Music is better than we are – an in-depth interview with Patricia Barber

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Chapter 1: Angels, Birds and Us – the trip to Vienna 

Every year, I spend January 1 performing a very cherished ritual.

From the moment I get out of bed, I retire to the living room with a large cup of coffee and two daily planners. One is for the previous year, the other for the one that’s just starting. I don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to e-mails or even turn on the computer. For up to ten hours, I’m engrossed in a meticulous routine during which I’m completely isolated from the world. It’s my favorite day of the year.

For exactly a decade I’ve been keeping a daily journal, recording everything I do and all that’s important to me. I write down my schedule, the amount of work I get done and the specific way I relax afterwards. I document where I go and whom I meet, whom I talk to on the phone or online and the topics of our conversation. In case Ioana and I happen to be traveling, I mention the places we visit.

My new year’s ritual consists of meticulously studying every entry in the old planner and occasionally writing down important information in the new one – names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthdays and appointments.

The entire first day of every year since 2007 has been dedicated to one long, detailed trip down memory lane. It’s not only an effective mental exercise that has verifiably improved my memory, but also an opportunity to reminisce. It’s a chance to come to terms with the lows but, more importantly, to relive the highs.

Once in a while, something so cool happens that I get excited at the prospect of reliving it even while the event is still taking place. Which brings me to December 3, two days before my thirty-first birthday.

Exactly four weeks after the monumental Bagatelles marathon wherein I got to see a great number of my favorite musicians live, I once again found myself inside the legendary Porgy & Bess, this time staring at a photograph of one of my absolute creative role models, Chicago-born composer, pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber.

The night of the Zorn concert I kept thinking that a bucket-list experience like that was a fitting event to close off an intense, capricious year and usher in the lull of the winter holidays. Little did I know that, for The Music and Myth, 2016 was far from over.

Those who have been following The Music and Myth over the years know what Patricia Barber’s work means to me. I’ve discovered her a short while after setting up the website (and, implicitly, starting my study of serious music) and her phenomenal record Smash has been a constant presence in the Cherascu household ever since.

I’ve never shied away from expressing my opinion that Smash is one of the best records in any genre in recent memory. This flawless, profoundly lyrical and thematically comprehensive work has even inspired me to create The Music and Myth Awards as a response to its artistically criminal omission from the 2014 Grammy ballot. Simultaneously, it has inspired me to ridicule NARAS at every turn, which has become almost as notable a tradition as the prestigious Music and Myth Awards themselves.

For Ioana and me, seeing Patricia in concert meant fulfilling a musical ambition that dated back almost four years. But there was another longtime goal I was looking to achieve: sitting down for an interview with one of music’s most captivating storytellers.

On Friday evening, one day before the concert, I was standing outside Patricia’s hotel on the Vienna beltway. The interview was scheduled for 22:00 but I’d arrived early, accompanied by my usual jazz-traveling party: my wife and in-laws. I spent that hour at the ground floor restaurant, mostly fretting about where the hell I was going to conduct the interview, since the establishment was uncomfortably loud and the receptionist had assured me that there was absolutely no other communal space in the boutique hotel. I knew from walking around the area that there were no other quiet spots in the vicinity, so I was left anxious and irritated.

My anxiety was instantly dispelled when Patricia came down to meet us in the lobby (I’d asked Ioana to join me for the interview). There was something about the distinguished musician’s personality that gave me the feeling I’d known her for years. She greeted us like friends and we proceeded to look for the quietest place we could find. A quick inspection instantly disqualified the cramped locale, so Patricia just shrugged and said, “My room?”

We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, while Patricia recounted how she’d had to call the reception to get an extra chair, because there was only one in the room.

“I told them, ‘I need more than one chair, I’m an old person’,” she joked. “This is a children’s hotel.” We laughed and she turned to Ioana. “See, but now you’re going to have to sit on the bed.”

Chapter 2: Post-Enlightenment Free – the interview

Patricia, I know you’ve been struggling with a cold for the past few days. How are you feeling now? 

It’s fine. It’s over.

That’s good to know. First, let me say, we’re happy to have you back in Europe.

Thank you.

I know you haven’t been here in 2016, but you’ve been here many times over the years. Can you discern a difference between the jazz scene in Europe compared to the United States?

I can’t tell because I’m only playing these specific clubs, so I can’t tell if you have more than that… in Vienna, for instance, more than Porgy and Bess. So I can’t tell you what it’s like in Europe, unfortunately. You’d have to live there for a while to understand.

