The 2013 Music and Myth Awards

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Photograph by Andrei Cherascu

The Music and Myth returns in 2014 with the first annual “Music and Myth Awards”.  As always, there is a story behind this inaugural yearly tradition so sit back, relax, think Jazz and allow me to spin my yarn.

Chapter 1: The Story

The idea to start off 2014 with an article about the very best of 2013 came to me in summer of last year but until December I was not sure I would sit down and write it. I listen to a lot of music. Every day, as I sit down to work on my novels in writing sessions that can last up to 8 hours there is always a record playing in the background. Music has the purpose of guarding my sanity against the strain of a most repetitive activity and preventing eventual boredom. Simply put, it stimulates the desire to keep on working.

More often than not I play new records, albums I’ve never heard before because if I play records I already know it can get a bit distracting when my mind starts anticipating my favorite parts. In consequence, I go through a ton of new music every year. Still, the idea of Music and Myth Awards seemed too ambitious, as the relevance of such an article would, in the end, be limited by my own subjectivity (though it would be fitting for a very subjective blog whose sole purpose is to spread the word about good quality music).

I am a writer, an aspiring novelist, my sole knowledge of music comes from whatever understanding I may have gained from the extensive catalog of records I’ve listened to throughout the years and from my love and passion for this art form which makes me listen very carefully.  Still, I was unsure of what to do until a certain record helped me with my decision as well as the realization that any award, no matter how grand or well-known, could be flawed and subjective.

Back in May 2013 I’ve had the chance to listen to Patricia Barber’s Smash, an absolutely stellar album released under the Concord label. It was love at first sound. I don’t often have records I instantly adore and I don’t always listen to a record very often over a long period of time as I try to keep my experience as diverse as possible but Smash had it all and I must have played it over fifty times in the last six months, deeply engaged in my study of one of the best records of the last few years.

Sometime in December I read the nominations for the 56th edition of the Grammy Awards and was very disappointed to find that Smash was not nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That is not to say that I have a great deal of respect for the Grammys in general, after all, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is the same organization that awarded thirteen Grammys to Eminem while granting two to Tom Waits, one to Jimi Hendrix (and even that was for “Lifetime Achievement”) and none to Led Zeppelin, thus demonstrating that their views on genres that are more mainstream are equally peripheral. But this is JAZZ. I mean, is nothing sacred?

Anyway, the point is that Smash undoubtedly deserves to be on any serious and knowledgeable list of not only the best in Jazz but the best in music in general as do many other records that I am sure get overlooked every single year for a plethora of reasons. The fact that the Grammys overlooked this very good record made me realize how fallible any list of awards can be and also made me think that The Music and Myth has every bit the right to voice its opinion on the best of Jazz as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I have no golden statues of gramophones to hand out to the artists and no cash prizes to award. I only wish I did so that I may further support these brilliant musicians but for now all I have to offer is the recognition and admiration of a writer who holds music in the highest regard, who writes about Jazz (always with a capital J) and tries to help promote quality music through the exposure granted by a music website with an ever-increasing audience (and thank you for that my dear readers).

That being said I present the 2013 Music and Myth Awards. I am not a musician and have no authority to comment on a certain musician’s technical prowess on a given instrument. I am, however, a storyteller, very apt at judging a work of music in its entirety. I care about its story, first and foremost.

In consequence, there will be two categories:

Best Vocal Album and Best Instrumental Album.    

The categories are open, not limited to Jazz. However, since I feel it is a superior genre that sets a high bar in quality don’t be surprised to find it in my awards as you are bound to find it on my blog.

Also, since the Grammys have been part of what made me create my own award I would like to start by taking a moment to comment on the respective nominations for this year.

Chapter 2: The Grammys

My displeasure with the unfortunate omission of Smash should not be understood as a critique of any of the artists that have been nominated. Truly, all the works in both the categories are exceptional. But is any of them the best? Well, that is debatable, and I think it’s a subjective opinion no matter how you look at it. I will try to bring solid arguments to back up my views.

Two particular things have caught my attention, things I feel I need to address. First of all, in both categories, some of the records consist entirely of cover songs and some are so-called tribute albums. Tierney Sutton’s After Blue pays homage to Joni Mitchell, Terri Lynne Carrington’s Money Jungle reinvents the 1962 record by Duke Ellington and Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Womanchild  consists of Jazz standards. Now, I have nothing against covers when they are done correctly, with passion and respect for the original and without taking an approach that is too comfortable. Certainly these three records are very good and they deserve the highest recognition. However, I recall a conversation I had with Al DiMeola earlier this year. He was promoting his own tribute record All Your Life where he plays songs by the Beatles. I asked him about the effort of reinventing already existing tunes versus the strain of composing entirely new music and here is what he had to say:

It’s way harder to write new music, something original, something that’s complex. It’s a lot more evolved and far more difficult to come up with original music.  Each time you write for a record you’re challenging yourself to come up with something different which is very hard to do. […] Writing the music that’s mine […] is far harder than taking something from the Beatles or Piazzolla and adapting it to my style, because I’m basically reading music that’s already been written and then adapting it to my rhythmic focus. Even though it poses challenges that still is probably a third as much work as it is to compose something new.

I am not saying that a brilliantly executed record of cover songs could not be recognized as the best in a certain year, but if we have powerful records that are equally beautiful, comparably masterful in their delivery, should then not a record of wholly original work be granted that much more recognition? I think it should and I chose my records accordingly. The second thing is that, given the vastness of the Jazz scene I find it a bit curious to find Christian McBride and Gerald Clayton, both nominated with their own respective records, playing on Terri Lynn Carrington’s nominated album. I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying it makes the list of nominations appear a bit restrictive.

