stream, in constant motion and so is my experience with music. For instance, in the year since I wrote the article, I’ve discovered Arco Iris, an excellent and supremely polished album by Amina Alaoui, released under the ECM label, which should definitely be enough to earn her a spot among the Music and Myth’s top female vocalists. In this time, I have also immersed myself deeper into the “myth” of Sofia Rei.

I have often stated in the last few months that Sofia is, at this moment, in my opinion the world’s greatest vocalist. It’s a gut feeling I have based on my perception of several aspects of Sofia’s artistry, just like the feeling I had a year ago when I wrote the article. At this moment, talking to Sofia in person, the question occurs to me: What exactly is it about this particular musician that makes me say to whoever is willing to listen, “This is the world’s greatest vocalist!”, backing up that statement with the credibility of The Music and Myth as well as three years of hard work?

What makes Sofia Rei so special? In a way, finding out the answer to that question is the most important part of this trip.

Meanwhile, the talkative Sofia tells us about her experience in Latvia and how she broke her beloved charango at the airport while traveling to Vienna. Luckily, she managed to get a quick replacement from a man named Luis Parra, whom she had met through common Facebook friends and whom I would personally like to thank on behalf of The Music and Myth. We finish our drinks and I suggest we head to the hotel’s restaurant, to find a quiet place for our interview.

Chapter 2: “It’s nobody’s experience!” (The Interview)

Let’s open the interview by talking a bit about how you got your start in music.

I started at the age of nine with classical music in the Colon children’s choir, which is at the opera house in Buenos Aires. My grandmother took me to an audition. I think she saw an ad in the newspaper or something like that. I was already singing in three choirs by then, I really enjoyed it, so she thought it would be a cool thing to do and brought me there. My parents probably were not so sure it was a good idea but they were like, “Ok, whatever, yeah sure…”

And then I got in. It was a very competitive environment for classical music in Argentina, particularly at the Colon Theater and particularly with the choir director we got. It was completely insane. But this discipline in music has definitely had an effect on me.

And you didn’t stay with classical.

Well, I did for a long time. I worked until I started high school, first at the Colon Theater children’s choir and even in the national children’s choir later on for a couple more years, learning theory and solfège and all sorts of things so I’d be able to read and understand a lot of theoretical concepts too. It was a job really, I had to be there every day for rehearsals and concerts.

By the time I started high school, I had such a crazy schedule already that I was… I kind of lost it. I was like, “Ok, this is too much”. And it was too much traveling. I lived right at the edge of the capital. It would take me at least two and a half hours every day back and forth to go to rehearsals. So I quit.

High school was the only time in my life that I didn’t do music professionally. I was singing in the shower like everybody else, but I wasn’t doing anything. Then I started playing drums when I was sixteen.

Drums?

Yeah, I still have my drum set back home. My niece actually has it now.

See, you can’t find that in any interview.

No (laughs). Actually, when I was thirteen I went radically from classical music to  – and my family listened to a lot of other stuff – I turned into a complete punk rocker. I loved loved loved all these bands that were doing this kind of music. Later on, I got into drumming. I got my drum set. But I didn’t play in any bands, I was just playing on my own, you know, learning stuff. And I kept it in my basement for a while; it was a phase.

At some point, from one day to another, I just stopped it completely. This drum set kind of stayed in the family. I’m very glad my niece is playing it now.

After I finished high school, I went back to the professional side of it. I started my career in the National Conservatory. But back home, classical music – it’s sad because it shouldn’t be like that – but unfortunately it has a connotation of stiffness, being out of reality, backwards, retrograde… for no reason. For instance, at the National Conservatory at the time, if you were a singer you would never have a harmony class because your instrument was a melodic instrument, as if you would never have to harmonize with the world or anything. There was no need for you to understand harmony. And they had all these crazy rules. Basically, they turned the students into these robots that were not allowed to play music. So there was no music at the university. And this is like the highest – you know, Conservatory for Classical Music – there was no music in the school: there was no choir, there was no orchestra, there were no ensembles, there were no people making music inside the school.

It’s so insane that I think about it now and I’m still shocked. But that was the situation. And not only that but if you wanted to do your… whatever, if you wanted to be a singer or you wanted to play piano, you had to spend six years with your instrument, studying before you would be allowed to play with somebody else or do a duo ensemble or to have some kind of environment where you would actually play music, you know?

So this was shocking to me from the beginning. I was always finding my own ways to do things. And I got lucky in the world of classical music, because I have a low range. I have both actually, but I definitely have a low range and I could do a lot of roles and could fit into a lot of jobs. I was a mezzo-soprano and that’s an alto. There are a thousand million sopranos on the planet, not so many mezzo-sopranos and altos, so I already got the shortcut for a lot of these jobs, which was awesome. And I could read. I could sight read well, so that was also a big advantage. I had a good musician’s training aside from being a singer.

I got into doing a lot of work in that field, but also with a lot of groups that were doing contemporary music, because I was interested in exploring extended techniques and stuff like that. They were all like: “Can you do this?” (makes a clicking sound with her tongue) “Yeah!”, “Can you do that?” (makes a humming noise) “Yeah!”, “Can you do… “ You know, like “Yeah, yeah sure… show me!” (laughs) They were all like, “Yeah, great, yeah!” and I’m just imitating a sound, but they’re like “Yeah, but the other ones, they can’t do it…”

So that was fun for a while too, all these different circles of contemporary music. So I was doing lots of different styles within the classical music realm but also little by little more connected to other things. I started studying guitar, actually. I played lots of instruments throughout my life and I’m probably really bad at all of them (laughs). But I play a little bit of guitar, a little bit of piano, a little bit of charango, a little bit of all sorts of different percussion instruments . I used to play drums but, I don’t know, I never got the commitment to any of this. And I always always always sang, you know? I never had to think about it, I would love practicing that and doing things like training.

With the other [instruments] it was always more difficult to be disciplined. So after a while I got bored. But I think it was a good thing to have a little understanding of all these different instruments too, for writing and as a bandleader also to understand at least to a minimal degree what your band mates are doing.

Then I got into jazz and improvised music. A teacher of mine – a guitar player – brought me four records. Four tapes, actually. Yes, I’m that old (laughs). One of them was Bobby McFerrin’s Play and I was really blown away by this album. Actually, I didn’t like it. I didn’t even like it. I did not understand. But it was so complex to my ears at the moment and so intriguing that I listened to it a million times.

I went through the same thing with Tom Waits.

Yes. I was like, “What is this?” But there was something so appealing in the bad, you know, that I just kept listening. That opened up a whole new world for me. Because my family never listened to jazz. My parents were more into a lot of tango, folkloric music from Argentina, from Latin America. They didn’t know about it, it wasn’t around. My friends… pff…they were far away, I’m talking about the other punk rockers (laughs).  It wasn’t around, it really wasn’t around. And then, all of a sudden, I started listening to Carmen McRae a lot and Ella, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone and all these singers. It was like discovering a completely new planet. It was fascinating. I think I always liked challenges in general. I can’t stay with one thing, I get bored. I have to find something that’s going to be difficult. There’s that competitive side of me, I guess.

In a way, jazz was a very interesting, intriguing thing because it was very challenging. I understood from the beginning that musicianship here is key. You have to have amazing ears. You have to really be able to hear all these things in order to improvise. You have to be able to actually reproduce anything you’re hearing; that’s improvisation. They really have to develop that, because what you don’t hear, you can’t sing. That translation of what you hear…  When you have this amazing line or this great thing and then something comes out that’s different, it’s the biggest frustration on the planet.

So that’s what you train: the translation. And also what you can actually hear. That was fascinating to me from the beginning. I was trying to really get into this deep musicianship and musicians’ world. That was kind of what led me to moving to the U.S, you know? It was like “Ok, go to the source.” I was super into jazz at the time and vocal improvisation and what you can do with your voice as an instrument, the different possibilities. Everything led me to either New York or Boston, mainly those two cities.

You went to Boston first, right?

I went to Boston because I applied to three music schools. I got into all of them, but I had the luck of being on tour with the National Youth Choir, which was yet another organization I worked for in Argentina for four years. We toured a lot. We toured Europe a lot and Brazil and Argentina and the U.S. We were doing a U.S tour and we had a stop in New York, so I visited the Manhattan School in New York and Berklee and NEC [New England Conservatory] in Boston and I just got a great vibe about NEC, you know?

I was like, “This looks like the real thing.” They are all about artistry, they are all about kind of pushing the personality out of the musician, rather than massively imposing content and that one way to do things that some bigger schools do. They have to, in a way, because it’s unavoidable when you have five thousand students. You have to format because it is so difficult to do. It’s out of hand really when you have so many people.

But NEC had a very small jazz department at the time. I think there were one hundred and ten students altogether in the whole jazz and contemporary music department. The cool thing was that they had this contemporary improvisation department that was kind of like a world music-slash… whatever didn’t fall into these two big categories of jazz and classical. So they had music of Turkey, music of India and they also did a lot of other… they kind of connected… it was called the Third Stream Department, because it literally was. You could take classes on any of the three. It was very free. Every teacher there was already an amazing musician. They didn’t give a shit about things like, “Oh, you have to go over your major scale again!” because, in fact, nobody cared about it. It was like “Ok, here is something that might interest you and you’re going to pass the class… probably… “ I mean they might not tell you, but you know already that they don’t care. You already got into this school, it’s very competitive and all your classmates are these phenomenal musicians that are eighteen, nineteen, twenty – whatever age from eighteen to forty –  incredible, completely out of the box and brilliant. So already the company was good. It was really a great experience.

And you also got involved in teaching.

Well, I was already teaching in Buenos Aires. My mother is a philosopher and she’s a philosophy professor. She made a living as a professor all her life, so she loves teaching. Basically, if one of your parents is a teacher, it can be the most annoying thing or it can be awesome. There is a line she always gives me when I’m like, “Mom, you know, I discovered about such-and-such and whatever.”

“Ah, Sofia, yes… there are libraries written about that subject!” She’s always saying that to me (laughs). And I’m like “Mmhm… I get it…ok.”

But it was a really cool thing because she’s a very knowledgeable person. She really knows a lot about so many topics, so much about history and art and literature and of course philosophy. So it’s just cool to be around her, because it’s kind of like sitting in class. I think she really is a great teacher and I think she inspired that in me. My sister also teaches. Nobody in my family is a musician, they are in different fields. But there is that “teaching gene” and I like it very much, especially when it’s in the format of workshops that turn into this motivational situation where you have a group of forty singers and they are all trying so eager for information. I really like and appreciate that.

I was wondering about the whole  teaching aspect because I talked to Terri Lyne Carrington recently, she’s also at Berklee…

Yes.

…and she talked to me about being a mentor. I also spoke to Jazzmeia Horn, a young vocalist from New York, who told me that there aren’t enough mentors for young musicians while Terri said that the young musicians aren’t as eager to learn from their elders as they should be.

That’s true. It’s kind of strange. The whole student thing turned into “clients”, you know what I mean? It has to do with how the universities do their business, of course. If you turn everything into a business, then education becomes a side aspect of what you do. Then you have clients, you don’t have students anymore. Then the students feel entitled. I had parents of eighteen year old kids who would come to me and say, “But we paid for the semester, so my daughter has to pass the exam!”

“But she didn’t come to any lesson and she doesn’t know two songs by the end of the semester. Maybe she’s not going to pass because she’s just not doing anything for it.”