When you’re traveling, do you have the chance to collaborate with European musicians or play together at festivals?

No. We go like this (she makes a gesture of the hand to symbolize going directly from one place to the next).

Do you always go to the same venues?

No. Budapest, for example, was a different hall – a wonderful, wonderful experience. But often… I’ve been to Porgy & Bess, I’ve been to the New Morning in Paris. So, some are new, some are old.

You’re a resident musician at the Green Mill in Chicago…

Yeah. I play every Monday.

How did you end up collaborating with them?

I had been working at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which was a very popular club; a very nice club. The only thing about the Gold Star was that [the owner] insisted that I do standards, which I got to know very well after nine years there. I knew them anyway, but I got to know them extremely well. But I had a feeling that I wanted to write my own music and that wasn’t okay with him. So I sat home for about a year (laughs). I took time off. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to do this. And Dave Jemilo called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you just come in Sunday night and see what happens?” I said okay. So I did that. And from there we went Sundays and Mondays and it became very full and then we stayed on Mondays.

For how long have you been playing there regularly?

We don’t know. Dave and I don’t count exactly. Eighteen years… something like this.

That’s a long time.

It’s a long time.

So, basically, your career developed simultaneously with this ongoing gig.

(Art this point I dropped my notebook and papers and spent a while picking them up off the floor. I joked about the fact that I’m Romanian and that until 1989 we barely had electricity, which is why I prefer good old fashioned pen and paper over modern technology. Patricia agreed that “paper doesn’t run out of batteries.”)

I remember playing in Romania and it was raining on the Steinway piano. I was so upset. I wanted to cover the piano instead of continuing the concert.

This always happens at the Garana Jazz Festival. I don’t think they’ve had a single year without a downpour. In fact, I was going to ask you whether you had any notable memories from performing in Romania.  

That was my memory. “Oh, my God, we can’t let it rain on the piano (laughs).” But it was a beautiful place up there on that mountain. And that hotel was really, really beautiful… just gorgeous.

On October 5 at the Ear Taxi Festival you debuted a new song cycle called Angels, Birds and I. Are your concerts in Europe going to revolve around this new project? Will you be presenting it for us tomorrow? 

Yes. I’ve been putting [the songs] in the concerts, but not like a song cycle, in order. Because that takes a very special kind of situation and this is not that. But I have been putting them in the concerts, two or three per set and they definitely influence the set, they definitely influence the whole vibe… the sound.

When you put together the set list for a concert, do you specifically look for a narrative coherence? Do you pick the order of the songs based on their topic?

No. It has much more to do with tempo, pacing, key. To make a difference between those things for the audience, who may have never heard me before and they’re not so interested in the five tunes. So it has to do with tempo, key, variation, time signature.

Tell me a bit about this song cycle. I know the songs are built around your fascination with singers, specifically opera singers. How did this project start?   

The first song I wrote is called “Higher.” I wrote this one for my mother, who was a great singer. So that was what brought me to the singing. Singing to her when she was dying was a great source of relief for her and I also wanted to tell her that it’s okay to go. So,this is called “Higher”, meaning…

(she quotes from the song)

And you my true love

Have been stilled by pain

Grounded in silence

On Earth you’ll remain

Until an Air

Blows in like spring

You’ll be young again

Raise your voice, take wing

So it’s a song meant to ease the transition.

Yes, but using song, using music. That started it. After that started, I wrote another song. Then, Renée Fleming came into the jazz club. She had been at the club before and we just enjoy each other’s company. I said, “Is there something you’d like to hear?” and she showed me her iPhone which had a very specific list of my songs. Some of them were these songs and some were other songs like “Scream”, which she also sings and it sounds beautiful, really beautiful. Working with her, I wrote more songs and then she would take them and so I wrote some more songs. “Surrender” she also sang and I accompanied her. We ended up doing a concert together in Chicago, New York and Washington DC of my music – only my music. So a lot of these songs have become art songs, because they don’t really need a drummer.

When you performed them together, did you also sing or just play piano?

I played. I played, she sang.

So you wrote the other songs with Renée in mind.

In the middle of it, I did. In fact, “Voyager”, which I’ve done and I’ll probably do tomorrow night, is written with her in mind. It is definitely about Renée Fleming. It’s definitely about her or the phenomenon of the operatic singer. Then, “The Opera Song” I wrote for her – only for her – which I probably won’t do tomorrow night and “Muse” I wrote for her. “Muse” is the culmination of the five-song cycle. I became the god of music because I’m the protagonist, I’m the one writing music. And the god makes a contract in agreement with her – “If I give you music, will you give me form?” As gods always want mortal form.

