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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Se ha formado un casamiento

todo cubierto de negro,

negros novios y padrinos

negros cuñados y suegros,

y el cura que los casó

era de los mismos negros.

Cuando empezaron la fiesta

pusieron un mantel negro

luego llegaron al postre

se sirvieron higos secos

y se fueron a acostar

debajo de un cielo negro.

(A wedding has taken place

All covered in black

Black were the groom and the bride

Black were the in-laws

Black also was

the priest who married them

When the party started

They placed a black tablecloth

When they got the desserts

Black figs were served

And they went to bed

Under a black sky)

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

Cuando vi de los mineros

dentro de su habitación

me dije: mejor habita

en su concha el caracol,

o a la sombra de las leyes

el refinado ladrón

Y arriba quemando el sol

(When I saw the miners

Inside their rooms

I said: a snail lives better

inside its shell,

Or under the shadow of law

the refined thief

and above the sun is burning)

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

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

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

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

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

Corazón maldito

sin miramiento, sí,

sin miramiento,

ciego, sordo y mudo

de nacimiento, sí,

de nacimiento.

Me das torment

(Wicked heart,

You have no mercy,

You have no mercy on me,

Blind, deaf and mute

from birth

from birth

You torment me)

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

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

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

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

Often times, the enormous difference between Violeta’s organic, unrefined delivery and Sofia’s faultless, all-encompassing vocals leads to a sort of transcendent interpretation of the songs. By the very nature of her voice and the energy of her delivery, the vocalist has, in a way, liberated these songs from the bondage of their intrinsic emotional weight, preserving them in a timeless and boundless form.

Through this carefully crafted tribute, Sofia Rei manages to outdo herself, paying homage to her influences as she claims new territory. El Gavilan continues to add depth to one of the most interesting musical résumés of the last decade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see where this is heading

And I’d love to go along

But you’ve got some ties that bind you

To a place I don’t belong

I know your heart is aching

And you think I’ve got the cure

But once the dawn is breaking

You might not be so sure

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

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

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

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

The Earth shook beneath me

The full moon glazed above

The cobbled stones, the narrow streets,

Of course I fell in love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Leave Behind by Soul Basement and Jay Nemor – unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor

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The Music and Myth starts off 2017 with good vibes and a great big serving of soul courtesy of What We Leave Behind. This upbeat, high-spirited collaboration between Italian musician Soul Basement and American/Icelandic singer-saxophonist Jay Nemor served as a welcome break from my month-long study of John Zorn’s catalog, its smooth, simple, old-school sound in stark contrast with Zorn’s complex, eclectic avant-garde experimentation.

There’s neither experimentation nor much metaphor in this live studio recording, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear, powerful message. I received the album for review from Fabio Puglisi, the man behind the Soul Basement project, who described it as “all about jazz, soul and those good old-fashioned moods, yet still looking towards the future”. This forward-looking is achieved through to-the-point, socially conscious lyrics by Nemor as well as a delivery that aptly switches from impassioned to delicate, remaining hopeful and determined throughout.

The first words the listener gets to hear are definitely meant to establish the tone the artists wish to grant the recording: “Got a smile on my face, things are going my way, I’m doing fine.”

Though not nearly as memorable as a “No Love Dying” or a “Code Cool”, this simple, self-explanatory track succeeds in marking a clear direction for the rest of the record and getting the listener in a persistent feel-good mood. The song’s major revelation is Nemor’s deep, spellbinding voice. Whether it’s his soulful singing or his unambiguous spoken-word interludes, the vocalist’s delivery is a constant high point throughout the record, adding gravitas to a playlist that might otherwise have felt too light. His unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor carry over to the second track, “Noise Pollution”, which seems poised to become the album’s anthem, with its funky beat and resounding contemporary message.

Talking loud ain’t saying nothing

Tired of all these politicians faking and fronting

Misleading the people with destructive illusions

It’s a foregone conclusion

That we gotta find some kind of solution

Telling all them lies

just to get inside

So that they can do

Not a thing they promised to

For me and you

What else can we do

A change is overdue

Nemor’s frankness is both his strength and his weakness as a lyricist, with effective songs like “Noise Pollution” countervailed by the likes of “It’s Time”.

