The 2016 Music and Myth Awards

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It’s almost the end of January, which means it’s time for the fourth annual Music and Myth Awards, wherein I nominate The Music and Myth’s favorite vocal and instrumental records of the preceding year. The concept is simple: a music lover’s honest, subjective and – given that I listen to countless hours of new music per week, dare I say – informed opinion.

The tradition started with my displeasure over the fact that NARAS failed to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for best vocal record of 2013 and has since evolved into a sort of anti-Grammy round-up article. I usually start by taking a quick look at the Grammy nominees in the best vocal and instrumental jazz record categories and trying to predict the eventual winner, before revealing my own winners and attempting to justify my picks.

So, let’s take a look at the Gammy line-up for this year. As always, there’s cover-records galore and the usual NARAS-approved crowd, consisting of musicians who seem to hold season tickets to the nominations. I feel like I have to repeat this every year: this is not a knock on these musicians or their beautiful records, rather on NARAS and their restrictive view of the music industry. I don’t think there’s a single musician or band that hasn’t been nominated – probably multiple times – over the last few years. Given the wealth of talent in this particular genre, I find it hard to believe that every year the “very best” music is produced by a sample of about two-dozen musicians. Anyway, it is what it is, so let’s move on to the round-up.

In the Best Instrumental category we find last year’s winner, John Scofield, with his record of quirky and sometimes outright funny reworkings of country music classics. In the cleverly titled Country for Old Men, Scofield covers everyone from Hank Williams to freakin’ Shania Twain and does so with impeccable technique and finesse. It’s a thoroughly entertaining effort, but ultimately one that doesn’t develop beyond the limitations of its concept.

Meanwhile, Peter Erskine’s not-so-cleverly titled Dr. Um, with its tribute to Weather Report-type fusion certainly adds some color to this ballot of straightforward and straight-faced piano-driven records, but it’s also the only one of the five that makes me wonder what it’s doing in a supposed selection of the best in the world.

There’s a lot of piano on this year’s ballot, with three marvelous and diversified exhibitions of the instrument’s evocative power. Book of Intuition by Kenny Barron is captivating, dynamic and splendidly crafted while Sunday Night At The Vanguard by Fred Hersch is pensive and subtle, making knowledgeable use of space and atmosphere. My personal favorite, however, is Nearness by longtime collaborators Joshua Redman (on saxophone) and Brad Mehldau. There is something refreshingly raw and unpredictable in its sound and the duo’s impressive chemistry makes for a fascinating dialogue. My head says they should win, but my instinct tells me the award will go to Hersch. So far, I’ve been one-for-one every year, so let’s see if I get it 50% right again this time around.

On the vocal side we’ve got Catherine Russell’s old-school and upbeat Harlem on my Mind that finds the singer at the top of her game, while perennial nominee Tierney Sutton puts forth The Sting Variations, a charming collection of songs from the English musician’s repertoire that ultimately suffers from the same drawback as Scofield’s cover album, namely the failure to outgrow its gimmick.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet teams up with Kurt Elling to offer the stylistically exquisite Upward Spiral. Of course, Marsalis and band are top-notch while Elling has perhaps the most educated voice in the business, so this alone makes for a record that aims for musical perfection. While the record exceeds in everything it seems to attempt, it’s exactly this focus on technical faultlessness rather than clever storytelling that I think hinders it from being a truly memorable work.

As opposed to other years, however, there are two thoroughly unforgettable records in the vocal category, and I’ll take a bit of a closer look at both of them.

Let’s start off with Gregory Porter’s Take Me To The Alley, which I’ve already written about this summer. Now, Porter is the kind of musician who’s reached a stage in his career where everything he touches turns to musical gold. He has a unique voice, a singular style and songs that have mainstream appeal, pushing him more and more into the pop landscape. If you don’t believe me, here’s Gregory singing “Purple Rain” with German pop icon, all-around entertainer and modern-day Spice Girl, Helene Fischer. Something tells me we won’t be seeing a Catherine Russell/ Helene Fischer duet anytime soon.

Like Liquid Spirit before it, Take Me to The Alley is absolutely gorgeous start to finish, its simple tunes made memorable by Porter’s warmth, sincerity and almost supernatural talent for creating memorable melodies. This is the kind of record you can play for someone who hasn’t heard a single note of jazz in their entire life and be comfortable in your certainty that you’ve just converted them (then, when you’ve got them securely hooked, you hit them with the Zorn catalog).