When you’re writing music, do you perceive yourself as a songwriter first, then a vocalist or pianist?

It’s hard to say. Different times, different things, you know? Sometimes I feel like playing the piano, sometimes I feel like singing. I love composing, but it’s a very solitary activity. Being an introvert, I think that I could do that only and then just change the keys and hand them to Renée, or hand them to somebody else and I think I’d be relatively happy with that. But music is dead if it’s not communicated… it’s just dead. You write it and it has to go out and have a relationship with people, otherwise it doesn’t work. So, I’m stuck in this situation; once I write this music I have to play it and sing it for somebody, otherwise it doesn’t work. They have to hear it and I have to understand in some way that they understand it. I have to know in some way that they get it. They don’t have to get it all the way, but it has to work in some way. Just musically perhaps, harmonically, lyrically… you know?

Who is the first person you play new music for? Is it your wife?

Often. Often it’s Martha, yeah.

I remember talking to Neil Cowley about this. I asked him if he ever got feedback from his family and he joked that he’s sensitive and he’s scared of what his wife would say. That she has, I quote, “the unfortunate habit of saying the things that will make me cry the most.” That’s why I was wondering about the first person to hear your songs.   

Martha, definitely Martha. But then I send it to two or three people. Renée is one these days. If it’s this kind of a song, I send it to her. And, whatever she’s doing… she’s all over the world, she’s busy right now, especially this year… but she always gets back to me.

Where did this interest in opera and classical music, especially the classical musician, originate?

It started… well, with Martha. Martha’s an expert in 18th century opera; it’s her field… Mozart and the castrati… She’s written three big books and won a bunch of book awards now. She introduced me to classical music twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to opera, just amazed sometimes. The first time I heard Verdi, I was amazed. But I started to feel trapped by the harmonic language of jazz. It’s very specific, very strict. So I went to a friend of ours – whom she’s out with tonight, in fact – Shulamit Ran. She’s a great composer. She’s won a Pulitzer prize and everything. I went to her for a few harmony lessons and she taught me – it was like a magic key that she gave me – she taught me how to break apart or break away from that very strict harmonic system of jazz.

Since then, it’s been crazy. I mean, even on Smash, a lot of those things are stepping outside of the normal jazz harmonic system. You can see that influence starting very early on in pieces like “The Wind Song”. Some of those chords I go to on the bridge are not jazz. You would not expect them to happen. Way back in “Morpheus” – that was 1993, when I won that Guggenheim fellowship – I started stepping outside. And for “Morpheus” I used Schumman.

I studied Schumman and watched the way that he moved his chords and I kind of based “Morpheus” loosely on that kind of idea. So this is an art song, there’s no reason to have a drummer. Any opera singer can sing it. Shulamit told me as soon as I put them in a book, they will.

What’s the plan going forward with this? Do you plan on extending the song cycle or will you keep it to five?

This particular one ends at five because the god of music has struck the deal with the singer and she gets what she wants – she gets to be inside the sinner’s skin. She gets to know what it feels like to be the opera singer. I didn’t realize when I started the song that it would be the end but that is the end. They’ve merged. There will be more songs and they may be art songs or not, but that song cycle is done.

Do you plan on recording it in any form?

Yes, I would like to. I was just having a conversation on the computer with Paris. TSF wants to record the concert and I’m saying, “Not yet.” These songs haven’t been recorded and I don’t want to record them at a live concert. So we’re having this discussion.

Why not?

The first time they’re heard I want to make sure they’re right. I want to make sure they’re perfect.

This is decidedly not a jazz approach.

Right. Well, I have so many of those songs I can do, but this song cycle is different.

How would you envision your next record?

I don’t know. I just finished the five songs, so I want to take my time. This isn’t the problem. Everybody’s telling me, “We need a record.” First of all, I think the album is outdated. I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. I just did a live CD from the Green Mill. You can get it on my website and it’s really fun. It sounds exactly like the Green Mill, including the bus that comes by – you can hear the bus.

Now that’s a jazz approach.

That’s really fun. I’m not sure I want to hand myself over to any kind of record company anymore. I think that it’s old fashioned, but I’m the minority at this point. But I’m sure I’m right… I’m sure I’m right (laughs). So I will record a CD or an album with the five songs, but I haven’t written the rest of them. I have time.