“But we paid the tuition.”

So there is this whole dynamic to it.

Well, you can pay for a Ferrari and then crash it into the first tree.

Right, you might not know how to drive it. The motivation of a lot of students is: “I made it into such and such school.” It’s like winning a contest, like being on American Idol. This line I got many times:

I’m like, “So, what brought you to such and such school, why are you here? What do you like?”

“So… I was discovered by, like, the grandmother of so and so…”

Are you kidding me? Really? Discovered by who? From very early on there is this focus on the business side of it and not necessarily on developing in your instrument some kind of personal voice. I found pretty shocking that a lot of students were not even thinking about that, which for me was a key thing. I didn’t want to copy – I’m sure I ended up copying a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to, because I was listening to singers that I really liked – but originality was a point. It was something that I had in the back of my brain all the time.

You want to be able to express yourself in your own way as an artist, right?

I found that in younger generations – not everybody of course – but it’s more of a rule that they’re not interested or not questioning that, you know? The whole individuality, finding a specific or a unique voice. I often hear from students about the fear of school ruining their “personal style”. With these particular students I’d say, “Sing something for me,” and they would always sound like ten thousand other people on the radio. “Ok, you’re not going to have that problem honey, don’t worry!” (laughs) “School’s not going to spoil it for you, don’t worry, don’t worry. Tell me the next thing I have to worry about.”

But it’s been a really great experience. You are sometimes very disconnected from what the newer generation is listening to and it’s great to put that back on the table. I think it really helped me understand a lot of things. Because technology and the way people interact with each other is so different right now from ten to fifteen years ago. And I have some amazing students… amazing, amazing, amazing. I’m always trying to connect with them and to help them. They’re moving to New York and are like “Oh, what to do, I don’t know…”, I’m like, “Come, get a coffee at home, talk about it. We’ll figure it out.”

But it’s also tough. I think a lot of people get this dream that they are here already and they made it because they got admitted and they are the “next big thing”. All of a sudden they look around and there are six thousand of the next big thing in the classroom, and then other ones all around the country and then other ones all around the world. Because when this becomes a professional thing, there is this entitlement, “I’m getting a degree, so that means I’ll be working as a singer or as a piano player.” That’s really not true. Nobody can guarantee you absolutely anything. You might walk out and… good luck, have a good life! Maybe you’ll just never have a career with it.

As a teacher, I think you have to feed the good part of it, which is the creative part. Pave the way for them to understand a lot of things that they might not have yet, in their bodies and instrument-wise. It’s very challenging.

Let’s talk about your records. I’d like to start with The Song Project, since that was my introduction to your music.

Everything starts with Zorn (laughs).

I call him the “mad genius of jazz”.

He’s a genius, for sure. Basically, what happened was… Everything starts with NEC also, this music school where I met many people that I’m still collaborating with and that later on I kind of reconnected with. One of these people is Ayelet Rose Gottlieb. She’s a great singer from Israel. We studied together and connected, we became really good friends. Then she moved to New York and we didn’t see each other for a while – I moved to New York later. She came to my house one day and told me about this project she started with another singer. They had a rhythm section at the time and they were doing a vocal Masada project for Zorn. At the same time, they were asking for singers to do this project at Carnegie Hall with Bobby McFerrin, an improvised opera about the Babel tower with singers from all around the world who could improvise but who also had some kind of background in roots music.

I applied and so did she. We both got it. We sang with Bobby at Carnegie Hall and it was super great. I met a lot of people that I kept working with over the years, other singers. So, anyhow…  Ayelet basically got me into it.

Zorn decided to reconvert this project into a female vocal a cappella quartet, so we sent him some suggestions. He heard my music and he really liked it and I became part of the band. Then I brought in Malika Zarra who is an amazing Moroccan singer. That’s how the band started. That was 2009. We recorded the first Mycale record and then we just toured. We did a lot of big concerts… marathon concerts all over the world with him.

Then he called me to do the Song Project, because he knew me already from Mycale and he wanted a lyricist. I think he probably wanted a diametrically opposed vocalist. I mean, if you think of Jesse Harris and Mike Patton and myself.  You know, Jesse is a great singer songwriter and Patton is…

All over the place…

…all over the place, this amazing performer and great singer and I’m like… completely… we’re three different animals, you know? So, the cool thing was that we literally put it together the day before the Moers concert. We never met before to rehearse. We met in Germany. And we wrote the lyrics to the songs. I actually never sent anything to [Zorn], I guess he just trusted whatever I was doing with it. Later on, I found out that there were some demos involved, but I just never sent anything.

Did you get to pick the songs?

He left it open for me to decide, but he suggested five or six songs.  We ended up doing four of those, I think. They all have different titles now but it was: “Besos de Sangre”, “La Flor del Barrio”, “Tears of Morning”. Then I did “The Book of Shadows”, the one with Jesse…

That one was left out of the record.

It wasn’t on the record because it wasn’t in that concert where the album was recorded. There are some videos of it. So, that’s how the whole thing started. It was a great experience because we were always on tour. I had met Mike and Marc Ribot and Joey [Barron] and Trevor [Dunn] and everybody, but it was the first time I was actually singing with them and also working with John as a conductor on stage. Because in Mycale he was there, but he wouldn’t be conducting. So that was really cool.

What’s the dynamic of such a project, with all these musicians on stage at the same time? I call it a powerband or a superband…

It’s quite a superband.

When you just look at the band,  you have Marc Ribot and Joey, who I’m a huge fan of, and John Medeski… it’s just a huge band with different personalities. What’s the dynamic like, as opposed to performing with your regular band?

It’s great. In a way they’re all jazz superstars, but at the same time they are the most down to earth people ever. You’d never hear any bullshit from any of these musicians… ever. They are super nice and really down to earth. They are really focused on the music. All of them. So that’s really great. You see that and that’s a good energy for the concert and for the project.

I think the coolest thing about this project is when you’re singing “La Flor del Barrio” and Mike Patton is doing background vocals, and he’s so gentle about it.

It was really funny because I didn’t even think about it. Zorn asked us to have background vocals so I’m like, “Sure”. So I got all the songs that they were doing and I sort of organized my own backup vocals because we’re not going to rehearse so … I met with Jesse, because Jesse lived ten blocks away from me, so that was easy. With Mike I never met. And then I’m like, “Oh, it would be really cool if you could do this line.” I asked John before and he’s like, “Sure thing, I’m sure he’d be down for it!” and I asked Mike and he’s like “Of course, that would be great.’” And then a lot of people are like, “You got Mike Patton to sing backup vocals for you!” (laughs)

I never thought of it that way. And he was so cool. He’s like, “Is my Spanish good? I don’t want to fuck it up.” I said: “It’s perfect!” (laughs)

It was cool to see Mike, who is usually screaming and howling… and then there he is so laid back and subtle…

I think one of the most incredible things about him is that he can fit into any role. If you see the stuff he does with Mondo Cane or…

Yeah, he’s a cool guy.

He is an incredible musician, an incredible singer.

He’s got an impressive range.

Yeah, if you hear some stuff that he does… I think he can really sing and then he can go and do all this crazy stuff. I remember, at the beginning of some of the concerts, I would be warming up and he’s like, “I don’t really do that” and then he’ll be cracking his neck like… (makes cracking noises). Then he’s like, “This is my warm up!” (laughs) I think I’d be mute for half a day if I did that.

It was a really cool environment for the three of us to be working together. I love working with singers, I completely love it. I have Mycale and The Song Project is also with other singers and I have a lot of projects with singers. I love it! And singing backup vocals, I love that too. When we were in that project… doing backup vocals for Jesse or Mike… it was super fun, I loved it.

Is there any plan for Zorn to go forward with The Song Project or was it just a one-year deal?

It was a specific project also because it was part of his Zorn @ 60 big retrospective, which was amazing, clearly. The problem with continuing the project, I’m guessing, is just to find a second to get these nine people together, who are all super busy. Everybody is touring all over the world, so if you have to book even a rehearsal one year in advance. I know he doesn’t have any plans in the near future, but I am sure – and I hope too – that we will be doing something in the future again, because a lot of people really enjoyed it. I think it was something special. Also, a mini-retrospective of Zorn.

It’s crazy: the show starts and it’s “Batman” and Patton screaming and the band going crazy and then there is this pseudo-bolero going on and the whole dynamic of it is completely different. Then Jesse is doing his thing and it’s completely… it’s very schizophrenic, but in a good way. It’s fifty minutes of complete schizophrenia. That shows Zorn’s range of work, which is great. That’s the beauty of that project. The extremes, you know?

I was really happy that the Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition came out in December. I was just preparing to write my article with the Music and Myth Awards for 2014 and it would have just felt wrong not to have The Song Project in the best vocal record category, since I must have listened to the Warsaw concert hundreds of times. It was really the defining musical experience for me in 2014.   

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Photograph by Rafael Pineros

Let’s go on to your own work. First of all, I want to ask about the band. You seem to have roughly the same line- up for a long time, where did you guys meet?

Well, I work with a lot of different bands so often times you just meet musicians that work in different projects and you “kidnap” different people for different things you want to do. I know a lot of musicians, being in New York and working a lot. When you’re working a lot and you’re going to see music… I’m very involved in the New York scene, so I go to see music a lot. I am part of many different projects. I am the lead vocalist of a lot of different projects, so it’s kind of like… I don’t even think about it.

People call me and go, “I need a guitar player for such and such project” because I’ve got like a database of people (laughs). At this point, I really know for specific types of music what can work and what not. These are all people that have been crossing paths with me somehow in Boston or New York. I met Tupac in Boston. He also went to NEC, but we didn’t go to school together. He actually moved to my room when I moved to New York, so he lived in my ex-Boston room. We became really good friends and he started playing with me about four or five years ago.

Yayo Serka also… we started playing together when I moved to New York. And Franco, I’ve known him for fourteen years. We started playing together very recently actually, but I shared a ton of concerts with him as the drummer of other bands I sing with or listening to him with other bands.

Can you give me a rundown of the projects you’re involved in right now?

I have my trio and I have my sextet format. Those are the two main formats that I’m touring with for the music that we’re doing right now. I’m also involved in three different projects with Zorn: One would be Mycale, the other would be The Song Project and the third one will be the new Masada Book Three project that we’re doing with JC.

I’m also working with Manuel Valera, who is a Cuban piano player based in New York, who has a project of Martí poetry that he wrote music for. So we have that project and it’s all great Cuban musicians from New York involved in it. I am also working with Myra Melford in a project that’s old texts of Eduardo Galeano. I’m actually not singing in that project (laughs). I don’t sing one note all throughout the concert, which is so weird to me. I’m a bilingual narrator.

I was just going to ask if you’re the drummer.

(Laughs ) No, I’m a bilingual narrator and I have to kind of dialogue with the music. Let’s see… what else am I doing? Oh, I have my solo project too, which I have not been exploring this past year. But I’m hoping to do more of that soon.

Solo?

Just my pedals and my charango and my voice. And I’m sure I’m forgetting ten thousand others but that’s pretty much it.

Talk to me about your creative process. What inspires you? Is it just music or do you find inspiration in other art forms also?

It could be really anything. I find that there is always some kind of seed that triggers the work. I record voice memos all the time, of ideas that I have. One of twenty of those ends up being developed into something. It could be… musically… it could be a baseline, it could be the lyrics to something I wrote, it could be a text I wrote. I write a lot, actually. A lot of these texts that I write don’t end up being any lyrics or anything, but they trigger ideas for lyrics sometimes.