Even after countless have stood at the frontline

time after time after time

to show us the way to a better day

yet still here we are looking for a new leader to come and save the day

Does another have to put their life on the line

in hopes that we will finally make up our mind

to develop a collective mind set

so that we can fight, proclaim and protect

our human rights

which when you think about it’s a damn shame we even have to fight

for our so called inherent God given birthright

Here, the writer’s lack of subtlety translates to an articulation that falls dangerously close to preaching and distracts from an otherwise well-crafted song. As a lyricist, Nemor is at his best when delivering simple, heartfelt statements such as “With You”, a beautiful, unassuming ballad à la Gregory Porter, with captivating instrumentation and exceptionally tender vocals.

“Love Will Find You” again features – as they say in writing – a bit too much telling and too little showing. However, the somewhat flawed lyrics are outweighed by a catchy dynamic arrangement and a short but fresh-sounding saxophone solo, making it a more-than-enjoyable listen.

“The Joy Inside”, with its lively percussion and crisp vocals is an understated gem while “Angel of Mine”, a gorgeous ballad wherein Nemor does his absolute best work, wouldn’t be out of place in Barry White’s repertoire – high praise for any soul musician. To me, this is the highlight of the record and a truly memorable moment.

The soft, nostalgic “Future Reminiscence”, a spoken-word serenade to bygone times and enduring memories sounds unspectacular at first, but its heartfelt message, smooth sax and low-key vibe leave a pleasant aftertaste and a general feeling of well-being to close the record.

Crafted with care and obvious dedication to the spirit of modern jazz and soul, What We Leave Behind is a heartfelt effort with a strong, consistent message, an endlessly charismatic vocalist and a couple of outstanding compositions. The duo of Soul Basement and Jay Nemor clearly possess great chemistry. There’s a multitude of ways for them to further cultivate this successful collaboration and I’m looking forward to hearing the future fruits of their labor. Recommended by The Music and Myth!

Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables – equal parts science and art

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A couple of weeks ago, while browsing through the new releases, a particular record caught my eye. Two things stood out immediately.

First, the artist’s name. Tyshawn Sorey is one of the most respected, all-encompassing musical minds of the modern era. His compositions invariably place his work at the upper echelon of jazz, modern classical and the avant-garde.

The second thing that had my attention was the album’s lineup: a Double Trio consisting of a typical piano-jazz set-up (featuring Sorey on drums and percussion, Cory Smythe on piano and Christopher Tordini on bass) as well as a classic string trio formed of Fung Chern Hwei on violin, Kyle Armburst on viola and Rubin Kodheli playing the violoncello.

Now, whenever I see a string trio on anything even remotely resembling a jazz record I go completely nuts. Seeing as this was also signed Tyshawn Sorey, I went into it with high expectations. In fact, my expectations were so high I even anticipated they would be surpassed, meaning this record has the distinct quality of simultaneously meeting and surpassing my expectations. All kidding aside, I think this pretty much sums up Sorey’s talent.

The young musician with an MA in composition from Wesleyan University and an upcoming Doctorate in Music for Composition from Columbia brought forth an impressively ambitious work influenced by the conducted improvisation method of Lawrence D. Butch Morris, among others.

Even before listening to a single note of this impressive 120 minute-long double-album (recorded in a single 15 hour-long session) I knew it was going to be one of those instances where I would profoundly regret not having any musical schooling. To be clear, The Inner Spectrum of Variables is as much a work of science as it is a product of art and, though it can be exquisitely appreciated by a layman, I am simply left in awe just thinking of the variegated layers that must reveal themselves to a trained musician’s ear.

From the start, you can tell you are listening to something special. Pianist Cory Smythe opens the record with a solo – the subtle but sublimely beautiful “Movement I (Introduction)” – establishing the piano as our first guide into the composer’s world of variables. This track also positions the first part of the record firmly in modern-classical territory, though genre delimitations are of little importance in Sorey’s work.

This is its own musical entity, of no more static consistency than a churning mass of fog (to quote John Dos Passos). And while many composers cross genres and blur the lines between musical styles, in Sorey’s case, this feels less like a construction made from various different building blocks and more like a number of assorted thematic influences reflecting off of an entirely authentic musical surface.