Nothing in the immediate future, then.  

No.

I definitely think you can take your time. Smash will undoubtedly stand on its own for a long time.

Well, I feel that way. I definitely feel that way. There’s no hurry. I just feel completely confident in the path I’m taking right now. It’s definitely not consistent with the path that other musicians are taking.

Did you maybe feel that the record company or the record format didn’t do [Smash] justice? Is this doubt about putting out another traditional record somehow connected to your experience with Smash?

Well, they didn’t do justice to it at all. But I think that’s partly because of the times, you know? The record companies are just falling apart. They have nothing really to offer anybody and they just take the money from individuals. If I offer an album on my website, I can actually make some money… not a lot, but some. And that seems more fitting to me, so we’ll see. People threaten me all the time, “If you don’t do this, this is going to happen to you” and I’m like, “What is the worst that can happen to me?” What is the worst that can happen to me? What? I don’t come back to this club for a while? So what? I don’t care… I just don’t care.

As you know Smash is one of my all-time favorite records. It also inspired The Music and Myth Awards back in 2014 when I chose it Best Vocal Record. As the person who inspired The Muisc and Myth awards, I was wondering who you’d pick as Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental record for this year. It can be from any genre.   

Renée Fleming, Berg. That Berg album is great. And Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory. Her latest string quartet is unbelievable. The Pacifica Quartet plays it. And they did an amazing series of Shostakovich.

So, these are the best records of the year.

For me, you know? This is what I’ve listened to.

That’s what the Music and Myth Awards is all about: the listener’s personal experience with the music. When I write my Music and Myth awards article every January, I always make a point out of stating that these are my subjective picks. My point being that any awards are entirely subjective and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Music is an individual experience; nobody can conduct an objective evaluation. NARAS has no idea what they’re doing…

No. Not at all.

It’s all just somebody’s personal opinion. This is the cornerstone of The Music and Myth Awards. I just wanted to bring this up since it all started with you and Smash. But going back to Angels, Birds and I, is there any other musician you’d like to hear performing these songs?  

All of them (laughs). As many as I can get. I mean, all of them that I love and admire. My music might, in fact, appeal to people like this, as it appeals to Renée. I would love to get Philippe Jaroussky to do a thing but, you know, he’s too famous. I would love to get Alice Coote, a mezzo-soprano – a low mezzo-soprano – to do some of these tunes. So… many, many people.

How about Angela Gheorghiu? My wife is a great fan of her work and I know you are too.  

Oh yeah, she’s pretty special.

I don’t listen to a lot of classical and opera. I mean, I can listen, but I don’t presume to understand its complexity. I’ve always been drawn mostly to jazz and world music.

I’d love for great jazz singers to sing this. I’ve been trying to get Sheila Jordan to sing one of my songs forever, but it’s not happening. I don’t think that she reads music, so it would take some time for her pianist to teach it to her. But any great jazz musician. Kurt Elling sang “The New Year’s Eve Song” and it sounds great. And it’s getting more and more play, I can see it from my royalty statements.

Speaking of royalty statements, could you tell me a bit about what it’s like for jazz musicians nowadays trying to support themselves from their art. Al Di Meola told me that people are buying a steadily decreasing number of records in the U.S and that, I quote, “there’s not one CD store in the U.S.” What is it like now compared to ten, fifteen years ago?  

You mean the computer? Oh… well, it took away our living. It took away any payment from writing songs. So I would think that people who might consider writing songs for a profession will not do it anymore. I can’t imagine how they would start. They can make money in concerts but… I used to make really good money writing songs and now I make none. Zero. Songwriting is just zero. Spotify and all… they have taken it all.

As a self-published author, I understand the situation very well. But I have to admit that the internet has helped me discover so much new music and so many musicians whom I’d never have known otherwise. I ended up buying their records and going to their shows.  

There are good things. There are good things about it. It’s hard for anybody. If you make shoes or you make rocket ships, somehow the value of it… You know, if you don’t get paid for it, somehow it screws around with your head a little bit. But I’m very independent. I’ve been so independent all my life so it doesn’t screw around with me as much as other people but it’s definitely something… it’s definitely a thing. Because I started buying real estate when I was twenty-six, I can survive.

So it’s not exclusively music then.