Or I use a part of it and then from there I develop a whole song. Or it could be a rhythm. De Tierra y Oro actually has a lot off songs that were inspired by trips to specific places. I also did quite a lot of research on South American roots music. So, by listening to that style, I really have a lot of that information which can come out in the writing or in specific rhythms. But, you know, I’m converting everything into what I want to do. Literally, there are rhythms that don’t exist, or grooves or styles of music that don’t really quite exist in that record.

It’s funny because people who aren’t really familiar with Latin music, or Latin American music – Latin music is a horrible word to say, just because it doesn’t describe anything. It’s such a vast continent. Sometimes in the charts, music schools would – thank the good lord they don’t do it anymore – but they would put in the “style”… they’d be like: jazz, bossa nova… Latin. I was always joking about it. What the fuck is that? What the fuck is Latin? Latin could be a 6/8 groove that’s more similar to the Moroccan rhythm or it could be… it could be anything. And one thing is completely unrelated to the other. But, I guess to an untrained ear – maybe somebody who’s not familiar with Latin American music – might think that certain specific things are happening are traditional when they’re not.

I always find it funny when they’re like, “Yeah, so what is that rhythm from ‘La Gallera’?” and I go, “No, it’s not really from anywhere….” It’s just conversions. And I’m glad that I get to work with musicians who bring so much to the table. Because this record is not just me. A lot of it of course is my writing and whatever, but the people I work with have also this condensed identity, like mixed music and the concept of blurring musical styles. And nobody gives a shit. Nobody’s like, “Oh, but they’re playing a chacarera, so it should be this!” Nobody cares about that. And I love that. I don’t care, I’m not a purist.

I consider it kind of normal to be mixing things together, because that’s how we live. And we’ve lived like that for a while, so it would be kind of strange to keep some forms so specific, since that’s not really how we listen or how we live. I live in New York, I’m an Argentine.

Often times people will want to put things into a category. I understand that sometimes things have to be labeled. So let’s say it’s “world music”. World music does not define anything, of course, but the whole concept of roots music right now is quite crazy. If I went out on stage and I had my mate in my hand and my poncho maybe, hopefully ornament my hair with some feathers, then that would be very “authentic”, ok? That would be very authentic, because I’m from Argentina. And that’s what people want to see. That’s where they want to place you culturally. Yeah, the gauchos and the indians and God knows… and yeah, she sings chacareras and she’s really bringing herself into it. I would be so far away from bringing myself into a performance or anything of mine if I’m wearing a poncho. I probably wore a poncho two times in my life. I had one when I was a kid. But that’s not part of my culture, that’s not who I am. As an Argentine, that does not describe who I am and what I grew up with.

In general, when people go for that, they want to listen to something that does not exist anymore, that is not real and that does not reflect the culture in whatever country they’re fantasizing about. You go to Peru and you go to the main square and you want to see everybody playing cajón and everybody dancing festejo and its great ‘cos that’s what people do in Peru. No, it’s bullshit. If you go to Buenos Aires and you see somebody dancing tango in the street… you know that’s bullshit. People don’t fucking dance tango in the street . That’s for you, the tourist. It has been staged for you. And it’s wonderful, it can be fun, but really… for you to go home and think that you actually saw a tango performance in the streets of San Telmo…

It’s difficult because people want to catalog it. It would be better, of course, if I had three more feathers in my hair. It would be so much more what they’re expecting. There’s this whole idea that you’re from the village and where did you leave your horse? You know? Mmhmm… well, bad news for you: I actually grew up singing classical music and it’s a completely different environment than what you’re imagining, you know? And, at the same time, yes, you have all that. In my house we have folkloric music. I traveled the country a lot, so I know of that too. But to decide that the pureness of it is just keeping everything else outside and keeping it “uncontaminated”…that’s not true. That’s not our experience. It’s nobody’s experience.

In some rare cases, it is. For instance, in the pacific coast of Colombia, where they have this really fascinating music performed by afro-descendants that were kind of isolated for a long time. And they played marimbas and they have a very characteristic music that’s still alive there and that’s very close to a hundred years ago. That’s uncontaminated for real. So that’s true, that’s happening there.

But then, if you move it somewhere else and try to present it in the same way as it was there…

…something’s going to happen. It would be ridiculous, in a way, if I moved to New York and lived there for fifteen years and I’m still singing chacareras in the same way I was supposed to be singing them in the village up in the mountains somewhere…wherever they want to imagine I was born (laughs). So  that’s not going to happen.

So you’re going to keep the same creative direction in the future?

Well, you’re always changing, it’s normal. I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’m probably going to be focusing more on this Masada project of Zorn and then probably on a next thing of my own. But there is no plan and I’m an independent artist, so I don’t have a record label telling me, “Ok, it’s 2015 and you have to release something!” So whenever I feel like I have something that I like and I enjoy and that makes sense, then I’ll probably put it out. Hopefully I’ll  be having more time because I’m teaching a little bit less. My touring schedule with the teaching combined was killing me. I’m still teaching and I also tutor students at my house, it’s crazy. I was too exhausted to continue. So hopefully it’s going be an opportunity to write more.

Are you committed to the independent scene or would you sign with a big record label?

I think the whole record label thing is a tool. It’s not your role. What I hope for is to keep my independence in the sense of my artistic creativity and my artistic output. If I can decide on whatever content I create, whatever content I put out…when I do it, how I do it, then ok… great. If a major record label wants to work with me and wants to put that out and maybe they offer something that I can’t achieve on my own, I might think, “Why not?” Again, as long as they would not impose on these other aspects, why not? As an independent artist it’s always a big struggle. The part that I don’t appreciate is all the time you have to put into organizing and dealing with logistics, spending time doing all this work, time that could be spent creating.

I like that I have full control of what I do. I’m a little bit of a control freak. In a way, it works for me to do it how I want and to establish my own pace and rules and everything but, you know… I’m not against [signing with a big label], I’m not looking for it either. Little by little I created something that works for me without much of a plan, simply by doing it. To be able to tour and have my band and work with the musicians that I want and to be in New York working only in the projects that I really want to do that’s an achievement. I have that choice. And I think that’s the beauty of it.

If you could travel back in time to when you were nine years old and had your start in music, what would you tell yourself? What advice would you give little Sofia?

(She leans towards the recorder and rhythmically smashes her fist against the table) Go and study fucking piano as you were told by every-bo-dy!!! That’s what I would tell to little Sofia. You little, stupid little kid, go and practice ten hours a day of your stupid piano, what were you thinking? That’s what I would say (laughs).

With that being said, I turn off the recorder and thank her for the interview. I can see that she’s exhausted, the grueling schedule of the tour (with a concert in a different city almost every day) having left her tired, but no less amiable. She answered my questions with complete honesty and admirable patience and I let her retire to her room, but not without telling her first how much I look forward to the show then next day.

“You guys should come find me backstage after the show,” she says, giving us both big hugs. “We’ll hang out!”

Chapter 3: Earth and Gold – one of the world’s most passionate vocalists at the zenith of her creative and expressive potential (The Concert)

The concert starts with the sinuous, hypnotic echoes of “Coplera”, the opening track from Sofia’s sophomore record Sube Azul , before changing pace with “La Gallera”, a lively recount of a cockfight in Cartagena. The latter was the  winner of the 2013 Independent Music Award for best song, and for good reason. Performed live, the track is always an intense ride. This time is no different, as Sofia combines speed and melodiousness to a delightfully intoxicating result.

The playlist consists mostly of songs from De Tierra Y Oro but also some surprises, like the two John  Zorn pieces from the upcoming Masada Book Three project on which Sofia and JC will be collaborating with the legendary composer. In the tradition of “Besos de Sangre” and “La Flor del Barrio”, the mystical sound of Zorn’s compositions brings out the most haunting manifestation of Sofia’s voice, while JC has a chance to show off his skill and impressive versatility in two songs that predict another fantastic record.

Another “bonus” is the inclusion of perennial crowd-pleaser “El Pirata”, where Sofia’s lively vocals and Tupac’s entertaining antics with body percussion complement and enhance each other in a showcase of formidable timing. In a heartwarming moment, the two musicians share a big hug after what was surely an exhausting interpretation.

Throughout the show, the band shows good chemistry, a testament to their experience of playing together. JC capably shadows Sofia with his guitar, his saz bass and backup vocals while Tupac’s energetic percussion and entertaining antics serve their purpose of showmanship and getting the audience physically involved (and I have to admit the Austrians really held their own when Tupac challenged them to mimic his body percussion).

Guest musicians Eric Kurimski and Raynald Colom are a delightful addition, with crisp and polished contributions. I especially loved Raynald’s trumpet on “De Tiera y Oro” one of the tracks I was eagerly awaiting the entire evening. Speaking of songs I was eagerly awaiting, my wife and I both had goose bumps when JC started playing the first notes of “La Llorona”, a traditional recount of the myth of weeping woman who drowned her children out of love for a man and whose ghost haunts the landscape of Latin American folklore. The song has become a bit of a calling card for Sofia and there is no single song in her repertoire that feels more raw and emotional. The singer once again embodies her musical character with bone-chilling devotion. Her passionate delivery, with otherworldly shrieks and wails, becomes a testament to her own comment on the schizophrenia of performing.

I have stated before that Sofia’s major strength as a vocalist is an uncanny ability of conveying emotion, a quality the Viennese crowd seems to greatly appreciate, as they always wait for every song to play out to its very last nanosecond before erupting in enthusiastic applause. Those who are unfamiliar with Sofia Rei’s work and have just come to the show out of curiosity are just finding out what those familiar with her talent already know: that they are witnessing one of the world’s most passionate vocalists at the zenith of her creative and expressive potential.

The band closes the evening with “El Tamalito” and Sofia’s animated cries of “tamales calientes”, and I am certain the venerable concert hall has rarely hosted more powerful and dedicated performers. After the show, as Sofia is getting ready to receive praise and sign autographs, my wife and I are preparing to meet her back stage for some photos and conversation.

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Photograph by Aivars Slisans

Chapter 4: Que paso con tu Schnitzel? (The after-show hang)

I’m in a corner talking to Raynald, thanking him for doing justice to my favorite song, as Sofia and her other band mates are signing autographs. I also get a chance to pick up JC’s record Carnal Carnival, released by his project Grand Baton, which the guitarist warns me is “loud. It’s not like what I’m playing with Sofia.” You’ll be able to read a review of it on The Music and Myth sometime next week.

When the last members of the audience have left, Sofia seeks out the event organizer. “Is it all right if I bring some friends?” she asks, before she graciously invites my wife and myself to join her and the band for dinner. Not many people get an opportunity to spend time with their favorite musician. As simply a fan it was great to be in Sofia’s company, but as a writer it was even more important since my goal was to connect with her and get a good sense of who she is as a person and an artist, so I can write my feature.

We go to a nearby restaurant called Gmoakeller, where Sofia is greeted with a round of applause from some of the patrons who had just seen her impressive performance.

“I’m not sure they can fit us all,” a hungry Sofia worries, as the waitress seems a bit taken aback by the number of people and the volume of luggage. “They’re right across the street from the concert hall. I think they’re used to big groups of people carrying instruments,” I assure her and she laughs.

We finally get a table and have a seat. I’m enjoying just being in the company of such talented musicians as we talk about the music industry and my pet peeve, the Grammy Awards, specifically how they seem to be restricted to a small perceived elite while other artists are constantly overlooked.