The short piano intro seamlessly flows into “Movement II” (one of my favorites) ceding the proverbial stage to the string section. It’s on this track more than any other that I feel the listener can get the best glimpse of Sorey’s innate understanding of constructing a coherent narrative. The string trio tells a remarkable story of patience, reflection, tension and expression. The ataractic piano appeases the strings, shifting the mood from dark and tense to almost nostalgic. When Sorey’s instrument makes its long-awaited debut in a quaking crescendo, it is just to further focus the listener’s attention on the intense and haunting strings.

Like the best composers, Sorey makes perfectly balanced use of his instrument, humbly using it to enhance, never to distract. The classical-ensemble feel of the first two tracks gracefully bows out in Movement III, with its sparks of jazzy experimentation in the form of spasmodic piano over frenetic drums and strings that hint at whale songs among other acoustic expressions of nature.

The shift towards the dissonant is subtle, not gratuitous. Its purpose isn’t to shock, but to reveal a different chapter in this musical story, one further inclined towards the deeper levels of contemplation. Also remarkable on this track is the composer’s use of silence to create space, especially around minute four, where the strings (including Tordini’s bass) break out into a veritable game of catch-me-if-you-can.

When the piano once again takes over, pace and patience become more and more important. To me, and perhaps others inclined to seeing music as a form of storytelling, Movement III sounds like the musical representation of meditation. With the mind’s descent into deeper levels of consciousness and quietude represented by the shift from playful pizzicato to solemn piano, the instruments grow calm, shifting their focus inward, much like the rampant thoughts of day-to-day life subdued by the tranquility of meditation.

Of course, the beauty of Sorey’s Variables is that, as the name suggests, the symbolism can take whichever shape the listener’s mind can conjure up. This allows the audience to participate in the work on an almost creative level, in a way achieved only by the topmost expressions of art. In this author’s opinion, the very best examples of literature leave enough room for the reader to fill with the contents of his or her imagination. Tyshawn Sorey’s compositions demonstrate that this effect can be achieved in music also.

Once again, Sorey’s drums are the last to make an appearance and, once again, their appearance is spectacular. Sorey’s introduction of the drums at around the ten-minute mark exacerbated by the tension in the strings and Smythe’s convulsive piano, collectively make for another one of the record’s best moments.

Towards the midpoint, when all instruments briefly descend into a tumult of controlled chaos, I can’t help but be reminded of John Zorn’s method of conduction, which is probably fitting seeing as how Sorey and Zorn sometimes collaborate. As the first record’s closing “movement” violently slips into a final minute of pure piano jazz, it foreshadows the more jazz-oriented vibe of the second part.

If the first of the two sides commenced with the classical beauty of the piano solo, part two opens with a contemplative, almost mystical percussion solo in “Reverie”, where Sorey’s cymbals and gongs create a mesmerizing catalog of cognition, somewhat reminiscent of Robyn Schulkowsky’s and Nils Peter Molvaer’s Hastening Westward, with strings and piano playing the part of Nils Peter Molvaer’s trumpet.

In “Movement IV”, dissonance dissolves into echoes of oriental music. The combination took me back to Zorn’s Masada String Trio and even Bar Khokba. It’s another one of my favorite tracks, mostly due to Sorey’s fantastic percussion. Though generally (and brilliantly) subdued throughout Variables, in this track, the instrumentalist side of the composer is at its most forceful. The song’s last few minutes are a sublime expression of impact, right up to the finale, when the whole song comes full circle.

The record closes with the disarmingly temperate and stridently spectral “Movement V + VI + Reprise” reminiscent of the closing tracks on many an ECM recording. Given the complexity and uniqueness of Sorey’s album, I still can’t make up my mind whether this is a good thing or not. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating composition also.

Overall, with a broadness of scope reminiscent of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic (incidentally, The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2015), Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of variables is a visionary work, masterfully imagined by a composer whose genius extends even beyond the brilliance exhibited by many of his distinguished peers and flawlessly executed by a band whose virtuosity is uncontested.

I usually close review of such a record saying it is “highly recommended” by The Music and Myth. But The Inner Spectrum of Variables is not merely highly recommended – it is required listening for any serious music aficionado.

Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding – intense, intelligent and intrepid

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One record I was really looking forward to this year was Esperanza Spalding’s fifth studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution released on Concord ten years after her debut, Junjo.