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

Perhaps [Porter’s] greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition. With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.

Normally, I would have predicted that NARAS hands him the award just based on the album’s potential mainstream appeal but they already gave him a Grammy for essentially the same record only a couple of years ago.

In my opinion, a more deserving winner would be René Marie for the outstanding Sound of Red. In her first record of fully original material, the intelligent and charismatic vocalist sings her heart out in an impressive collection of powerful and memorable compositions, a veritable tour de force in storytelling and emotion.

I absolutely fell in love with this record from the first note and had a hard time deciding between it and my eventual pick for Best Vocal. It matches Take Me to the Alley in candidness and warmth, but clearly surpasses it in scope, due to Marie’s impressive emotional range. While Porter’s delivery can often fall into a formula, albeit a very pleasant one, Marie seems to adjust her articulation to match the essence of every song. It’s a stunning feat of characterization. I usually ridicule NARAS at every turn and trust neither their expertise nor their commitment to music, but I sincerely hope they make the right choice this time and hand the award to René Marie.

And now, on to the second part of the article for the actual Music and Myth Awards for 2016.

Best Vocal Record: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

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As I’ve mentioned above, I had a very difficult time choosing between The Sound of Red and Emily’s D+Evolution. Both are stunning, fearless, challenging works of exceptional beauty and intelligence and both carry the pronounced signature of their respective creators. While I instantly fell in love with The Sound of Red, it took me a while to warm up to Esperanza’s new endeavor. Her bold and unpredictable creative direction is a big departure from what the audience has come to expect based on her previous outings, but that is exactly what makes it so memorable. Once I played it a couple more times and got used to the structure, the record almost violently seized my attention, demanding to be experienced and respected. Esperanza’s study of the Emily persona is gripping in the most intimate way, the songs are enduring and remarkable for their ingenuous complexity. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

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

In the end, I chose this record first and foremost because it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Sure, the influences are there and they are undisguised, but the result feels fresh and exciting. In this profound yet playful record, Esperanza has not only found her own voice, it feels like she has invented her own language too. Absolutely breathtaking!

Best Instrumental Record: Tyshaw Sorey – The Inner Spectrum of Variables

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If the pick for best vocal record was difficult, this one could not have been easier. From the first time I heard it in August of last year, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that this would be the Music and Myth’s best instrumental record for 2016. I kept waiting to see if I would stumble across a work that might equal or even surpass it. Not even close!

Tyshawn Sorey’s monumental composition for double trio (piano jazz and classical string) is a universe of its own, similar in scope to last year’s winner, The Epic by Kamasi Washington, but completely different in almost every other aspect. Its blend of jazz and classical, of composition and improvisation, technique and imagination makes it as much a work of science as it is a work of art. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

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

[…] The Inner Spectrum of variables is a visionary work, masterfully imagined by a composer whose genius extends even beyond the brilliance exhibited by many of his distinguished peers and flawlessly executed by a band whose virtuosity is uncontested.

That’s a wrap for this year’s Music and Myth Awards. What did you think of the records? Have you already heard them? Are you planning to check them out in the future? Who do you think will wake away with a Grammy and what are your choices for best vocal and instrumental record of 2016? Sound off in the comment section!

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

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

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

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

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

Talking loud ain’t saying nothing

Tired of all these politicians faking and fronting

Misleading the people with destructive illusions

It’s a foregone conclusion

That we gotta find some kind of solution

Telling all them lies

just to get inside

So that they can do

Not a thing they promised to

For me and you

What else can we do

A change is overdue

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

Even after countless have stood at the frontline

time after time after time

to show us the way to a better day

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

Does another have to put their life on the line

in hopes that we will finally make up our mind

to develop a collective mind set

so that we can fight, proclaim and protect

our human rights

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

for our so called inherent God given birthright

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Great Voices of Harlem – spellbinding stories from the iconic New York City neighborhood