“We should have our own awards,” Raynald concludes. Sofia points at me saying, “This is what he is trying to do,” to which Raynald just respectfully shakes my hand. Being able to write about music that inspires me is it’s own reward but getting the recognition of musicians I respect and admire is the undisputed highlight of putting in countless hours with The Music and Myth.

I ask Sofia about her European tour, telling her that I wish she would come to Europe more often and play more cities.

“You know, Andrei, it’s not that easy,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to set up a tour like this and find venues. Often times, people are afraid to take a chance on musicians they don’t know.” I understand where’s she’s coming from, though the only thing going through my mind at the moment is the memory of the exhilarating performance Sofia and her band put on. If talent and commitment were the only deciding factors, Sofia Rei and her band, along with others like them, would be selling out stadiums worldwide.

But the conversation doesn’t stay on the serious side for long. In a social situation, just like on stage, Sofia is the glue that holds everything together. Being with her in a friendly, relaxed environment, helps me understand as much about the artist as her music does.

I watch her paying attention to what everyone around her is saying, making sure to keep the dialogue flowing between her friends like a conversation conductor. At the same time, she is focusing on her own conversations with a fierce intensity, sometimes dotting down whatever information she finds interesting in a little notebook. I hear her talking to the waitress in a surprisingly melodious German (Ja, ja… danke schön, sehr gut… bitte, bitte). I laugh as she constantly makes jokes and is always ready to reward everyone else’s humor with her adorable, distinctive chuckle. When she turns to Tupac, who hasn’t finished his meal, and asks him, „Que paso con tu Schnitzel?“ it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard uttered in two languages. Slowly, more like a resolution than a revelation, the answer to my question is shaping up inside my mind.

What makes me think of Sofia Rei as the world’s greatest vocalist is more than her admirable songwriting ability, her powerful and trained mezzo-soprano voice or even the passion with which she spins her musical yarns. She is more than the sum of her parts. To me, what makes her the greatest is the fact that she approaches music the same way she does life: without holding anything back.

The interview, the concert and the lovely dinner all revealed a musician whose character is defined by an inexhaustible energy and razor-sharp wit, a fascination with the world around her and an authenticity that stems from a deep understanding of who she is as a human being. But above all else, Sofia Rei is defined by her willingness to share this understanding with the world.

by Andrei Cherascu

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Photo by Ioana Cherascu

INNtöne – Jazz on the Farm: the perpetual proto-festival

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Chapter 1: Jazz on the farm

A small, almost unnoticeable, arrow-shaped sign marked JAZZ confirms that we are heading in the right direction. It’s comical in its candor, especially since we are in the heart of the Upper Austrian countryside and there is nothing around for miles but grassland, forest  and a few scattered farms. One of these farms is of great interest to us because it hosts the INNtöne festival, arguably Europe’s best-kept secret when it comes to Jazz music of the highest caliber.

Every year since 2002, legendary musician, record producer and bio-farmer Paul Zauner turns his farm in the small village of Diersbach into the home of one of the most unique festivals in Europe (and probably the world).  A giant barn becomes a concert hall where accomplished veterans and up-and-coming names from the international Jazz scene grace the stage over the course of three days (in this case June 6th to 8th), creating a colorful and  fascinating musical tapestry.

By the time the first signs of life become visible – cars, trailers and RVs parked on the spacious meadow in front of the estate – we have already been driving through the woods for a while. The place has a surreal feeling, created by the contrast between the loose, unrestrained vibe of what is basically a giant camping spot and the very urban image of men in orange vests directing you to the nearest parking space. When we step out of the car and into the heat of early-June midday we are met by the distant sound of Daniel Nösig’s trumpet and Jure Puckl’s tenor sax. Unfortunately, our long drive prevented us from making the first evening of the festival,  so we missed the Friday line-up of James Blood Ulmer with Pierre Dorge & New Jungle Orchestra, Mario Rom’s Interzone, Melvin Vines Harlem Jazz Machine ad Chicago Blues A Living History. With me are my wife and in-laws, all fellow jazz-enthusiasts and all excited about the plethora of concerts that await us (in total – including the ones we missed – there were eighteen, a generous offer for any festival). I’m especially excited about one gig in particular. The Music and Myth’s favorite Jazz guitarist, Paul Kogut, is playing later in the evening, accompanied by the incomparable George Mraz. In fact, Paul is the main reason I came to the festival, as I was looking forward to hearing him play and meeting him in person. We had been introduced via e-mail by a mutual friend (shout out to Lindsay Curcio of Brooklyn NY) about a year earlier, shortly before I reviewed his excellent record Turn of Phrase.

Once we pass through the gates we are treated to a picturesque view: to the right, the barn that houses the show and to the left a series of long tables under an enormous tent where people feast on roast pork and beer under the watchful gaze of Mansur Scott. Seated on a chair overlooking the yard, with his back against the wall of the so-called St. Pig’s Pub (which will host the after-party) and his walking staff in his right hand, the accomplished vocalist looks like the Patron Saint of Jazz, watching over the event. I have the honor of shaking his hand and telling him how much I respect and appreciate his work and that I’ve just reviewed his latest record, Great Voices of Harlem. I find out that this festival has “the best food, the best drinks and the best music”. Later in the day I get the opportunity to test and confirm his enthusiastic claims. Meanwhile, inside the barn, the Nösig Puckl Quintet grants the stage to Pablo Held Trio as I search for Paul Zauner to set up an interview.

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A wonderful sight: the legendary Mansur Scott with the charming Jazzmeia Horn

Chapter 2: Saturday – Pablo Held, Nino Josele, Jazzmeia Horn and Kogut/Mraz

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I find my family on the balcony (read haymow). The sound is surprisingly good and the view is really something else but sadly the heat quickly becomes unbearable and we have to look for seats at ground level. I tell my wife that I managed to locate Zauner, who told me that we can do the interview a bit later in the evening, at around six or seven.

Unfortunately, because it’s still early on in the day, people are moving about, either coming in and looking for seats or going out to get a refreshing beer so it’s a bit difficult to properly appreciate this talented young trio’s raw, haunting music. I plan on catching one of their gigs in the near future to immerse myself deeper in their work as their performance has left a good impression on me. I especially enjoy drummer Jonas Burgwinkel’s “controlled chaos” approach.

The change of pace is striking when the stage is occupied by Spanish flamenco guitarist Niño Josele, whose performance is forceful and uplifting. His impressive skill is enhanced by a very capable band: Julian Heredia on electric bass and Guillermo McGill on drums and percussion. The young bassist is a delight; his technique is impressive and his chemistry with Josele becomes immediately apparent. McGill is one of the revelations of the festival with an outstanding performance that makes me definitely want to check out some of his work as a leader.

Up next comes one of the gigs I’m looking forward to the most. Dallas-born vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, fresh out of the the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, has generated quite a bit of buzz, with many people comparing her to some of the great voices from the past. I’m interested in interviewing the young musician after her set and also finding out if all the hype is justified.

To say that Jazzmeia’s performance exceeded my expectations would be an unforgivable understatement. Before I start the praise for this powerful and charismatic singer, let me write about the band a little bit. On stage are the wonderful Kirk Lightsey on piano and the very talented Wolfram Derschmidt and Dusan Novakov on bass and drums respectively. I was excited about Derschmidt especially because his recent work on Great Voices of Harlem is slowly but surely turning him into one of my favorite bass-players (and he just looks like a genuinely nice guy). Needless to say, he did not disappoint.

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Wolfram Derschmidt

Now on with the praise for Jazzmeia: She is absolutely delightful. Her stage presence exudes charisma and vitality, but also a deep-routed love not only for the music itself, but for the tradition and the cultural significance of Jazz. The balance between her old-school delivery and her youthful energy really make you feel like you are listening to something special. You can just feel how much she enjoys herself on stage. Her voice is powerful and educated enough to strike that emotional chord, while still maintaining a tiny drop of that rough, raw youthfulness, which goes away with age and experience but which I find particularly refreshing. When you watch Jazzmeia Horn perform you get a palpable sense of the wonderful future that no-doubt awaits this incredibly promising musician. I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to see her at this early stage in her career and in this intimate setting. I look forward to seeing her again.

When her set ends and she exits the building I follow her, leaving behind that distinctive sound of applause from an audience that has been very pleasantly surprised. I catch up with her and manage to get my interview, which you will be able to read on the Music and Myth in the following days. However, I’m not so lucky with Paul Zauner, who suggests we postpone it for the next day in what would for me become the recurring theme of the festival. As the beating heart of this animate event he is understandably busy, approached from all directions by artists, journalists, event staff and guests but I’m determined to talk to him and find out the workings of this one-of-a-kind festival.

I hurry back to my seat because a round of applause announces my good buddy Paul Kogut. When I reviewed Turn of Phrase  (which also features George Mraz, who is doing double duty at INNtöne – but more on that later) I used the words “flawless construction and perfect symmetry”. That could easily be used to describe their set. The technique is absolutely flawless. Paul’s fingers barely seem to touch the chords and, in the parts where George is front-and-center, he accompanies him so gently it seems as though his fingers are merely levitating over the strings, producing the equivalent of a guitar whisper. George, of course, is fantastic and drummer Klemens Marktl (filling in for Vinnie Sperrazza who couldn’t make it) shows no signs of the short time he must have had to prepare (but then again, this is Jazz). The trio displays at once the cold, calculated craft of a scientist and the warm fluency of a master storyteller, to put on an immaculate show that the audience does not fail to reward with forceful ovations. My only regret is that it didn’t last longer than the roughly fifty minutes it was granted (the duration of the sets varies greatly).

After the gig I have the opportunity to hang out with Paul for a little while. We talk about a show we were trying to put together in my hometown and which unfortunately fell through, but I do find out that Paul plans to do “more of this” (which I assume means festivals and events in Europe) in the future. Unfortunately I can’t stick around for Raphael Wressnig and Soul Gumbo feat. Craig Handy & Johnny Vidacovich as I have to get back home –  a comfortable bed and breakfast in the neighboring baroque town of Schärding – in order to prepare for my interview the following day.

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Paul Kogut

Chapter 3: Sunday – Carlton Holmes, Raul Midon, George & Camilla Mraz

“After the Raul Midon concert, ok?”

Once again I approach Zauner in between gigs and once again he is restlessly running around, trying to juggle his many responsibilities. I nod and make my way back to my seat for the next performance. Unfortunately time constrains made us miss Unterbiberger Hofmusik & Matthias Schriefl and Mathisen-Robin-Borlai. We got here in time to see Carlton Holmes’ solo set. As the New York pianist tells his tuneful story he completely captivates the audience with his hypnotic playing that is as delicate as it is delectable. I have the opportunity to talk to him afterwards and I use the word “hypnotic” to describe his performance. “Good, that’s kind of what I was going for,” he says before he graciously signs his record You Me and I for me. You can read a review of the record on the Music and Myth sometime in the following weeks.

The next scheduled performer is Raul Midon. I’m very excited about Midon because of his spotless reputation as a live act. First of all, let me just say: you know a gig is going to be good when the sound-check guy gets a hearty round of applause.  However, nothing could have prepared the audience for the inspiring performance of this incredible songwriter, vocalist and musical multi-tasker (he effortlessly plays his guitar with one hand, a pair of hand-drums with the other while using his lips as a makeshift trumpet when he is not regaling the audience with his angelic voice). This is more than just a fantastic set. The combination of the lyrical power of his music and the magnetism of his personality, which he displays through humorous anecdotes in between songs, turns his concert into a profoundly spiritual experience. Needless to say the standing ovation is so loud it nearly blows the roof off the barn. I’m pretty sure he is already in the dressing room by the time the audience stops cheering.  After Midon’s excellent gig I walk over to Zauner, ready for the interview.

