The 2017 Music and Myth Awards

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2017 has been a strange year for The Music and Myth. For the biggest part of it, the website was on hiatus while I focused all of my time and energy on taking my career as a full-time science fiction author to the next level. I’ve written a total of only six articles last year and one of them was the 2016 Music and Myth Awards. Despite that, 2017 has been the year when I discovered more great music than at any time since starting this blog back in 2012. So many quality records have been released last year by so many amazing musicians that it’s been torture not having the time to write about them. Today, I get to compensate for that a little bit by rounding up the best in my yearly awards article.

If you’re new to the website, the format is this: I start by discussing the year’s Grammy nominees in the Best Jazz Vocal and Best Jazz Instrumental Album categories, complete with my predictions. Because this is such an unusual edition of the Music and Myth Awards, the article will end up published sometime after the Grammys have taken place. Nevertheless, I’ll leave my predictions section intact, as it was written in the first draft on January 27.

The reason I traditionally include the Grammys stems from the fact that the Music and Myth Awards originated with my dissatisfaction over NARAS failing to nominate Patricia Barber’s Smash for best vocal record in 2014. I’ve grown to think of my awards article as a sort of Anti-Grammys and I’ve discovered that I enjoy the process of studying the nominees and predicting the winners.

Now, before we take a look at the anti-Grammy picks, let’s see what the Grammys have lined up this year.

After years of criticizing NARAS for featuring essentially the same dozen artists every time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this year’s ballots for Best Jazz Vocal includes many fresh faces. I was especially thrilled to see among them Jazzmeia Horn and Raul Midon, whose incredible performances I’ve caught at the 2014 Inntoene Jazz Festival.

Let’s start with Jazzmeia, nominated for her debut album, A Social Call. First of all, this 26-year old vocalist seems like a lab-grown prototype for a successful jazz musician. She’s got the look, the name, the attitude, the heritage and especially the talent. Most importantly, she has a mission – one that developed from a profound awareness of who she is as an artist. This became quickly evident when I interviewed her after her show at Inntoene. After finding out that she has a debut album planned for that autumn, I concluded the interview with the following phrase: Prediction: you will see Jazzmeia Horn at the 2015 Grammys, you’ve heard it here first folks!

Though my timing was off by a couple of years, as the self-christened Mama Jazz decided to focus on family and raising her daughters, the essence is that she immediately strikes you as destined for greatness. I’ll be reviewing the record in a separate article, so I’m just going to sum it up here by saying it’s a powerful, legacy-conscious album and a perfect introduction to this artist and her mission. Though I don’t think she’s quite ready to get the nod yet, A Social Call establishes her as a powerful contender for the upper echelon of jazz for years to come.

As for Raul Midon, I was really happy to see this phenomenally gifted artist get the proper recognition. A multi-talented, multi-tasking powerhouse performer, Raul Midon is simply an explosion of creative energy. I’ve described his live performance at Inntoene as a “profoundly spiritual experience” and this must-hear musician consistently delivers. In typical Midon fashion, Bad Ass and Blind is a high-energy record with a distinctive sound and an empowering vibe. That being said, I don’t feel like it’s Midon at his creative best and I do feel that this particular album, mislabeled as vocal jazz, might have benefited from increased exposure in another category.

Randy Porter’s Porter plays Porter, a record of – you guessed it – Cole Porter covers is built around the natural charisma of guest vocalist Nancy King and her very evident chemistry with the pianist, but feels neither comprehensive nor groundbreaking in its conceptualization. Meanwhile, The Journey, by husband-and-wife duo The Baylor Project featuring a plethora of amazing musicians is supremely lyrical and stylistically comprehensive, feeling celebratory in its sound. Ultimately, though, it’s surpassed in scope by the one album I feel stands way above the rest this year.

Dreams and Daggers brought Cecile McLorin Salvant her third Grammy nomination, following up on her Grammy award winning For One to Love and her Grammy nominated Womanchild. In 2016, I successfully predicted her win and I’m hoping to do so again this year because this record is just a fantastic display of talent from a complete musician.