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For The Music and Myth the month of June falls under the jazz-strological sign of the INNTöne Jazz Festival. The Music and Myth will be attending and covering the legendary event, held from June 6th to June 8th at the bio-farm of the equally legendary Paul Zauner in Diersbach, Austria. In the following weeks this website will hopefully (read: if all goes well) feature interviews with veteran musicians and up-and-coming talent alike. Since June is all about INNTöne, it seemed only fitting to start the month with an article about the recently released Great Voices of Harlem, a record meant to showcase the vocal prowess of Jazz-heavyweights Mansur Scott, Donald Smith and Gregory Porter. It was recorded in 2012 and released by the Austrian PAO label, owned by Zauner, whose band Blue Brass provides the instrumental backbone to this musical monograph. In fact, though the record is spearheaded by the name Gregory Porter – whose own Liquid Spirit was rewarded with a Grammy just this year – Great Voices of Harlem is entirely the brainchild of Zauner, a longtime aficionado of the famous New York neighborhood. The record features classics like “Moanin’”, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” “Mona Lisa” and “Watermelon Man” brought to life by the voices of the three talented vocalists, each adding his distinctive timbre and personality while maintaining a common thread of honesty and dedication.

The album starts with “Moanin’”, an appropriate openening track, first because it features Porter, who is arguably the most well-known of the three, and second because its rootsy groove is sure to instantly capture the listener’s attention. Though Porter brings his usual intense delivery, the song’s highlights are the instrumental bits, especially Martin Reiter’s sprightly piano. In fact, throughout the record, the listener discovers that Blue Brass does not merely provide an instrumental background, but often steps into the foreground where it effortlessly shines, solidifying the record’s consistency (the vocalists are mostly featured individually on separate tracks). The band is such a powerful presence that you could remove the vocal parts altogether and Great Voices of Harlem would still be a thoroughly enjoyable work.

The second song serves as an intro to “Peace” and, though it’s definitely enjoyable in its almost spiritual spoken-word-subtlety-over-poised-thumb-piano, it comes off as a bit out of place in the general construction of the album. Perhaps it would have been better placed towards the end of the record, where the trio of songs (the topic is continued in “Expansions”) could have created the feeling that the narrative is leading up to them. This would have been especially effective since “Peace” is not just the only song which features all three vocalists but also a superb rendition of Horace Silver’s track while “Expansions” is, in my opinion, the highlight of the record. Originally released by Lonnie Liston Smith (Donald Smith’s brother), the song is pulled off to absolute perfection. The “brass” is brilliant and hypnotic, Martin Reiter’s keyboards, Wolfram Derschmidt’s bass and Howard Curtis’ drums provide the flashy funk and Donald Smith’s delivery, complete with soulful screeches, is absolutely breathtaking.

Gregory Porter returns on the next track, an elegant and moving rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” where Porter’s warm voice creates a captivating contrast with the band’s wintry and wistful performance. Mansur Scott then takes the reins and provides an interesting change of pace with the gritty, impactful, spoken-word recount of “Doing Hard Time” before changing ambiance yet again to deliver one of the most emotionally expressive versions of “Stella By Starlight” this reviewer has ever heard.

Smith and Scott partner up on “Watermelon Man” and somehow manage to capture both the bluesy balance of Herbie Hancock’s original and the Cuban cheer of Mongo Santamaria’s cover, while adding an entertaining touch of humor. This song is another example of the dynamic flow of the record, with constant shifts in style and mood that keep the listener alert. The album loses a bit of steam with “My One and Only Love”, if only because Donald Smith’s vocals just don’t seem to be the right fit for this particular take on the 1952 track by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin, but it quickly regains its pace with Mansur Scott’s sharp take on “Days of Wine and Roses”. In “Mona Lisa” Gregory Porter invokes the softness of Nat King Cole’s delivery to once again oppose the cold pensiveness of the band. Once more, the antithesis works wonderfully. Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father”, as performed by Mansur Scott,  closes the album in an eloquent, if somewhat undistinguished manner. It feels like a bit of an odd choice for a closing track and would have definitely worked better with a different placement.

Overall, Great Voices of Harlem is definitely a must-have for any knowledgeable Jazz enthusiast.  The unbridled passion of Paul Zauner and the impressive combined talent of Scott, Smith and Porter transform this record from a compilation of standards into a study of the cultural significance of Jazz and a heartfelt portrayal of the soul of Harlem.

by Andrei Cherascu