“We’re going to get something to eat right now,” he says, and I say “Sure, no problem,” though I’m actually starting to doubt that our interview is going to take place. Clearly, he is busy, and the last thing I want to do is distract him during these hectic moments. I grab something to eat myself and return to my seat. I know Midon will be a hard act to follow but I also know that veteran bass player George Mraz – back on stage with Pavel Zboril on percussions and the lovely Camilla Mraz on piano – will rise to the challenge. Indeed, they deliver a complex, cerebral performance characterized by great chemistry and intuition. The band’s regular set is followed by an original performance of live film scoring, where they provide the soundtrack for the short film “Dance of the Blue Angels” by Czech director Steve Lichtag. The motion picture was touching, if tad too predictably sentimental for my personal taste. Overall it was an interesting, novel experience and the performance was flawless.

The end of this concert also announced the end of the festival for us. Because of the long drive back the next day we have to get home early and sadly can’t stick around for the next acts: Raab/Godard/Heral/Hegdal, Sun Ra Arkestra and Hazmat Modine.

The concerts I did see made me realize the cultural phenomenon that is the INNtlöne festival. Paul Zauner managed to create a living entity, a musical gathering that has remained intimate and small in size in spite of its almost three decades of existence. It constantly showcases outstanding performances from legendary artists and young musicians on the brink of major breakthroughs. The audience itself is a very select, musically cultured crowd, and the bond between artists and audience is heavily emphasized. It is an event in which the myth certainly matches the music. It made me think of the Gărâna Jazz Festival (a similarly rural affair, held in the mountains of Western Romania) in its infant years, before word got out and it started attracting mobs of thousands, not all of whom are necessarily interested in attending a quality music event.

It’s interesting that this never happened to Zauner’s festival. I’m curious if perhaps the organizer is consciously keeping the event at this stage of development but, sadly, it doesn’t seem like I will get to find out this time. I comfort myself with the fact that I managed to take part in this amazing experience and I figure I will ask Zauner for a Skype-Interview sometime in the near future, after the hectic INNtöne days have passed. However, before I leave, I want to thank him for organizing this festival and for graciously providing me with a press pass. I ask my family to wait for me in the car, that I will be back in a few minutes, and I go looking for him. Predictably, I find him surrounded by people, one of whom is telling him about “this great festival in Russia, which I organize and which is exactly like this one”. When Zauner looks at me I take a step forward and shake his hand, prepared to say goodbye when he says “Two minutes, I’ll be with you in two minutes and we can do the interview.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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The Music and Myth’s favorite Jazz guitarist

by Andrei Cherascu


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

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Blazzaj – fifteen years of funk and an evening of time-traveling

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Blazzaj is a band that I’ve been listening to for what seems like forever. I’m proud to say that this dynamic and tremendously entertaining group of musicians from my hometown of Timisoara was at the spearhead of my first forays into good quality music back in the tumultuous and acoustically confusing years of high-school. Let’s just say they are the first Romanian band whose “myth” I got really interested in and the musical journey we have been on together (the journey that always takes place when artists and their audience click) has come full circle last night on their 15 year anniversary concert.

Then:

It was 2003 and we were at a concert in a place called Club 30 (I think?!). A while before that, my best friend at the time had recommended we check out this awesome Jazz band that he described as “a breath of fresh air” on the local music scene. By then, Blazzaj had already been around for a while but we had just discovered them and to us they were brand new.

I recognized the lead vocalist, Tavi “Vita” Horvath, ‘cos he was one of the guys hanging out and working at this hip CD store that sold counterfeit records (made in Bulgaria if memory serves). The store was called Rocka Rolla and all the high-school kids loved it ‘cos it was the one place in the city where you could buy decent music. The owner was a 40-something long-haired rocker from back in the day and he also managed some local bands on the side. Sometimes he also seemed to serve as the sound engineer for some of the gigs and he and Vita were usually seen together.

Anyway, by the time we attended the aforementioned concert we were already pretty familiar with their work. The gig was in this little club and we were having a great time because the venue was nice and cozy and had no problems serving beer to underage kids. It also had pretty decent acoustics, at least for the sensibility of two seventeen-year-old high-school kids. When Blazzaj hit the stage we were super excited. First and foremost we were excited because we loved the band, because their music was funky and cool and clever and, most importantly, different from anything else you could find at the time. We were also excited because these guys were our home-town boys, because they were talented and funny and humble, because to us they were superstars and yet they were approachable and friendly and real.

At that point the band was just in the middle of a transition. Bass-player Florin Barbu had left and newcomer Uțu Pascu was struggling with the more difficult parts. Also, in a powerful blow, Eddie Neumann the sax-player and also the brain behind much of the music had just left both the band and the country in a fit of rage that I remember materialized into a post on the band’s official forum, an angry diatribe directed at the sorry state of the current (early 2000s) Romanian music scene (“I feel sorry for your ears!”).

Anyhow, since Eddie’s sax, a huge part of the show, was now entirely missing two of the other musicians had to step up to the plate and fill the gap. Those musicians were keyboard player (doubling on trumpet) Petrică Ionuțescu and guitar-player Horea Crișovan. Someone also had the clever idea of filling the void left behind by Eddie’s so-so vocals with the contribution of a female lead vocalist who at the time was a girl named Lavinia Pițu, who sounded pretty good but had about as much to do with Jazz and funk as auto-tune.

Nevertheless, the show was absolutely amazing. The band seemed driven by sheer energy and a charming honesty provided in great part by frontman and human high-capacity-battery Tavi Horvath. Tavi wore his heart on his sleeve and he never hesitated to pour said heart out on the mic with such disarmingly honest, sometimes even juvenile energy (and I mean that in the best possible way) that you could not help but get caught up in his enthusiasm. With a very capable band backing up the eccentric lead vocalist the band completely rocked that gig and turned two young and impressionable listeners into loyal fans.

Now fast forward to 2013!

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Now:

A few days ago I got a Facebook notification informing me that Blazzaj were going to be performing in the concert hall of a local music high-school named after Ion Vidu, a celebrated composer and choral conductor (I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought of the “soldiers of funk”).

In the ten years since the first Blazzaj concert I had ever attended so many things have changed in my life, my taste in music, the city and its music scene.  One thing that has remained constant though, is Blazzaj itself, as the band still plays gigs every once in a while promoting funk and good mood as only they can. But the band has also experienced many changes throughout the years. Lavinia Pițu was quick to depart but they did keep the female-vocalist formula and recruited Romanian Jazz woman of mystery Cristina Pădurariu, an immensely talented musician with a splendid voice and a quirky and awkward personality that made for a powerful stage presence.

This was, to me, the highlight of their career. Musically they had achieved a balance that was felt in their performances. Their material was top-notch. If their debut record Atentie Blazzaj! (Attention Blazzaj!) was a bit of an experiment, struggling at times to keep a musical balance and sometimes sounding a bit rushed, their follow-up Macadam is, in my opinion, one of the best records produced by the Romanian music industry (as in…ever!).  No doubt, it is also the music industry’s best-kept secret.

To this day Macadam is a musical treasure, a unique record that sounds as relevant today as it did ten years ago. With the powerful songs from this album front and center, and some from their first one thrown in for added fun, with talented and energetic musicians, a front-man who was eccentric and charismatic and one of the most versatile female Jazz vocalists in the country, Blazzaj had it all and it was a great time to be a fan. As a side-project, guitar-player Horea Crișovan and Cristina Pădurariu sometimes performed as a duo, playing songs from the international repertoire. These gigs were always amazing (I think I caught three of them) and, though they had nothing to do with Blazzaj, they still added to the band’s overall ”myth”.  Cristina Padurariu regrettably left the band somewhere around 2004/2005 and everything that happened afterwards is a bit foggy in my memory as my own musical interests shifted towards other things.

After 2005 I think I only caught them live a handful of times. I know they had some more female vocalists until they decided to drop that position and just keep Tavi Horvath on lead alone but unfortunately, their failure to produce the highly-anticipated third record made them lose a lot of steam and, perhaps, also some fans along the way (Some of my friends and fellow fans also tuned out around this time so I know it wasn’t just me).  Still, I did keep my eye on the career of Horea Crisovan, the band-member who always interested me the most (for reasons that have everything to do with his incredible talent that I’ve written about before and will write about again).

Alright, so I read online that the band would be holding a gig to commemorate fifteen years of existence, a gig that will be filmed and turned into a DVD. That in itself was enough to sell me on participating but the cherry on top was that Horea Crișovan and Cristina Pădurariu would be there as well; the best guitar player in the country and the charming chanteuse who could sing your eulogy and have you clapping. There was no way “The Music and Myth” would not be in attendance.

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The Gig:    

The moment the band walked onstage was surreal for me, it took me right back to that day I had first seen them. Things had changed, no doubt. The band was decidedly bigger this time. Aside from the guys I remembered from years ago (including Vali Potra on drums, Petrică Ionuțescu on trumpet and keyboard and Uțu Pascu on bass) they now had Lucian Nagy on sax, Sergiu Cătană on percussion, Gabi Almași on guitar and theremin and K-Lu on turntables.

You know how sometimes you haven’t seen a band in a few years and are really amped up for their performance only to see that the wear-and-tear on their creative forces has made them a far cry from what you remembered? Well, that is definitely not the case with Blazzaj. Unbelievable, the band’s intense delivery was every bit the same as I remembered and for that I have to give credit mostly to the ageless Tavi “Vita” Horvath who seems to have stepped straight out of a time machine and whose enthusiasm for performing remains unparalleled on the Romanian quality-music scene. The man is every bit as fun today as he was ten years ago and he seems as excited to be performing for his audience after a decade and a half on the music scene as he ever was. Tell me how often you see that in a performer!?!

The gig would have been great on Tavi’s energy alone but the band seemed determined to keep up the pace and brought nothing less than their A game. A standout as always was Horea Crisovan who is absolutely amazing and was given a fairly good amount of time to shine.

They started off with some of their newer songs (and by new I mean everything since releasing Macadam a decade ago) which was a great way to kick off the show because the newer ones are particularly high on energy and Vita’s trademark lyrics, purposefully silly most of the time, help you suspend your disbelief and just abandon yourself to the fun performance.  However, the number of songs they played from their second record was surprisingly low for an anniversary show and was a bit of a let-down.