No, I can survive because I bought real estate. I rent places, you know? Even today… I’ll be on the road and someone writes to me and says, “Where’s the milk?”

Do they know they’re renting places from Patricia Barber?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

That seems like it should drive the price up.

Well, Air BnB is making it so that you can do that. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But most people – ninety-nine percent – enjoy it when I practice (laughs).

Because we were talking about singers and your new song cycle being about singers, I wanted to ask you a related question. You have a very unique way of expressing yourself as a vocalist. There’s a certain particularity about your delivery that involves not only your timbre, but also your intonation, your speech tempo. Does it come naturally or is it something you’ve practiced and developed? Are you aware of it while you perform?  

Yeah, people tell me that and I don’t exactly know what they’re referring to, which is fine. I don’t look into it too deeply. I did, of course, work as a singer when I was young, to stay in tune. I worked as a singer to keep the hands in exact metric time and to loosen up my voice so that’s like a two… double-brain thing. I worked on all those things but… no.

You’re not aware of it.

No, no.

This is a question I ask almost everyone. Being a science fiction author, it’s somewhat of a trademark question in my interviews. If you could travel back in time to the moment when you first realized you wanted to pursue a career in music, what would you tell yourself?   

I would say, “Do what you love. Always do what you love.” Because I get up in the morning and I do what I love. The financial aspect… you have to think of something. If you have some other idea that can help you, if you can start investing when you’re young, that would be great. Maybe not in the stock market but something else. I don’t trust the stock market right now, with the way things are. I never have. I’m not very good at it. I’m good at a buildings and windows and toilets and stuff like that.

In recent years, the political sphere has been dominated by a powerfully divisive rhetoric and there seems to be growing anger and discord all over the world. Do you think that musicians can play a part in bringing people together or help bridge the gap or should music stay completely outside of politics and current world events?

I think music is very healing. I was very political during the election; I worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I know her. But when I go into the concert hall or the jazz club I do not speak of it. Because, to me, music is better than all of that. Music is, interestingly, the one thing that survives centuries. It survives Aleppo being razed to the ground. Music will survive that, and it floats over the centuries and it comes to us in the form it was in the fourteenth century or the tenth century, it still comes to us. Music is amazing that way.

Now, having said that… some of my songs are political. They have been in the past, less so now, because I’ve been interested more in universal themes. Sometimes my songs are political, so you can tell kind of where I stand on the political scale. And I’ve had to pay for that in terms of… I’ve been banned from certain venues and certain radio stations because of the content of my lyrics.

Did it ever affect the way you compose?

It didn’t before, but now the U.S is different so, I don’t know… It probably won’t affect the way I compose. But when I was working for Hillary Clinton, I would have to take the pins and everything off before I went into the club, to make sure that I was just neutral. And I took out the songs that were political. I used to write funny songs about Bill Clinton and Obama – I took them out. Because I don’t want someone to be uncomfortable. I just think music is better… it’s just better than we are. It’s just better. You can give someone something better than what we have on this Earth.

I think you just gave me the title of my article.

That’s good (smiles).

I have just one more question. This one is from Ioana. Will you be performing “Scream” tomorrow night? 

Chapter 3: An Angry Song – the performance

“Yes,” she said, flashing a mysterious smile whose significance we would discover the following evening. We told her that “Scream” is Ioana’s and my favorite and she seemed pleased to hear that.

We said our goodbyes and I was surprised and delighted to find out that Patricia reads science fiction, as I’d brought along a copy of my first book as a gift – a token of appreciation for being so generous with her time. After getting to talk to her so extensively and getting a glimpse inside the mind of this thoroughly dedicated musician, we were even more excited about the upcoming concert.

We arrived at the venue thirty minutes early and were seated at a balcony table, right above Patricia’s piano. By the time the artist walked out and informally introduced herself and her band, the place was packed. When she started playing, I realized why meeting her the other night had felt so familiar.

It’s a rare thing among musicians – and indeed artists of any kind – but Patricia Barber the person resembles Patricia Barber the artist almost perfectly. It’s like she is a walking embodiment of her music: captivating, graceful and intelligent, candid but at the same time somewhat mysterious. On stage, her confident and charismatic presence belies the stage fright she claims to suffer from to this day. Her rapport with the audience is reserved but sincere, and her crowd interactions never come off as forced or pandering.

Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of her performance was the very visible degree of intimacy between the pianist and her instrument. She seemed to relate to the venue’s trademark Fazioli as an old friend, not just a tool of the trade, at times seeming as though she and the piano were speaking a language only they could understand, complete with its own set of private jokes.