Salvant brings the heritage and social awareness of Jazzmeia Horn, the energy of Raul Midon, the melodic diversity of the Baylor Project and the vocalist-band chemistry of Porter and King, combining them in a superb display of musicality on a double record that especially excels in one key aspect: storytelling.

This superlative double-album is one of the best I’ve heard in this category in the last few years and the clear standout of this particular ballot. While I did have some quibbles with For One To Love, there is absolutely no reproach for any aspect of the flawless Dreams and Daggers. I think it should easily earn her the award.

While the Best Jazz Vocal category featured some exciting fresh faces, I was really disappointed in what I feel is a tepid, conservative selection for Best Instrumental. This is especially conspicuous in a year that presented such an amazing array of remarkable records. Now, don’t get me wrong, each of the nominated albums is masterfully crafted, as music tends to be at this level when produced by this caliber of musicians. However, in a year with so much daring new music, selecting a crop of mostly conservative covers seems like a decision that should have any serious music enthusiast scratching their head. Perhaps, after doing the complete opposite for the Best Vocal category, NARAS got cold feet and reverted back to its old ways.

Bill Charlap Trio and Billy Childs offer elegant, sophisticated piano in Uptown, Downtown and Rebirth respectively, while Fred Hersch takes a primal approach in his splendid and pensive solo-piano opus, Open Book. Joey De Francesco brings a touch of color to a rather monochrome batch of contenders with the bluesy, soul-funk Project Freedom, serving essentially the same role as last year’s Dr. Um by Peter Erskine. My personal favorite is Chris Potter’s The Dreamer is the Dream, a characteristically tender, introspective offering from ECM, the label that can do no wrong. I’m generally a fan of the trademarked ECM sound and I find Potter’s selection of original tunes an inspired and inspiring session. My pick for the Grammys, however, is Fred Hersch’s Open Book.

That being written, let’s take a look at this year’s Music and Myth Award winners.

Best Vocal Record: Sofia Rei (feat. Marc Ribot) – El Gavilan

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This one might feel, at once, predestined and surprising. Predestined because I’ve made no secret of the fact that Sofia Rei is my favorite vocalist (and slowly becoming one of my favorite composers and arrangers) and I’ve been even less secretive about the fact that Marc Ribot has been my favorite guitarist for over a decade, since he was largely responsible for my venturing into previously unexplored musical territories. In fact, the first time I’ve ever heard Rei’s spellbinding voice, it followed an exquisite guitar intro by Ribot himself, on the song “Besos de Sangre” from 2014 Music and Myth Award winning record The Song Project (Vinyl Singles Edition). It makes sense that any further collaboration between the two would be a personal dream come true. Last year, this dream-duo rekindled their preternatural chemistry on this groundbreaking minimalistic recording.

The surprising part I mentioned before might be the record’s subject matter. Built around the forceful song, “El Gavilan” the eponymous record marks Rei’s tribute to one of her musical heroes, Chilean songwriter Violeta Para. Featuring innovative reinterpretations of Parra’s work on the centennial of her birth, El Gavilan succeeds where almost everyone other album of its type fails: in paying tribute instead of merely gathering together a number of covers.

Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

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.

To be clear: this is how you produce a tribute record! For years, I’ve picked on the Grammys for favoring cover albums over wholly original content, when these cover albums often amount to little more than so-and-so sings the music of such-and-such in an approach that relies almost entirely on nostalgia. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of good cover albums, albums that honor their source material by presenting it in a light that both celebrates and innovates, creating a new work of art that stands entirely on its own.

When Sofia Rei pays homage to Parra, she does so in a way that taps into the essence of Parra’s social message while reworking it around Rei’s own musical vision. Aided by one of the most talented guitar players in modern music history, Sofia Rei never attempts to channel her inner Violeta Parra. Instead, she chooses an established body of work with a profound sentimental relevance through which to reveal to us her innermost Sofia Rei. And what a splendid revelation indeed!

Best Instrumental Record: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy

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For the first time, a Music and Myth Award goes to a work I haven’t had the opportunity to write about in advance. I will do so in the coming weeks, in a separate article. Thus, I won’t elaborate too much on the details of my selection, but rather talk about how I’ve arrived to it.