At the beginning of the performance Tavi mentioned that two of the guest vocalists (musicians Mara and Alexandrina) had not made it to the show apparently due to some traveling misfortune so that might explain the conspicuous absence of some of the better vocal songs, like “De Partea Ta” (On Your Side) and “Faptele” (Facts). Luckily, Cristina Pădurariu had made it, which was the one guest appearance I was most excited about. I had seen Cristina lurking backstage and was eagerly awaiting her contribution. The first track to feature her was “Un Lucru” (One Thing) and I have to say that something seemed off. It wasn’t her singing, as her voice is always in excellent shape, but her timbre just did not seem to be very well reproduced within the arrangement of the sound. In fact, the whole sound engineering part of the show left a lot to be desired, which was disappointing for such an important event. Luckily, the experienced musician quickly adapted and regained her balance on the most important track in the set-list, “Urma” (The Trace). The song is the most ambitious in the band’s repertoire and easily one of the ballsiest and most well-constructed songs in the modern Romanian music scene; an eerie ballad that builds up to a crazy and cathartic explosion of hard rock courtesy of Tavi Horvath, who’s got plenty of experience in that field. It goes without saying that “Urma” is the constant highlight of any Blazzaj show and I was surprised that it wasn’t featured in a more prominent spot in the concert. Seeing Tavi and Cristina perform this song together again was a beautiful and emotional moment as the two musicians, vastly different as far as personalities go, always made for a great duo. Cristina stayed on board for “La Pensie” (Retired), where she played didgeridoo and sang background vocals.

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If I remember correctly they closed off the show with “Armata-i Antifunk” (The army is Anti-funk) and returned onstage for “Ograda” (The Barnyard) and “Rindea”  (Plough Plane), though I might be getting the final songs mixed up.

Overall the show was great and a ton of fun as Blazzaj shows always are but, for a landmark concert, I have to say it was lacking on the technical side (the sound was a bit “off” and the lights were constantly blinding and annoying the audience). Fortunately, as far as the actual performance went, the guys were wholly entertaining and went on to demonstrate why they are considered some of the country’s most talented musicians.

For me, the show also had a major nostalgia factor that made me happily relive the days when I was loyally following the career-path of this band. It also made me regret having given up on them in recent years. Hopefully the DVD will turn out great and prove a successful move in the career of this band that has certainly demonstrated its staying power.

Blazzaj is as much a part of Timisoara as the canal that flows through the city or the architecture that defines its character. The band is a local musical landmark and, as long as they will be around, I’m sure the audience will love to listen to them. I know I will definitely keep them on the radar again and, who knows, perhaps someday soon we will see a third record after all.

No shortage of great players but a major shortage of good music – an in-depth interview with Al Di Meola

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Picture via http://www.plai.ro

If you’ve read some of the stuff I wrote on this blog in the last year and a half, you know that The Music and Myth is not just about reviews or interviews or even crazy stories; it’s about the essence of music, about the nature of this wonderful art form and the intense passion it awakens in people. I think there are few people in the world more qualified to talk about the essence, the nature and the passion of music than composer and guitar legend Al Di Meola. The following article features an in-depth interview with this accomplished musician, a review of his concert held on November 6th at the Timisoara Philharmonic as part of his Beatles and More tour and, because it is The Music and Myth, the ever-present crazy story that lead to me getting this interview. I tried to keep the interview (almost) verbatim, with as little editing as possible in order to keep the original character and flow of the conversation. Join me as I sit down with one of the most complex musical minds of the modern era as he discusses the creative process behind his new record, the impact of computers and cell-phones on the recording process, accidentally becoming Paul McCartney’s next-door-neighbor in the Hamptons and much more.

The article is dedicated to my friend and guitar-genius Paul Kogut who went above and beyond the call of duty to help me land this one-on-one. Thank you Paul!

Now, on to the story:

Chapter 1: Just act natural!

“Just act natural,” I said to my father-in-law, who was doubling as my photographer that evening. “We simply walk in there and look like we belong,”

After countless back-and-forth e-mails between myself and the publicist, I had finally managed to secure a thirty-minute interview with legendary Jazz composer and guitarist Al Di Meola. I couldn’t believe my luck since I’ve been a fan of Di Meola’s work for quite some time and was looking forward to getting some insight from the great man. Like every one of my musical stories, I was expecting this to be part music and part myth but I have to admit that at the back of my head, I was also sort of expecting it to be part crazy.

Chapter 2: The Crazy –  “If you get the chance, cut the middle-man!” 

I’ll start off with the crazy and work my way up to (or down to, depending how you look at it) the sane. We got to the philharmonic about fifteen minutes early . I was told by Di Meola’s publicist, Susie to be there at 19:00 during sound-check, that my name would be on some list and I should just ask for Di Meola’s tour manager, guitar-player Csaba Toth-Bagi. From the get-go I had the distinct impression that something wasn’t right when, upon finding the doors locked, I talked to cashier lady who looked at me as though I had just stepped straight out of a situation comedy.  She asked if there shouldn’t perhaps have been somebody here waiting for me and that was the first time that question had occurred to me, though it sounded entirely logical.

But “Oh, well” ”, I thought, “I’ll just show myself in”. After the nice lady pointed us in the direction of a side-entrance that was very much open, we simply walked in, acted natural, looked like we belonged and asked for Mr. Di Meola.

“Name’s Andrei Cherascu, from The Music and Myth,” I said, “Mr Toth-Bagi is expecting me. I’m on the list,” I added, like an idiot.

“I’ll talk to Csaba”, said a member of the staff, “but I gotta tell you, Mr. Di Meola’s not here.”

“Not a problem,” I thought, “There’s enough time. Just point me in the direction and I’ll interview him wherever.”

You can guess what happened next:

Another staff member came out and informed us that the interview will not be possible at that time. I should come back at eight-thirty but I’d only get five minutes. He might have said something else too but I couldn’t hear him over the sound of a huge bubble bursting, a sound that no amplifiers in the world could drown out. I was dumbfounded.

“But…I talked to Susie,” I barely managed to express coherently.

“Yeah, I know Susie,” said the staff member.

I’m happy for you, I thought but instead I said “What the hell happened? I have an e-mail saying I should be here at seven. Susie told me to be here at seven! I pronounced the name Susie as though it carried within it the life force of every single person that has ever been part of Di Meola’s staff since the days of Land of the Midnight Sun. 

The guy just nonchalantly shrugged. “Well, Csaba said no! Only at eight thirty and only for five minutes!”

“That’s disappointing,” I said calmly, which sounded completely stupid because it was the understatement of a lifetime. I was frustrated as hell. I wished the tour manager would have taken just two minutes to come out and inform me of this himself so that I may tell him how much time and effort he could have spared me if he had just refused the interview from the start instead of letting me research and prepare for a thirty minute interview with one of my musical heroes for an entire week. I would have also told him that the only reason I even run The Music and Myth is out of pure love for music, that I gain nothing from this website except the satisfaction that I get to write about and help promote the music that I love. I stormed out the building thinking of all the time, energy and, I’m not ashamed to admit, childlike enthusiasm I had put into this. I decided that I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

“Let’s take a walk to Hotel Timisoara,” I said to Octi, my father-in-law, knowing from previous experience that it was the place where the staff of the Plai music festival were housing the musicians. “Screw the staff and the tour manager and their lousy five minutes!” I decided.

I walked straight to the front desk and asked them to call Mr. Di Meola’s room. The legendary musician immediately picked up and I was lucky because he proved to be the most amiable and professional man imaginable. I told him who I was and that I had a half-hour interview scheduled. I asked him if he would he be so kind as to grant it to me right then and there.

“I can’t right now, let’s do it after the show…see me after I’m done signing autographs,” said a friendly Di Meola.

“Will do, sir!” I said and hung up, having learned a valuable lesson in journalism:

If you get the chance, cut the middle-man!

Chapter 3: The Music – a concert review

As soon as the four musicians were on stage and the music started flowing the bad taste that was left in my mouth by  the scheduling experience vanished entirely.

I had seen Di Meola live before, in 2011 when he was promoting The Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody so I knew to expect nothing less than complete dedication and breathtaking virtuosity. From the interviews I had read I knew that Di Meola has the reputation of being a very demanding bandleader but, as a man who has now heard him perform twice, I know that he is a man who demands excellence first and foremost of himself. Like a true bandleader (or any leader for that matter) Di Meola guides by example and the way in which he uses his amazing speed and dexterity while never once sacrificing melody is nothing short of incredible.

Also, there was never a second in which the band, consisting of Fausto Beccalossi on accordion, Peter Kaszas on drums and percussion and Peo Alfonsi on second guitar did not seem completely relaxed around each other, their chemistry an integral part of the audience’s emotional involvement. Speaking of the band, I have to commend the incredible talent of every single one of the band members, their coherence a testament to Di Meola’s skill in choosing musicians who have the ability to feed off of each other’s talent with such remarkable ease. I especially enjoyed Beccalossi’s expressive delivery, the man plays with his entire being and his entertaining facial expressions and movements really helped get the listener that much more intimately involved in his sound. I’ve found that at a live performance you truly don’t just listen with your ears.

The charismatic DiMeola proved as easy-going and funny as ever, very straightforward when connecting with the crowd, cracking jokes here and there to keep everyone in a good mood and his stage presence never had the rehearsed formulaic (if understandable) tone of other musicians. I have been a fan of Al Di Meola – the musician – for a few years now but I distinctly remember the exact moment I’ve become a fan of Al Di Meola – the person. It was at his show in 2011 when, after finishing a track, he announced in the most deadpan manner: “I will now play a song by Lady GaGa. But you probably won’t recognize it ‘cos I changed it a lot. Seriously…a lot!”

The joke was made all the more funny by my awareness of Di Meola’s very vocal dislike of the contemporary pop-scene, but more on that in the interview. The point is that when the celebrated guitarist interacts with the crowd you feel as though he is really communicating with you and not just going through the motions. I think that contributed to the great ambiance not to mention the standing ovation he received at the end almost as much as the band’s extraordinary set.

Speaking of the set, it consisted of three parts: original compositions, music by Argentinean tango legend Astor Piazzolla and tracks from the new record, All Your Life that features covers of Beatles songs, a record I will be reviewing shortly. I admit that I am not the biggest fan of the Beatles, I could never really get into their music like other people did but I was never worried that I might not enjoy the set because it’s been my experience that everything Di Meola touches turns to gold. Even the seemingly out of place pop record Cosmopolitan Life, a collaboration with Russian singer Leonid Agutin (who really should have let someone else write his lyrics) was made decent by the presence of the talented guitarist.

Needless to say, the crowd was ecstatic with the complex physically demanding performance that made me at the same time relive his 2011 show but also realize the evolution of the band throughout the years. The music sounds more ripe and well-balanced with every passing year, on the records and the stage respectively. The set closed with the obligatory rendition of perennial crowd pleaser “Mediterranean Sundance”. After a well-deserved standing ovation the crowd went home happy.

Well, everyone else went home…I still had an interview to conduct.

Chapter 4: The Myth (The Interview) – “no shortage of great players but a major shortage of good music”

Di Meola was prepared to sign another autograph when I extend my hand and he seemed surprised to find it not holding another record or ticket for him to inscribe. He shook my hand as I introduced myself and told him I was the guy he spoke to on the phone at the hotel. His tour manager, who was standing right next to him, asked me where I’d been.

“You were supposed to be here at eight thirty,” he said.

“No, I was supposed to be here at seven for my thirty minute interview,” I snapped, still irked about the whole scheduling adventure.

“It’s ok, we spoke at the hotel,” Di Meola clarified as the tour manager looked at me with an expression that made me glad looks couldn’t kill. I turned back to Di Meola.

“Yeah, sorry about that, but I have been promised a half-hour interview,” I said.

“It’s ok, happens all the time,” he answered, relaxed and somewhat amused.

He then took me to a small room in the back, a place that had the wonderfully chaotic charm of “backstage-after-a-show” with people running around left and right while food, beer and coffee rested untouched on the tables. Di Meola, very warm and friendly, asked me if I’d like anything to eat or drink so I took a beer while he asked someone to get him a cup of coffee. I could see by his demeanor that he was incredibly tired which was understandable after such a physically and no doubt mentally demanding performance.