Though Patricia’s incomparable voice and the aforementioned particularities of her delivery can be so captivating as to demand the listener’s full attention, her piano playing is equally distinctive. Her percussive and unrestrained technique stands in fascinating contrast with her deep voice and controlled cadence, giving the songs a feeling of strength, even when she sings – in her own words – “a bad song” like Sinatra’s “This Town” or – in my words – fantastic songs like “Code Cool”, “The Moon”, “Caravan” or “You Gotta Go Home”.

Her band consisted of longtime collaborators Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jon Deitemyer (drums) whose performance was absolutely commendable for the subtle ways in which it enriched and highlighted Patricia’s articulation, without ever distracting from or stepping out of the songwriter’s creative identity.

For us, the highlight of the evening came right at the end. After the musicians left the stage to enthusiastic applause, they returned for an encore of “Light My Fire” before leaving again without having played “Scream”. I realized the significance of Patricia’s smile from the night before – she’d been planning to close the with “Scream”, demonstrating a brilliant insight into narrative coherence after all.

“It’s an angry song,” Patricia said, telling the audience that she’d been feeling rather angry herself lately. “Perhaps I’ll record an entire album of angry songs,” she mused.

After the first encore, the band returned to a standing ovation. When they started playing “Scream”, it took me back to the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler playing “Telegraph Road” in Budapest. For someone born in a country that was, until fairly recently, musically and artistically isolated, hearing your favorite musicians playing your favorite songs carries just a touch of otherworldliness that would be hard to imagine for someone from a different background.

There isn’t a lot to say about the band’s rendition of this modern-day anthem. It was perfect, start to finish. Perfect. Any attempt to describe it would not do it justice and might even be discourteous. “Scream” is, by excellence, a song that speaks for itself and demands to be experienced.

The feeling of otherworldliness persisted long after the excellent concert. On our way home, while waiting for the subway, I thought back to a few hours before. We were having dinner at a restaurant close to the venue. The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei, had just texted me to talk about a new project she’ll be bringing to Europe in 2017. She asked me how the Zorn show was and I told her that I’m actually back in Vienna, just an hour away from seeing Patricia Barber in concert.

The surrealness of that moment instantly made me think how exciting it will be to relive the experience on January 1. Now, just a few hours away from my yearly ritual, the day I think about the most is the day I started The Music and Myth. I think about how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come and what an incredible journey it’s been.

Happy New Year!

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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.

 

 

Bernardo Monk’s A Toda Orquesta – the passion and rigor of tango, the expressive freedom of jazz

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Without a doubt, the greatest aspect of running The Music and Myth for four and a half years has been the opportunity to discover a wide and varied array of new music. Most of the time, it’s simply because I’m paying more attention to what’s playing around me, or what I’m randomly playing as background music for my long writing sessions. I’ve also been more proactive about seeking out new music since I’ve started this website.

Some of the time, I discover new music while following the careers of my favorite musicians. Through their countless collaborations, I’m exposed to the talent of fascinating new artists. That’s how Tom Waits led me to Marc Ribot who, in turn, led me to John Zorn, in whose concerts I’ve discovered the likes of John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mike Patton and Sofia Rei. I am currently a fan of all of these musicians and everyone can be traced back to Tom Waits like some musical version of six degrees of separation.

Sometimes it’s by directly talking to musicians, who recommend someone they think is great and whose work they want to bring to my attention. Other times, they recommend The Music and Myth to their peers, urging them to contact me and send me their work or they just come across The Music and Myth on their own and decide to write to me. That is by far my favorite way of getting to know new artists. I’ve not only broadened my musical horizons, I’ve also made many friends over the years.

Composer, saxophone player and vocalist Bernardo Monk was encouraged to contact me by none other than The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei. I am very glad he did, because I was immediately captivated by the temperament and sheer musicality of his work. When he sent me his 2014 release, A Toda Orquesta, I couldn’t wait to sit down and study it.

My excitement had a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t had the opportunity to grow very familiar with tango and I’m always looking forward to expanding my understanding of serious music. I knew that studying and reviewing Bernardo’s work would provide me with exactly the type of challenge I enjoy the most.

The record opens in a forceful way, with the high-powered, almost aggressive “Microcentro”. A haunting, suspense-building piano sequence that brings to mind film scores introduces the rest of the instruments, which proceed to erupt in a high-octane explosion of sound, before ceding the stage again to pianist Abel Rogantini for a splendid solo.