Esperanza is one of those musicians that just seem too good to be true. Basically, her entire career has been one long, continuous hype. It should really be impossible for the young songwriter, bass player and vocalist to rise to these almost ridiculous expectations and yet she does it every single time, with each new record.

“Notorious” for snatching away the Best New Artist Grammy from Justin fucking Bieber in 2011 (thus salvaging what little credibility NARAS has left), Esperanza is a rare phenomenon in a genre that generally doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves: a superstar.

To steal a lyric from her new record, she is “exceptionally pretty” but also exceptionally talented. She has the confidence of a seasoned veteran but the energy of a hungry young artist. She is intelligent without being condescending and daring without being reckless. She’s had a unique career trajectory, unceasingly rising to new heights and everything she’s put out has been a gem. It was bound to stop somewhere.

Bullshit – no, it wasn’t!

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism. In other words, it’s exactly what it should be at this stage in her career.

When I reviewed her previous record for BlindedBySound, I called it “another impressive offering from Esperanza and, no-doubt, an important step forward on the road to leaving a very serious musical legacy.” If Radio Music Society was a step forward, Emily is a giant leap of moon-landing proportions. Everything is on point, there is not a single misstep. In her previous work, I pointed out her excessively straightforward lyrics as somewhat lacking in finesse. Here, this candidness no longer feels juvenile, but ripe, clever, playful and sexy.

The record starts with the words “see this pretty girl, watch this pretty girl flow” and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing (in the good way, not the way I do whenever I accidentally hear a tune by Sean Paul).

“Good Lava” is the perfect opening song – provocative, loud and unhinged. As a listener, you instantly realize that this is an entirely new creative direction as Matthew Stevens’ Marc Ribot-influenced guitar, Esperanza’s own Pastorius-tinged bass and Justin Tyson’s drums heavily tilt the sound towards funk and even rock, where it basically remains throughout the whole album.

Still, although the sound is different, Esperanza’s charismatic delivery is the same in her portrayal of her alter-ego, Emily. On “Good Lava”, she teases:

 

lone ranger,

I see you like the view

wond’ring from a distance

what my pretty peak can do

come brave me

[…]

you stranger

one day are gonna be

planting your own flag of

conquered fear and fantasy

right on me

 

For “Unconditional Love”, Emily reverts to her Esperanza-persona, with vocals that call to mind the sound of Radio Music Society in spite of the pronounced presence of guitarist Stevens (a constant throughout the record, which turns out to be almost as much a showcase of his talent as Spalding’s). Undoubtedly a beautiful song making good use of the singer’s splendid voice, it might have benefited from a different position on the record. This way, it slightly takes away from absorbing the full impact of the new creative direction.

The narrative balance is quickly restored with “Judas”, one of the highlights, both in its heavy, impactful sound and conscious, ruminative lyrics, that demonstrate the songwriter’s evident improvement in an area that used to be a noticeable shortcoming.

 

judas, you know the

lonesome road

don’t ya collectin’ bottle caps

of rum

honest sinning to chase the

blues

blur ya ‘til kingdom come

take a little girl who gets to see her

mama broke down

now she’s a lady made for

the modern world

my life

but if you ask my advice us

raging girls

are china dolls fed up with bull that follows

all the way down

digging up holy scriptures to

shame her while she drowns

but if you ask my advice that

shallow grave is a bargain

 next to judgment day

it’s only a matter of time

honey

good money

sinks through her teeth

she’s not evil

forgive this innocent wrecking

ball (man-made)

 

In “Earth to Heaven” the vocalist’s rich, clean delivery contrasts with the band’s rough, prog-rock energy and the poignant, determined poetry.

 

there are no perfect

amends here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

there’s no promise or test

here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there (soldier)

no virgins or saints here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

all good children and evil

are even here

 just getting there

war man’s cross on

their shoulders

kings die ringed in gold

slaves die consoled

on the other side

a meek’s reward

is better

like a pearly resort

except without a report

from hell

how on Earth can you tell?

Equally forceful and another one of the record’s highlights, “One” sees the vocalist at her dynamic best, masterfully playing off of Karriem Riggins’ drums and a short but biting guitar solo to again create a powerfully contrasted track. And since every reviewer and their pet iguana mentioned Joni Mitchell, I’ll take this opportunity to confirm that yes, the artist does draw from Mitchell in her storytelling and delivery and she does so elegantly, giving a nod to a creative influence while still decidedly retaining her individuality.