“I won’t take up much of your time,” I assured him as we sat down o talk.

I want to clarify something right from the start: I’ve noticed on some forums and in some interviews that people suggested Al Di Meola has the reputation of being a bit aggressive and too outspoken in interviews. I read somewhere that he comes off as arrogant. I think that statement is completely unfair and ridiculous. He comes off as straightforward as well as extremely intelligent and level-headed. What he is, is honest.  He won’t tip-toe around a topic, won’t use double-talk or sugar-coat a statement. He doesn’t employ that ridiculous restrained and entirely fabricated modesty that all too many musicians use for fear of speaking their mind and then being misquoted. Instead, he will tell you things exactly as he perceives them, he will say whatever is on his mind and will be straightforward about it, a quality any serious journalist should appreciate.

As for being arrogant: whoever came up with that suffers from a very childish misconception. He is not arrogant but proud, and rightfully so. He is aware of who he is and what he represents to the music industry today and he is proud of his numerous outstanding accomplishments. He doesn’t hide behind the all-too-familiar false modesty that characterizes many people in his position. I will repeat: he is honest, a quality that I hold in the highest regard.

Ok, on to the interview. I started off with the somewhat obligatory opening question:

Mr Di Meola, this is your third time performing in Timisoara, what keeps bringing you back?”

“Well, I love the landscape, the buildings and history. You have wonderful promoters that we love coming back to see every now and then, and the audience has always been great here and very appreciative of the music. I also know where Ceausescu hid a lot of his money, so every time I come back here I take a little bit,” he jokes.

Are you familiar with any Romanian musicians?” I ask him, thinking specifically of my favorite Romanian guitar player Horea Crisovan, whose show I recently attended. When he admits that he can’t think of any off the bat I mention Horea by name.

“Was he at the show?” he asks.

“I like to believe that he was,”

“Is he great?”

I tell him that, yes, he is great.

He asks someone if he can get some cream for his coffee and, noticing that I went silent, tells me to just keep firing away.

Alright, let’s talk a bit about your new record. Obviously, it’s a tribute to the Beatles who I know you’ve always been a fan of. Is it easier to cover an already existing song or to write a song from scratch?”

“It’s way harder to write new music, something original, something that’s complex. It’s a lot more evolved and far more difficult to come up with original music.  Each time you write for a record you’re challenging yourself to come up with something different which is very hard to do. It’s the same challenge pop people have, pop music, ‘cos everything’s been done already. I mean everything is just a variation, slightly, or it sounds like something that’s been done before. I think we’re a little bit more fortunate in instrumental music but it depends on the level of virtuosity in the player. If you have a lot of technique you can write interesting things, if you have lesser technique you cannot.

It’s what you hear in your head. If you hear it in your head but you can’t execute it that means your technique is not up to par so I think that really good technique is important. A lot of great classical virtuosos, they have a lot of technique but for some reason they don’t compose. I was composing since I was a teenager so I’m able to do things with rhythm and utilize my technique to write something that is far more interesting than a simple pop song.

What I did [with All Your Life] is I went all the way left and I did this record which is a tribute to Lennon and McCartney who, as you know, were really good pop songsters. They put together really clever and interesting pop music that, for me, had a beautiful aesthetic to it. That music is all great to me and not all pop music is but for some reason they had something magical and they were a good part of the reason why I got into music when I was a kid, just like a lot of us in the same generation, who play guitar.

The amazing thing about the Beatles and Lennon and McCartney in particular was the fact that we loved it then and we still love it now whereas the generation today, whatever music they’re growing up with, for sure they’re not going to like it later on in their life. It just doesn’t have the same quality that a lot of this music that was coming out of the 60s had. Some of the way in which I arranged this music was as hard as anything I’ve ever played before. But to answer your question: writing the music that’s mine, the music that we perform tonight, is far harder than taking something from the Beatles or Piazzolla and adapting it to my style, because I’m basically reading music that’s already been written and then adapting it to my rhythmic focus. Even though it poses challenges that still is probably a third as much work as it is to compose something new because I write everything out and have a lot of counterpoint in my music.

So you never felt the pressure of the fact that these are basically classic tunes that everybody is already acquainted with?”

“No, I never felt that because the Beatles were as important as everything else, you know. Piazzolla was important, Jimi Hendrix, was important in his way, the Beatles, Astor Piazzolla it’s all good stuff. Even Led Zeppelin’s early music, the first couple of albums, were really cool so there’s a period in which certain artists may have had a big effect on you so if you’re still able to listen to that music today and say ‘wow, that was really great’ like Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road or ‘The White Album’,  they’re just phenomenal records. Now, I was not a big fan of their individual work after they broke up so they had a certain pocket of time that will always be incredibly phenomenal and historic.

The experience with recording my tribute to them at Abbey Road Studios was definitely a highlight in my whole career, it was phenomenal and because I did it I’m able to do an interview with you and other people and have far more to talk about because it was so great, so cool. Now, if I had done another record like my last group records Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody or Consequence of Chaos or Flesh on Flesh it’s just…I find it hard to talk about the music because it’s my music, I’ve written it what am I going to talk about?

But there’s a lot to talk about after the experience of going to Abbey Road, what that meant. During the course of arranging the music I rented a house in the Hamptons. I had no idea where I was going but it turns out that McCartney was my next-door-neighbor, I had no idea. And that was the most incredible surreal experience I had in my life. That was when I only had a few songs written in 2012 and then I finished it in February 2013 and I said ‘I gotta try to rent that house again!’ which I did and then I was able to give him the final record and talk to him a few times but it’s beyond a dream. So there’s a lot to talk about.

Did you ever get any feedback from any of the Beatles?”

“Well, I never got feedback from him. I did get feedback from, believe it or not, his managers. When I was in London at the studio at Abbey Road they came over and heard some of it and loved it. And I know eventually Paul will get around to hearing it but this has got to be the busiest guy on the planet. The most famous, the richest, everything. But for a guy who’s that popular and wealthy and great he acts quite…he want to be just a normal guy. He had no security, no gate at the front of his driveway. My driveway and his were touching one another. There were no cameras, he drove an old Ford Bronco, it’s fantastic.”

A down to earth guy,”

“Well, as down to earth as you can possibly be because, you know, you can’t take advantage of somebody like that. He won’t take a picture with you if he doesn’t know who you are. Otherwise everybody is going to be taking advantage of him. But generally he is approachable and personable. I think it’s the same way I am. I’m pretty approachable and personable because the impression if you’re not that way, is the worst. People will always remember that moment.

Well, I did call you in your hotel-room, you could have told me to go f**k myself but instead you were really nice and agreed to give me this interview,”

“Well, you know, it’s always hard [to give an interview] before a show. I always tell [the team] it has to be after when I’m relaxed. But if I’m rushed before the show it’s not a good time.”

I’m currently working on a science fiction novel so I want to ask you a question that is in that spirit: Let’s say you were traveling back in time to the day when a nineteen year-old guitar prodigy named Al Di Meola got the call to be in his favorite band in the world, Return to Forever. If you had the opportunity to speak with your younger self, what would you say? (I expected him to be caught off-guard by my question but he never missed a beat)

“Well, you have the chance of a lifetime, you will sink or swim. There was a point in which I thought I was going to sink and I have to give credit where credit’s due. I went to Chick [Corea] and I said ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m doing the job’ and he said ‘No, you’re doing great, you’re doing phenomenal. And I didn’t know whether he was kidding or just trying to make me feel better. That told me right then that now, whether he meant it or not, I have to do the job, I really have to rise. So I practiced a lot and I took it very seriously. I didn’t go out a lot, I really wanted to grow because you’re in a situation where you’re with giants so you can grow fast or sink. And luckily [Chick] was also pushing that we should write something. And I wasn’t a writer then, none of the guys were really writers, Stanley [Clarke] had maybe a couple of songs but I think we were the first group ever, of any group, that had solo records and a group record at the same time, before anybody. I don’t think there was any group, I remember that distinctly. So when I was put into the position, at 21, to write music, I wrote for my first record and I also wrote for Return to Forever a little bit, but I still didn’t feel comfortable. First record I started to see that I might have the ability to do this because…I made a record. Then the second record I really knew I had something special as a composer. Now, 28 records later, it’s probably where I put more of my emphasis: on making interesting instrumental music.

But every now and then it was nice to do like a tribute to Piazzolla like Diabolic Inventions, a bit of solo guitar version of some of that music which was incredibly challenging and amazingly beautiful. He was a very big influence on me, he’s the biggest influence on me in this second half of my career so far…”

Creatively, you mean…”

“Oh, man, just amazing! Because he was making complex music that touched your heart. It wasn’t just complex music that was cerebral, it also made you cry at times, it was so beautiful. And it was always filled with complexity, and never at the expense of the music being shallow, so that experience was really great. And I know the musicians are equally happy doing my music as well as Piazzolla’s music, which they love. And Peo especially is a huge Beatles fan. The other guys were not initially. Some of them didn’t actually grow up with the Beatles so it was a different effect and they’ve come to love it. But Peo and I are fanatics and a lot of us who grew up with The Beatles were absolutely crazy for them. And it’s great to hold on to that childhood dream, that childhood feeling. Going to Abbey Road was really like being a five year old and going to Disney World. That excitement I haven’t felt since I was a kid. So this record made it really interesting to do interviews because it’s so different, you know. Now with my next record I go back to making very very complex guitar music, you know (laughs) Which I have a lot of.”

You’ve released so many records throughout your career, do you have a favorite? One that’s a bit closer to your heart than the others?”

“It’s really hard because I’m really really proud of a lot of the records. It’s easier to say the ones that aren’t but I’d rather not (laughs). You know, our last group record was really…I can see the progression of intellect that went into composing and the amount of hours and dedication to get it. Sometimes I listen to the older records like that, even if it’s ten or fifteen or twenty years old and I’m actually surprised at how great it is. Because to get that kind of attention into a project today is very hard because of the cell-phone and the computer. It’s changed the way we focus. We don’t focus. We’re inundated. This generation, and even the older generation that have adapted to these cell-phones and computers are having a very hard time with the overload of networking and communication that’s taking our attention away from the instrument. If you’re a musician, or whatever other job you might have…”

I’m a writer, so whenever I write the phone is off the hook and the cell-phone is muted,”

“Yeah, and that’s incredible discipline. Most people…most…do not have that, no way. That phone is on. Even if you turn the ringer off but you’ll see the light flash it’s a disturbance. So the older records before the computers were  personal. The records had a certain focus that was unbelievable and it’s not the same anymore. You can’t get a group of musicians in a studio without them checking their phones every five seconds and not focusing on what we’re doing. And the record market has gone down, it’s over. It’s over because of the internet so in one way the live music scene is better if you have a name but the recording business is completely finished, it’s almost over.”

I remember you were very vocal about this in some of the interviews I’ve read. How has that situation progressed throughout the years?”

“It’s gotten worse! Normally we sell a lot of CDs at the shows, that’s really the best place to sell but I’ve even noticed on this tour that there was a reducing of the amount of people because I think they’re downloading more.  And I do the same. I don’t really listen to CDs as much, I download them to my phone and that’s how I listen. It’s not optimum but I travel a lot so that’s my excuse but in the U.S there’s not one CD store. It’s over.”