The key word here is narrative tension, as it seems to be throughout the record. A superb example of this is the dialogue between Pablo Motta’s double bass and the bandoneons courtesy of Daniel Ruggiero, Ramiro Boero and Nicolás Enrich.

As was the case with Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables, I once again find myself in one of the rare instances when I regret not having a musical education, which I am sure would have enhanced my understanding of this already promising record.

While the opening track follows a fairly traditional construction, slowing down at times to allow each of the main instruments (piano, soprano sax and double bass) to take center stage, it is saved from being predictable simply by the intensity of the band’s performance. In a profoundly captivating genre that commands the listener’s attention in a unique way, timing and tension are vital and “Microcentro” delivers in spades.

With its typical tango narrative and outstanding use of the string section, “A La Pista” contains all of the compositional elements that make this genre so captivating. At its best, tango is an intimate bond between music and listener, who become as intensely engaged as the partners absorbed by the homonymous dance.

The title track is a perfectly-paced piece full of warmth and mystery, where the composer demonstrates his sensibility for all instruments. The beautifully timed crescendos, divided by moments of almost precautionary stillness bring about a powerful finale, making this one of the record’s highlights.

It’s followed by another highlight, “Pentatonico”, where Bernardo gets to bring his instrument (this time an alto) front and center. A song that borrows from jazz perhaps more than any other, “Pentatonico” has a repetitive introduction that quickly unfolds into a splendid display of controlled chaos. Dominated by the presence of the saxophone, the rest of the instruments melt away into a false finish, with only the saxophone remaining unscathed. Left alone to cast off the silence, it softly calls out, summoning the other instruments, bringing the song back to life. It is one of the longest and most dynamically complex pieces on the record and my personal favorite.

Outstanding for its superb melody and fascinating interplay between piano and strings, “Cuando Volvamos a Vermos” provides a tender shift in tone and pace before “Zapadora” once again switches the tempo with its unrestrained energy and splendid solos.

Bernardo steps into the forefront again, this time as a vocalist on “Chau Bulin” and “Que Siga Lloviendo Asi”. His delivery is spot-on, especially on “Chau Bulin” – polished and balanced, evoking emotion without becoming melodramatic. It’s so good, in fact, that it left me wishing there had been more vocal tracks on the record and wondering why that wasn’t the case. Still, the order of the songs is well arranged, with the two vocal tracks positioned as a climactic moment of candid expression.

At once straightforward and complex, “Ecos de Vals” sets the album up for a powerful finale, which is delivered in the intense and haunting “Avalancha”. A veritable tour de force for all musicians (which includes a superb stretch of collective percussion) “Avalancha” is a powerful closing statement, fitting for an album that maintains the passion and rigor of tango while allowing the musicians to express themselves with jazz-like freedom.

A pleasure to listen to from the first note to the last!

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.

Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley – a beautiful record in the songwriter’s creative comfort zone

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It might be interesting to note that, over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on two reviews pretty much in parallel. One was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, the other is this week’s entry, Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter.

On paper, these records have a lot in common. Both are 2016 releases by musicians whose careers have really taken off in the last few years. Though it can be argued that Esperanza’s level of fame transcends the inconspicuous jazz niche turning her into a superstar of pop music proportions, in the jazz genre, she and Gregory are both household names. Both the records’ predecessors have earned Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album (Radio Music Society in 2013 and Liquid Spirit in 2014).

Still, the artists’ approach could not be more different. Esperanza retreated to the memory of her earliest artistic aspirations to find her inner “Emily” and release a work that distinguished, knowledgeable jazz reviewers have called “intense, intelligent and intrepid” (*wink*).  Meanwhile, Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley sounds like it could have easily been Disc 2, had Liquid Spirit been a double album.

If the songs were shuffled and you had never before heard a Gregory Porter tune, you’d probably have a hard time telling which songs belong together. Now, given that Liquid Spirit is one of the best vocal jazz records of the last decade, this uniformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was the first thing I noticed upon playing the album.

In my opinion, “Holding On” is a bit of an unfortunate choice for an opening track. I can see the reasoning behind it, as it’s a reworked, heavily porterized version of his collaboration with British electronic music duo Disclosure. However, given that his two previous records had some of the most impactful opening tracks of any record in any genre in recent memory (I’m talking, of course, about “Painted on Canvas” and “No Love Dying”), the rather unspectacular “Holding On” seems like an uninspired choice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that Gregory Porter is simply incapable of producing a song that couldn’t be described as warm and beautiful. But “Holding On” just doesn’t compare to its predecessors on any level.