As I’ve mentioned, it was a year with an abundance of great instrumental records and I’ve truly had a tough time coming up with a clear favorite. Even the shortlist was staggering, with Linda May Han Oh’s unpredictable Walk Against the Wind, Steve Coleman’s cerebral Morphogenesis, Yazz Ahmed’s exotic La Saboteuse, Ambrose Akinmusire’s A Rift in Decorum, Dave Douglas’ fun and eccentric Little Giant Still Life, Vijay Iyer’s universally acclaimed Far From Over and Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which is essentially a dystopian scifi envisioned as a work of music. For the last few weeks, I’ve listened to these records ceaselessly until I cut the list down to Coleman, Akinmusire and Scott, but I still couldn’t decide. In the end, my wife decided for me.

While I’ve been leaning heavily toward free jazz and avant-garde in the last few years, I try to keep a broad perspective when granting the Music and Myth Awards. Ioana often provides this perspective. Herself a long-time jazz aficionado, Ioana has never studied music in such an in-depth way as to fall into the trap of over-analyzing. While I’m often prone to immediately disassembling any piece of music I hear into its components, looking for patterns, stories and  historical anchor-points, Ioana merely listens and instantly knows what she loves. While I was listening to The Centennial Trilogy, she walked into my office to tell me that it sounds great.

Fascinated by the pugilistic motion of Coleman’s sax and, on the othe end of the spectrum, Akinmusire’s old-school atmosphere, I found a balance in Scott’s conceptual dichotomy. With his trademarked Stretch Music, Scott seems to be able to pay homage to the vast history of jazz while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the present. With melody that evokes modal nostalgia and modern influences from the techno, hip-hop and even rock spheres, The Centennial Trilogy  – a collection of three records, all released in 2017  – is a colossal work that manages the difficult task of instantly appealing to the neophyte while keeping the seasoned listener satisfied. When Ioana praised the music she made me realize the essential aspect of this collection of records: it has instant appeal but remains intriguing upon a thorough examination. Simply put, it’s complex enough to provide hours’ worth of study but also simple enough to be instantly delectable.

More on this fantastic work in its dedicated article. For now, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2017.

So, what did you think about the Music and Myth’s choices? What are your favorites? Sound off in the comments and let’s start a discussion.

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The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

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The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

2015 is here! With the 57th Grammy Awards fast approaching, it’s time for the yearly Music and Myth Awards (which I affectionately call the “Anti-Grammys”) For those who are just tuning in: the Music and Myth awards came to be as a result of my immense frustration with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences omitting to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for best vocal record of 2013. I decided to start my own independent awards, coming in the form of written recognition of the world’s best vocal and instrumental records of the year. Last year, I chose Smash by Patricia Barber and Iva Bittova by the Czech musician of the same name.

The article will be divided into two parts: in the first, I will make my Grammy predictions in the best vocal jazz record and best instrumental jazz record categories (since those are basically the only ones I care about), after a careful analysis of the ten nominated records.

Last year I correctly predicted that Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit would get best vocal, but I picked Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum for best instrumental, which ended up going to Terri Lyne Carrington’s Money Jungle. As such, I have a 1-1 record so far. Let’s see how my predictions fare this year.

In the second part I will announce my choices for best vocal record and best instrumental record according to The Music and Myth, along with a short explanation of exactly why I picked those particular records (justification is definitely lacking when it comes to the Grammys).

Let’s clarify some things first: Even though my website is heavily jazz-oriented, The Music and Myth Awards are not restricted to jazz. However, creative complexity and what I like to call “narrative coherence” are definitely a factor, so don’t expect to find much dubstep, punk rock or gangster rap.

Now, some might question what even qualifies me to grant an “award”. I’m a science fiction writer and independent music journalist, what could I even have to offer? A quick google search for the word “award” gave the following result:

noun

  1. 1.

a prize or other mark of recognition given in honour of an achievement.