“Rest in Pleasure”, a soft, sexy counterpoint to the previous two tracks – and once again notable for Matthew Stevens’ excellent contribution – allows Spalding to step back from the heavier narrative of the song’s predecessors and let her hair down, before returning to a more confrontational tone with “Ebony and Ivy” and “Noble Nobles”, where her improved poetry is placed front and center, from the sarcastic recital at the start of the former to the cynicism prevalent in the latter (talking founding fathers with a free philosophy/ that don’t mention me/ or the stain of red blood on their hands/ at all).

With her characteristic charm and wit, the songwriter tackles issues of history, racial heritage, white privilege and education, as is evident in the following example from “Ebony and Ivy”.

sage grows on the mountain

you can dig it with a silver

spoon

float it off to market hawk

and talk it

from hot-air balloons

get your good

old-fashioned learnin’

hear the bell and summer’s

endin’

underneath the apple tree

time to choose a branch

and build your nest of

animosity

now we’re really

really learnin’

it’s been hard to grow outside

growin’ good at act happy

and pretend that the ivy vines

didn’t weigh our branch down

The deceptively soft and harmonious “Farewell Dolly” brings forth pressing issues of gender roles while “Elevate or Operate” with its carnival-ride intro and shades of The Jimi Hendrix Experience comments on glass ceilings and unfulfilled ambitions (so honey stop your whining, wishing, scheming/ press a floor to waste your dreams in) while “Funk the Fear” extends on the topic, berating the very thought process exposed in the former.

The record closes with a dark, almost macabre rendition of “I want it now” (Veruca Salt’s piece in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – itself a rather dark and macabre moment), which the vocalist delivers with a gleeful voracity, refusing to withhold for even a second the fact that this album is meant as an adamant creative statement.

With this brilliant, experimental album, Esperanza Spalding has created not only the best work of her career, but also the best vocal record of 2016 and a surefire contender for The Music and Myth Awards.

Massive Attack’s Heligoland – The Art of Darkness and Despair

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Though it might sometimes appear that way, The Music and Myth is not only about jazz, world music and whatever new record John Zorn puts out. I write predominantly about the aforementioned genres and projects because I feel the most comfortable in that territory, but I listen to a lot of new music every week in a wide variety of styles. Most of these binges are during my 8-to-10 hour long writing sessions as I work on my science fiction novels (which you should absolutely check out if you’re into character-driven, philosophy-prone action and adventure SF in the vein of Frank Herbert).

Anyway, sometimes, I stumble across a record, a concert or a song that will haunt me for weeks, often months and – in some cases – can even shape (or re-shape) the creative direction of my stories. For my first book, Mindguard, that record was Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro and for The Vintages it was John Zorn’s 2013 Warsaw concert with The Song Project. Most recently, as I’ve been working on my third book, Ayers, I kept coming back to one particular album which made me gain a new appreciation for its creators: Massive Attacks’ 2010 release, Heligoland.

At this point I have to admit that I don’t have much experience with Massive Attack, or any form of electronic music in particular. Of course, I know who they are and I’ve heard some of their most iconic tunes, though not always conscious of the fact that I was listening to the Bristol trip-hop icons. This is something I thought about a lot as I read some of the feedback the record garnered over time and discovered that most people did not seem to enjoy it as much as I did. Reviews abound with comparisons to their earlier work and journalists continuously lament how the band has lost this-or-that perceived quality (depending on the reviewer’s personal inclinations) that used to make their music great. This is the first Massive Attack record I’ve listened to coherently and I can personally tell you I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it, so much so that it still feels fresh after more than five months. I needed no more than three seconds to know this record would follow me around for a long time.

“Pray for Rain” is the best opening track I’ve heard since Gregory Porter’s “No Love Dying” (and before that Patricia Barber’s “Code Cool”). I was already in love with its awesome baseline even before I realized, “Holy shit, this is Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio on vocals.”

I’ve loved Adebimpe’s style since hearing “DLZ” in an iconic moment of the tv show, Breaking Bad (quick note: if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad – do it! Aside from the fact that it’s one of the most well-written shows of all time it benefits from a stellar soundtrack that includes everything from Badfinger to Gnarls Barkley, from Los Cuates de Sinaloa to Wolfgang Amadeus fucking Mozart).