Unfortunately, “Don’t Lose Your Steam” does little to pick up the pace, in spite of its inspiring lyrics, dedicated to Porter’s young son. Already, even the track placement is reminiscent of his previous record, with “Holding On” and “Don’t Lose Your Steam” playing the parts of “No Love Dying” and “Liquid Spirit” but failing to evoke their dynamism and raw emotion. Two songs in, Take Me to the Alley sounds like it runs the risk of becoming merely a collection of Liquid Spirit B-sides.

Then, along comes the title track to save the day – an absolutely superb ballad right up there with the best Porter has ever produced. With instantly recognizable piano chords, the vocalist’s warm, honest delivery, beautiful lyrics that hint at the second coming without becoming excessively clerical and perfect harmony vocals by Alicia Olatuja, this should have absolutely been the opening song. Anyone who thinks otherwise might claim to know music, but has little understanding of storytelling.

“Day Dream” is a decent song made good by the warm, love-filled poetry, as Porter affectionately observes his son Demyan in the child’s imagined environment.

He’s satisfied to dream his whole life away

Candy coated castles life of play

Broomsticks are his magic cars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Do you remember it seems like yesterday

Getting older

Growing taller

Getting smarter

He’ll find his way

Rocket ships that never leave his hand

But he’s in space ‘cos he’s a rocket ship man

Got to fight in some galaxy wars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Got to get home to kiss his mama goodnight

By now, the listener can recognize the typical Gregory Porter set up even in the instrumentation, which his long-time band makes sure is always smooth and homogeneous, if at times formulaic. Compared to Esperanza, who seems to be on the path of experimenting with various facets of her artistry, Porter has found his musical comfort zone and is content to keep the same creative direction. Because he is an indisputably gifted songwriter, with an incredibly warm, poignant timbre, an innate feel for conveying emotion and a capable band, he is never in danger of becoming monotonous, even if he’ll also never be accused of being avant-garde.

“Day Dream” is followed by “Consequence of Love” which serves to remind the audience that, even though he delivers swinging RnB with the same poise and dedication, Porter’s forte is still his uncanny talent for producing pitch-perfect ballads.

The record’s dynamic switches with the catchy and clever “In Fashion”, one of the highlights for its punchy piano, ear-pleasing melody and witty poetry.

We’re never caught in picture frames

The paparazzi know our names

They know like fashion

Our love is not for real

The weathers fine but in your mind

You need that flare and so you wear

Big blue fur and feathered hair

To fit your skin

Think I better let it go

Think I better let it go

Cos I’m thinking I’m last year’s runway passion

No longer in fashion

And I find myself obsessed

By how you dress

And whom you see when you’re without me

Dedicated to his late mother, the soft, simple “More Than a Woman” is one of his most tender ballads, while the touching “In Heaven”, whose captivating tempo belies the sadness of its lyrics, is sure to deeply resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Two powerful ballads preface the closing tracks, “Insanity” and “Don’t be a Fool”. The latter has one of the most beautiful choruses in the repertoire of a musician whose greatest strength is writing flawless ballad choruses, and lyrics that touch on loss and regret.

Don’t be a fool

Don’t give your nights to someone else

While giving days to those who really love you

Don’t be a fool like me

And give your life to someone else

While faking love to those who really love you

The closing line-up is a bit surprising. Not so much for the swinging, funky “Fan The Flames”, which has some great moments for tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, but for the upbeat, mischievous and downright adventurous (by Gregory Porter standards) “French African Queen”. It’s a fun, catchy tune in the vein of “In Fashion”, though it seems like a bit of an odd choice to close a mellow, slow-paced album like this with shouts of “Oui, oui”.

In his newest record, Gregory Porter has produced pretty much a direct continuation to Liquid Spirit, though without the carefully contrasted narrative that made the latter one of the great works of modern vocal jazz. Still, as I mentioned before, Porter is incapable of producing a bad song. His powerful personality, distinctive timbre (on the low end of the spectrum I think few vocalists can keep up) and a high standard when it comes to songwriting make for a splendid body of work, in spite of the fact that he is clearly sticking to a formula that should, in theory, make his music sound monotonous. Perhaps his greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition.

With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.

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.