I have no physical prize to offer, but I do have my recognition, along with a music lover’s profound respect and admiration. Consequently, The Music and Myth Awards are as legitimate as any large-scale accolade. No distinction, large or small, can claim to be entirely objective. That is simply not possible. In the end, it’s just somebody’s opinion. And here is mine:

Grammy Predictions

My major grief with the Grammys has been what I’ve perceived as a very narrow outlook on the musical landscape. If nothing else, my work with The Music and Myth has taught me that there is a vast number of enormously talented musicians out there. Yet, a quick glance at the yearly lists of Grammy nominees reveals the same names over and over again – for a whole decade. Not only that, you will often find a particular nominee on another nominee’s record, playing a certain instrument or featured as a special guest vocalist. As an example I will use four-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life. The record is produced by last year’s “best instrumental jazz record” winner Terri Lynne Carrington and features special appearances by last year’s “best vocal jazz record” winner Gregory Porter, Gerald Clayton (nominated last year), Esperanza Spalding (2013 winner) etc.

Brian Blade is nominated for Landmarks but also appears on Chick Corea’s Trilogy, alongside Christian McBride, who was nominated with his record last year. You get the picture…

Since the Grammy Awards are by far the biggest of their kind, this creates the impression  that there is a small elite of musicians acting on some higher musical “plane”. That is simply not the case.

One other issue that I had last year was the lack of “new” music being considered, with many of the records (and one of the eventual winners) being cover- or so-called “tribute” records. I don’t presume to disqualify a record from consideration on the basis of it being a cover album, but even Al DiMeola admitted in an interview I did with him that it was much more difficult to summon up the creative force required to write completely new music than to develop existing melodies – and that was while he was promoting his own album of Beatles covers.

Again, I’m not stating that a cover record can’t be excellent, or worthy of the highest recognition, but I feel like creativity should definitely be a factor when considering the best of the best. That being said, let’s take a look at this year’s nominees and see if we can predict a winner.

Since we were speaking of covers, three-time Grammy award-winning pianist Billy Childs is nominated for Map to the Treasure, Reimagining Laura Nyro where a plethora of guest musicians (including Diane Reeves and Esperanza Spalding) are featured on the pianist’s arrangements, which certainly honor the legendary’s musician’s stellar compositions, but ultimately fail to really re-imagine them.

Also in tribute-land, the daring and charismatic René Marie pays homage to Eartha Kitt in I Wanna Be Evil, an outstanding tribute album, but just that. Tierney Sutton is once again present, this time with the tender Paris Sessions, an elegant, minimalist record featuring the singer’s marvelous voice on the backdrop of Serge Merlaud’s guitar and Kevin Axt’s bass. Meanwhile, Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life is gorgeous, but not groundbreaking and a bit too “calculated”.

I think the Grammy will go to Gretchen Parlato’s Live in NYC. This well-executed live recording brings forth some of Parlato’s best songs from her previous albums The Lost and Found and In a Dream. I can’t really explain why I feel Gretchen will take it, but it just “feels” like the music industry itself wants to grant her the award, just like last year “felt” like Porter’s year. The record is good and once you get accustomed to Gretchen’s unique delivery (which can be a bit of an acquired taste), you will discover depth, intelligence and most importantly, a strong sense of personal identity.

In the instrumental category we’ve got the raw and captivating Floating by Fred Hersch Trio, where the pianist returns to the studio to record perhaps his most sanguine outing. Jason Moran presents All Rise: A Joyful Elegy to Fats Waller, which is undoubtedly joyful and delightfully quirky but otherwise not outstanding. Enjoy the View deserves high praise for excellent compositions and fantastic interplay between Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco, but lacks an overall narrative cohesion.

Personally, I would give the award to Brian Blade’s Landmarks, the most pensive and emotional of the records but I think the NARAS will use last year’s pattern, where they give the vocal award to the up-and-comer and  the instrumental to the veteran, so I predict that Chick Corea’s Trilogy will be the winner (which is also great news for Brian Blade, who plays drums on that record). In all fairness, Corea’s monster three-record magnum opus is an imposing work and I think the NARAS will want to honor Corea as a sort of “lifetime achievement” Grammy after nominating him sixty-one times and granting him twenty little gramophones. Let’s see if I’m right!

Now, let’s take a look at the winners of the most coveted “boutique” award in the music industry. Interestingly, both records are special edition works and both are deserving of large-scale exposure, so let’s hope the musicians decide to go that route as well.