That’s surprising to hear,”

“Oh yeah! It’s not the same in Europe but it’s definitely way less than it was so I hope we hold on because having a physical product is wonderful. Look at that record there!”

He pointed to a vinyl copy of his new record All Your Life that was lying on a table nearby. I picked it up to look at it and I understood exactly what he means about connecting with the physical object (a little trivia about me is I almost exclusively listen to music on CDs, I’m very old school)

Al-Di-Meola-All-Your-Life

“People say it’s coming back,” he continues with a half-smile “but come on it’s never going to come back like it was before but there’s a little resurgence of vinyl now which is kind of cool. But Jesus Christ, I’d have to go buy a record player again (laughs). I do like the convenience factor. But they sound better, so vinyl does sound better,”

It has more ‘life’ to it,”

“No, no, no…it’s just…richer, it’s way better. Digital anything is thinner. And we’ve grown accustomed to digital and thinner. One of the reasons why I wanted to record at Abbey Road was that I wanted to record like the Beatles on 8-track tape.”

One last thing I wanted to ask you. I’ve seen the Poll results of DownBeat Magazine this morning and I noticed that most of the musicians that won in any category were older generation musicians (Look for yourselves and see that Pat Metheny entered the Hall of Fame and Wayne Shorter won no less than five categories). Basically I think none of the musicians are under 40 years of age (I was wrong, sorry Trombone Shorty and anyone else I might have overlooked, but still, my point is valid) . Still, in the 1970s when you got picked to play with Return to Forever you were only 19 years old but already very capable. Would you say there is perhaps a shortage of very talented young musicians or are they just not getting enough exposure?

“No, not at all!” he replies emphatically. “To me there is an abundance of great players. There’s no shortage of ‘em. There’s more than the world is going to get the chance to hear, that’s the problem. It’s just that you have an abundance of great players in the wrong time. Had it been an abundance of players in the right time more of them would have been heard. The only plus is the internet. People maybe can find you through the internet, people who sit around at home and live on the internet discover…lots of things, oh my God! But it doesn’t mean much in terms of really making a living which is what musicians want to do. So my opinion is there’s…if I took just Romania… I’m sure there’s great great guitar players here. Every country. There’s no shortage of this, there’s more than ever.

When I started out there wasn’t, there really wasn’t. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job had there been a lot. Now there’s just so many great guitar players without the chance to be heard. Luckily I was fortunate to have made my name in a time when those early records made a lasting impression and imprint on people’s minds, to the point where I was able to sustain a career. But had I made a bunch of lousy records after that it could have gone down. So it’s not just the ability to play great. That’s another thing: there’s no shortage of great players, there’s a major shortage of good music. A lot of these players…they’re playing, but the songs are boring. The compositions are really awful actually and that’s where the audience gets lost.  The majority of my audience out there were not musicians but they have an interest in the music because there’s enough ‘ingredients’ in the ‘food’. If you have a lot of ingredients in the food it tastes good but if the only ingredients are fast runs and solos that go on forever you will lose almost everybody. So there’s no shortage of good players but, believe me when I tell you, there’s a shortage of great composition. That’s why my emphasis has been on that and I come from really good influences: the Beatles, Chick Corea, Astor Piazzolla and all Latin music, the rhythmic concepts they really influenced and shaped my ability.”

On that note we shook hands and called it an evening. I could see that he was exhausted and I appreciated the fact that he took the time to discuss these things with me so extensively. The mark of a great mind; he approached this interview with the same straightforward and open character which can be found in his music and which makes his compositions stand out as truly some of the greatest works for guitar ever written.

I hope you enjoyed it and I encourage you to comment on the topics discussed and let me know your opinions about the music and myth of Al Di Meola.

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Myself having the honor of having my picture taken with Al Di Meola


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover

Ilie Stepan, Horea Crisovan and Mario Florescu close off the Timisoara Baroque Festival

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Like I said in my previous article: October has so far been a good month for music, especially last weekend when I got to attend two great events; both of which were outstanding in their own way. Saturday I was at the JazzyBIT concert that brought the house down and Sunday found me at the Philharmonic for the closing concert of the Timisoara Baroque Festival, a gig featuring three very well-known and extremely accomplished musicians: Ilie Stepan, Horea Crisovan and Mario Florescu.

Mario Florescu is the leader of Mario & The Teachers, an ethno-Jazz act I’ve written about before and is an accomplished and talented percussionist. Both him and Ilie Stepan have been around for decades and have been part of some true revolutions – not only in music, as Stepan is known for having been on the Opera balcony giving the proverbial finger to the Ceausescu regime in a time when things were getting pretty hot all over Romania. He is also known for composing the revolutionary anthem “Timisoara” together with Marian Odangiu, while at the helm of rock band Pro Musica.

Still, while I greatly respect both these artists and their indisputable accomplishments, the real reason I attended the event was to see guitar player Horea Crisovan. Horea has got the Romanian musical audience divided: some say that he is one of the best guitar players in Romania while others claim he is the absolute best guitar player in the country. I’ve been following his career ever since the early 2000’s when he was performing with Jazz-Funk band Blazzaj (among many many…many others), a band I was really into at the time. The thing with Horea is that he is involved in so many projects that you never know what you’re going to get. Though he is immensely talented, his talent is not always showcased at maximum potential in some of the bands he’s part of, which is probably the only downside of being a very versatile and very active musician. Still, when I read his name alongside that of Florescu and Stepan as well as the word “acoustic” I knew it was going to be Horea at his very best. Not only was I not disappointed but the show completely exceeded my expectations.

The performance was divided into two parts. The first was a straight-forward showcasing of the two guitar players’ talent, with the main focus on Horea and his incredible speed and dexterity through an abundance of lighthearted compositions as well as some well-known international tracks (“Hotel California” and “Fragile” by Sting). I was completely blown away by Horea’s playing. Perhaps because of his many musical projects, some requiring less of his gifted input than others, it is easy to forget just how amazingly talented and multilateral this man is when it comes to his approach to the guitar. Since I will return to the Philharmonic to see Al DiMeola perform in November I couldn’t help but wonder what the veteran guitarist would think of Horea’s playing but I can’t imagine he would do anything else  but enthusiastically clap with the rest of us.

The second part was what I called the “nostalgia” part, with Stepan and Florescu front-and-center, playing songs from the heyday of their careers, complete with intense and sensitive musical videos and with Horea backing them up on electric guitar. It was a very emotional performance that could be enjoyed in its entirety only with the empathetic connection and involvement from the audience, as many remembered the era in which these songs were in their prime.

Unfortunately, because of the big age-gap, I know I couldn’t entirely connect with the music like a large part of the audience seemed to do and I’m sorry that I couldn’t award this second part of the show the emotional investment that it deserved. Even so, I did enjoy it greatly and the passionate presence of past memories was almost palpable. All-in-all it was a beautiful event that had something for everyone. It showcased the superb talent of a young musician as well as the staying-power of the veteran performers but most of all it demonstrated the beautiful symbiosis between them.

You can watch the entire event live at the following link:

http://www.infoo.ro/Evenimente-INFOO-LIVE-ZS776971TD.html

JazzyBit live in “Rost” – a hot act on the threshold of a debut album

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With the beginning of October autumn was shaping up to be a very musical season. There is, of course, the highly anticipated Al DiMeola concert coming up in November, Iva Bittova played the synagogue as part of the SoundCzech festival, the Simultan Festival (that I sadly didn’t get to attend) brought some good quality music among the many other art forms it aimed to promote, and the well-advertised Timisoara Baroque Festival featured more concerts than you can shake a conductor’s baton at (more on one of these concerts in a future article). Meanwhile, on the local Jazz-scene a young trio that has been growing in popularity for the last year and a half announced that they will be playing their last gig in town for this year before retiring to the studio to record their debut album.

When I had heard a few weeks ago, that JazzyBit was going to be performing at the launching party of my latest writing project, a Romanian comic book series called Fairytale Therapy, I was very happy and excited but also a bit embarrassed. Pianist Teo Pop and I had worked together in tech support at my old job (albeit in different departments) and, though I’ve been aware for a while that he’s in a Jazz trio and though I like to call myself a “Jazz journalist”, I had never seen him in action.

Things always turned out in such a way that we were never in the same place at the same time, even though the very young band already has some pretty impressive gigs under their belt (including the Jazz festival in Gărâna, arguably the biggest event of its kind this side of Europe). Well, at least I was going to hear them at the book-launching event so I was happy about that. The party turned out great but I had little time to focus on the music, being pressed by the responsibilities that plague the debuting comic-book writer:  drinking wine, mingling with friends and signing autographs, stuff like that…but I digress. Anyway, I had heard enough to know that I like their sound so when I got a Facebook-notification warning me that this would be their last gig in a while I knew it was now or never.

The show was held in a place called Rost, a quirky but rather narrow newly-opened bar in the center of the city. What the place lacks in acoustics it makes up for in ambiance since no matter where you are seated you will be close to the musicians. That always helps one get into the “vibe” of a show even if one forgot to make reservations ahead of time and got stuck with the worst vantage point in the room (I already apologize for the bad pictures). Anyway, once the guys started playing you didn’t care where you found yourself because they plain and simply rocked the house.

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Pictured: JazzyBit rocking the house
Not pictured: A good vantage point

The trio, consisting of my work-buddy Teo Pop on everything with a keyboard, Mihai Moldoveanu on bass and Szabo Csongor-Zsolt on drums (who looks young enough to be my son but plays with the self-confidence of Lewis freakin’ Nash) was founded in 2011 and started performing together at the beginning of 2012. Though only playing together for rather short time JazzyBit have the chemistry of a band with a lot more years under its belt and on stage that translates into high energy and great fun.  I’ve never made a secret of the fact that this is a very subjective website, more of a musical diary than a review-blog, so I have to start off by saying that I’m not really into Latin-Jazz nor am I a big fan of synthesizer in a Jazz trio (I always prefer the piano) but in spite of that I was instantly captured by the performance.

Throughout the hour and a half of their performance there was never a dull moment and I was impressed with the great talent of these young musicians whose charismatic and high-octane delivery kept them safe from ever falling into a generic sound. Teo Pop is incredibly fast and very versatile and his interactions with Szabo Csongor-Zsolt, including the round of back-and-forth one-upmanship – always a crowd pleaser at a Jazz show – provided the spice for the performance while Mihai Moldoveanu’s bass was a powerful backbone.

The band played their own compositions, most of which will probably be found on their debut record Touch the Sky. The songs, with a predominant Latin-Jazz influence, also contained elements of funk, blues, straight-up piano trio and even a bit of rock at one point. My favorite pieces have to be “Curacao” (seen here as performed at the Budapest Jazz Club) and “Poate de ce” (“Maybe Why”) for its low-key delivery that reminded me of another pianist whose music I greatly enjoy.

While the band still seems to be working on carving out a more well-defined identity for their sound (a process that is completely understandable at this point in their careers and will no doubt be finalized by the time they finish recording their album) the interaction between the musicians is really good. All in all, JazzyBit is a hot act right now, worth seeing at this point primarily for its “bang-for-your-buck” delivery. You have a fresh and energetic band that plays like a veteran act and the best time to catch them live is right now. I predict a massive growth in demand and popularity sooner rather than later and, at this point in their career, you can still catch them is small, intimate venues. If before getting to see them live I was interested in their debut record only from what I had seen on Youtube, after their show this Saturday I am counting the days until “Touch the Sky” hits the shelves!