“Pray for Rain” is driven by Adembimpe’s powerful delivery to the extent that it feels more like a TV on the Radio tune in Massive Attack’s clothing, which doesn’t bother me, though it might bother others. Like any excellent opening track, it sets the tone for the rest of the record, which relies heavily on the contribution of its guest vocalists (sometimes to a fault according to some critics, though I personally consider the guest appearances beautifully conducted). And what about the aforementioned “tone”? It can be simply (and somewhat jokingly) described as: gloom and doom.

Heligoland is definitely a somber, almost morose work whose most intense moments come as a result of the dark, often outright disturbing lyrics.

To be clear, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But as a person who enjoys a touch of darkness in his music (from the grotesque characters populating Tom Waist records, to the self-destructive and often borderline suicidal energy of Florence Welch and the moribund regret ubiquitous in Johnny Cash’s American series) I can state that Massive Attack definitely understand the subtleties of conveying despair. This grasp of darkness and hopelessness is exemplified to perfection in “Pray for Rain”.

Dull residue of what once was

A shattered cloud of swirling doves

And their eyes change

As they learn to see through flames

And their necks crane

As they turn to pray for rain

From the apocalyptic anxiety of the opener to the psychotropic bubblegum plasticity of “Babel” (with Martina Topley-Bird on vocals) and the neurotic, techno-gospel of “Spitting the Atom”, the band essentially conveys various different nuances within the same spectrum of darkness. As opposed to many reviewers, I don’t see this as static or listless, but rather careful study of the record’s main theme.

This so-called study reaches its apex in the powerful “Splitting the Atom” where the deep mutters and ghostly lyrics of Daddy G and 3D contrast with the rapturous crooning of reggae legend Horace Andy to produce, in my opinion, the highlight of the record (alongside “Pray for Rain”).

It’s getting colder outside

Your rented space

They shadow box and they

Paper chase

It never stops

And we’ll never learn

No hope without dope

The jobless return

“Girl I love You” retains Horace Andy, whose angelic voice evokes the melancholic quality of a bitter, distant memory. The deep, metallic baseline and dissonant horns get more and more forceful, finally breaking down into utter sonic chaos, before the record swiftly shifts gears with the hypnagogic “Psyche”, where Martina Topley-Bird’s cyberspace delivery compliments the evocative lyrics.

Conjure me as a child

Slipping down a webside

Stretch up I cannot reach him

Jumping up they drag him from the water

[…]

Ridicule they won’t allow

Quench abuse and let love flower

Rip the cage out of your chest

Let the chaos rule the rest

Unfortunately, “Flat of the Blade” is a creative step backwards. In spite of Guy Garvey’s faultless vocals, the song’s atmosphere seems forced and flat. The dynamic recovers – if only for an instant – with “Paradise Circus”, spearheaded by the hushed, sensuous melancholy of Hope Sandoval’s near-perfect delivery (Oh well, the devil makes us sin/ But we like it when we’re spinning in his grip) over catchy claps and a resounding bassline. The song, another one of the record’s best, slowly builds up to a dramatic ending, but its energy is lost on the follow-up, the rather bland and overtly conspicuous “Rush Minute”.

The ending restores some of the record’s initial intensity, partly with “Saturday Come Slow” – a grungy lament by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame – but mostly with the exceptional “Atlas Air”, a fitting equivalent to the powerful opener.

I know the drill

Got cells to burn

I’m dressed to kill

A mortal coil

And time is still

On secret soil

Yeah pay the bills

Cells to burn

Mouths to fill

On Boeing jets

In the sunset make glowing threats

With these words, the band closes a record that is captivatingly sophisticated, if perhaps excessively prone to introversion. With its mastery of tone and contrast, its haunting musical themes and some outstanding contributions by guest musicians, Heligoland transcends the limitations of its genre and demonstrates the band’s profound talent in the art of darkness and despair.

El Tren del Sur by Serge Lopez & Anouck Andre – flawless cadence and finesse

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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by French guitar player Anouck André, who had some great news to share: the upcoming release of her debut record. I was extremely excited, as I’d been following her work for years and was looking forward to listening to her first studio release.