The Music and Myth Awards go to…

Best Vocal Record: The Song Project – Vinyl Singles Edition (Tzadik)

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Sometime in late December I found out that John  Zorn decided to release this limited edition vinyl and I breathed a sigh of relief. No other musical project has haunted me throughout last year like this one. So far, The Song Project existed only in the form of concerts, like this marvelous performance in Warsaw. It was killing me that these songs hadn’t been captured on record, because I was itching to give this project “best vocal record”. It just felt wrong to grant the award to anyone else. Even on paper it looks brilliant: John Zorn employs three world-caliber vocalists to write lyrics to some of his most melodic tunes and puts together an all-star band of the world’s most capable musicians to perform the tracks. Just look at this list of names: Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Cyro Baptista, Joey Barron, Kenny Wollesen, Jesee Harris, Sofia Rei and freakin’ Mike Patton. The compositions are fantastic, the interplay borders on the paranormal and the delivery by the three vocalists is exquisite. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

It was love at first sound. How could it not be? The Song Project features a distinguished cast of performers from all over the musical spectrum, coming together to bring to life the tunes of one of the most accomplished, groundbreaking composers of all time.

Anyone who has to ask why John Zorn is a genius is probably not reading The Music and Myth. In The Song Project, the composer summoned three world-caliber vocalists to write lyrics to some of his greatest arrangements. What resulted was a new musical project of profound poignancy. Backed by an amazing band that features Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Joey Barron, Cyro Baptista and Kenny Wollesen, vocalists Sofia Rei, Mike Patton and Jesee Harris each bring forth their own expressive insights. After a series of fantastic concerts, the composer fortuitously decided to capture the experience on vinyl, releasing a record simply titled The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition under the self-run Tzadik label.

This record is definitely a worthy successor to Patricia Barber’s fantastic Smash as the Music and Myth’s Best Vocal Record and I can only hope that Zorn will decide to make this music available in other formats as well.

Best Instrumental Record: Horea Crisovan – My Real Trip (self-released)

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To tell you the truth, I hesitated before deciding on this record. That’s not because I don’t consider it entirely deserving. It is, without a doubt, the best instrumental record I’ve come across this year (and I listen to a lot of music). The problem lies with Horea himself, or rather, with my relationship with him. Not only is he a compatriot, he is also a personal friend and that’s a well-documented fact. Of course, choosing the record merely on this basis would be unfair. But wouldn’t it be equally unfair to dismiss it for the same reasons?

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

 My Real Trip doesn’t only feature Horea the guitarist, but also Horea the composer. The listener finds him at his most comfortable: on acoustic, playing profoundly melodious, story-driven songs. This is the purest form of music: self-released, in limited edition, containing entirely and exclusively the artist’s vision – a veritable breath of fresh air in an industry cluttered with easy-listening tunes for the lowest common denominator. In a way, this is the anti-record: an independent work of art that celebrates the musician’s vision and character. This is Horea drinking wine, it’s Horea riding his beloved bicycle or retreating to the mountains to think. It’s Horea playing the music he loves most, with no-one hovering over him, telling him what to write or pressing him to adjust his compositions to the perceived demands of an easily distracted target-audience. His target audience consists of people who love music for the artistry and dedicate their full attention to it. His audience does not merely want to hear sounds, they want to experience music and My Real Trip delivers.

[…]Horea Crișovan’s long-awaited debut is a heartfelt expression of love for the medium. The musician invites you into his own personal space and you truly feel like you are a part of his compositional universe.

I am not a musician, but I am an award-winning writer (sorry, I just had to place that in there :P) and as such, primarily a storyteller. The narrative and the genuineness of the artist (see Patricia Barber’s Smash, Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro or Xela Zaid’s Orange Violet) are as important to me as their skill or the money their record label invests in post-production. Like last year’s record – Iva Bittova’s self-titled album- My Real Trip captures the essence of the musician in a simple, yet singular way and that is what makes it the best of the best.

Congratulations to the musicians, the physical prize consists in a copy of my science fiction novel Mindguard if you will just kindly leave me your e-mail addresses so I can send you the Amazon gift card. These are the Music and Myth Awards for 2014, I’m anxious to see what 2015 has in store for music lovers!