Anouck and I got acquainted a couple of years ago when the fusion enthusiast read my interview with Al Di Meola and contacted me to introduce herself and her work. I was immediately captivated not only by her evident skill, but also by the tenderness and affection with which she treated her instrument. She told me that she was hoping to put out a record soon and I asked her to send it to me whenever it was ready.

Though I already had high expectations of whatever the promising musician would come up with, when she sent me El Tren del Sur I was completely blown away.

For starters, it was entirely different from what I’d envisioned. I thought I was going to get an entertaining but inconsistent presentation of an ambitious young musician’s first attempt at putting together a coherent story. Perhaps a fast-paced fusionrama with just a bit too much flash and a bit too little depth. That would have been expected, and it would still have been a ton of fun.

What I received instead was a polished masterpiece, a work of maturity and finesse.

Here’s the catch: instead of exploding on the music scene with the aforementioned typical debut album, shouting “This is me and this is what I do!” from the top of her lungs a la Land of the Midnight Sun, Anouck softly whispers, “I’m here to tell you a story you will not soon forget.”

The story in question is penned by French flamenco guitarist and composer Serge Lopez.

Now, if you’ve never heard Serge before, you need to stop reading this article, click on this link and come back when you’ve exhausted the playlist, or – better yet – just let it play in the background while you read.

El Tren del Sur is a collaboration featuring, in Anouck’s own words “nylon string for [Serge] and folk guitar for me.” It consists of eleven tracks, nine of which are written by Lopez, all of which feature exquisite aesthetics and a delightfully homogeneous blend of the composer’s vision and experience and Anouck’s warmth and tenderness. The chemistry between the two guitarists and the level of mutual respect discernible in their interplay took me back to Mark Knopfler’s and Chet Atkins’ Neck and Neck, one of the most beautiful collaborative efforts in the history of guitar music.

The album begins with “Sueño Andaluz”, a surprisingly restrained song that gently eases the listeners into the story, rather than throwing them right in the middle of the narrative, as is usually the preferred method of the recording industry. This haunting, nocturnal tune reminds me a bit of Marc Ribot playing the works of Frantz Casseus – incidentally one of my all-time favorite albums – as it lulls the listener into the spell of its allegorical scenery. It’s an elegant point of departure that sends a resounding message about the mindset behind this splendid record.

“El Americano” demonstrates the skillful balance between folk melancholy and flamenco energy that lies at the core of this partnership. Its compositional texture is similar to Horea Crisovan’s My Real Trip – chosen Best Instrumental Record of 2014 by The Music and Myth – especially of Horea’s duet with Vlatko Stefanovski.

Next off is a delicate tribute to Claude Nougaro’s “Toulouse”, one of the album’s highlights for its flawless cadence and purity of emotion. Following it, the title track sets a melancholy tone that borders on anxiety, where you get a sense that the musicians not only play off one another, but fervidly depend on each other – a gorgeous, almost agonizing symbiosis and another one of the album’s best offerings.

This deeply emotional interaction turns into a festive, flamenco-infused display of stunning stringwork in “Esperando el Viento” and culminates in the provocative “A mi Amigo Jacky” where the musicians truly get to let their hair down, playfully switching mood and momentum several times. The intense “La Familia” stays true to its name. It’s heavier, laden with a generational dynamic that ranges from warm and cozy to strained and even slightly aggressive, down to its climactic finale.

Though certainly a satisfying track, “Viajando” feels like it falls just a bit short of the ambitious standard set by the rest of the songs. However, the tempestuous “Montañas” quickly directs the course, preparing the listener for the grand finale that consists of the up-beat and intimate “Maestro Rachid” and – perhaps a surprise (it certainly was for me!) – a superb rendition of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No 1”. As a long-time admirer of Satie’s work I was delighted by this tribute, which concluded the album on a note of reflection and compliment.

On The Music and Myth, I often feature records whose sound is unorthodox, avant-garde, sometimes confrontational and other times downright courting the grotesque. I’ve written about trailblazers and mad scientists, people who turn their inner turbulence into a wild emotional catharsis and reimagine their medium in complex ways. El Tren del Sur is not one of those records. What it is, however, is something that made me aware of its increasing rarity: a collection of straightforward, simply beautiful music that is neither reductive nor – as is sometimes the way of the ECM catalog – cold and spectral.

A charming and tasteful record, El Tren del Sur receives a standing ovation from The Music and Myth!