Anyway, in “Vocal Jazz” Andy Bey brings forth The World According to Andy Bey a soulful and intimate work that stands out due to its honesty and the brilliant use of the aging singer’s spectacular voice (which made me think of Johnny Cash’s American series) and Lorraine Feather presents the brilliant Attachments where her intelligent lyrics coupled with her charming wit and a beautiful orchestration make for a wonderful and sentimental album. Still, I think the Grammy should go to Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. Admittedly, it is in a way not as complex as some of the other recordings in the category but it does benefit from some great compositions (“No Love Dying” is one of the best opening songs I’ve heard in a long time) a very charismatic delivery of good lyrics and a genre-bending musicality that will attract many listeners that might normally not venture into Jazz. It also has a particular energy, an edge that instantly charms the audience and makes the music stand out.

In the “Instrumental Album” category we have the rhythmic diversity of Kenny Garret’s Pushing The World Away, the composed and time-honored sound of Christian McBride Trio’s Out Here, the impeccable compositions and flawless arrangement of Gary Burton’s Guided Tour and the raw, pulsating sound and general diversity of Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum.

I would have a hard time deciding between Life Forum and Guided Tour, both brilliant records in their own right. I’ve used the term “impeccable” to describe Burton’s work and truly, that is exactly what it is. Marvelous compositions by each of the band-members create a beautiful and diverse landscape that, at the same time, preserves the uniqueness of each individual song.  The fantastic technique of the players (especially the incredible 25-year-old guitarist Julian Lage)  regales the ears and the musicality and coherence of the arrangement (as I understand the record was produced by Burton himself) makes for a captivating story start to finish. Anyway you look at it, this record is flawless and it is exactly this aesthetic perfection and the slight predictability that ensues from it that I think will cost it the award. I would give it to Clayton’s Life Forum. There is a quality about this record that makes you feel it has a life of its own. Out of all the nominees for Best Instrumental Jazz Album this one is the least instantly-likable. It definitely takes a few start-to-finish plays to truly appreciate the many nuances of this great recording. Its compositions are varied and complex, sometimes mesmerizing and other times almost off-putting at first listen and yet its highlights are subtle and magnificently complex. From its spoken-word opening track, through its raw and edgy instrumentals and its few delicate vocal tracks this record shines through its complexity: a beautifully crafted and intelligent album.

Now, here are my own picks for records of the year and the reasons why I chose them over all others. Naturally, they are records I have already reviewed as I only take the time to write about albums I consider great.

Chapter 3. The 2013 Music and Myth awards go to…

Best Vocal Album: Patricia Barber – Smash (Concord)

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Obviously the first one is not a shocker since it is the very record that convinced me to create The Music and Myth Awards. Here’s what I said about it in the review:

Barber’s voice is flawless, her piano-playing is wonderful and the general instrumental arrangement of the record is brilliant; still neither of these things is the defining trait of Patricia Barber’s work. The qualities that stand out the most are her extraordinary intelligence and her articulacy, evident in the songwriting. Trust me, brilliant lyrics are not always a given, even in Jazz. […]Overall, Smash is the Meryl Streep of records: intelligent, elegant, with a disarmingly honest intensity but also well-timed humor.

 

Now, half a year after reviewing it I can tell you that there is not a single week that goes by without this record being played in my house and for good reason. The compositions are crisp and intelligent, written with an admirable balance between reason and sentiment, Patricia’s voice is flawless, powerful and charismatic but also with an attractive enunciation that makes all the difference. Her songwriting is top-notch. The record seems to combine all the qualities that make the other Grammy nominees great: the honest and intimate character of Andy Bey’s record, the wit and intelligence of Lorraine Feather’s compositions and the edge and energy of Gregory Porter’s work. In my opinion, Smash is the best vocal record not only of this year but of the last few years.

 

Best Instrumental Album: Iva Bittova – Iva Bittova (ECM)     

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In 2013 this avant-garde Czech violinist made her debut on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label with a one-of-a-kind album that features twelve tracks called “Fragments” on which Iva plays violin and kalimba and occasionally sings. It is only fitting that this should be a self-titled record as it carries the distinct mark of Iva Bittova’s unique style of music and encapsulates the essence of this talented musician’s performances (I know because I’ve seen her live in October of last year).

This work is a world of its own, bearing no resemblance to anything you’ve heard. It isn’t really Jazz but I don’t think there’s an actual name for her style of music.

Here’s what I wrote about the record in my review:

I have always had a deep admiration for musicians who just disregard what everyone else is doing and go out there and do whatever the hell they feel like. Same with Iva Bittova. This lady is a hoot, her music is unlike anything you’ve heard before. […] I’m a fan of the way in which the tracks are open to interpretation, offering just enough material to stimulate the listener into using his or her imagination and connecting the dots.  In music, as in literature, leaving a few “empty” spaces and structuring the product well is a sign of good storytelling. It is interesting that “Iva Bittova” cannot be thought of as a violin recording and neither a vocal Jazz recording as we might have expected glancing upon the letters ECM. Instead, the backbone of this album is represented by the way in which Iva’s voice relates to the sound of her violin, you almost feel like her voice is an instrument shaped by her trance-like reactions to the sound of her violin and vice-versa. She is always aware of her surroundings making her delivery as important a factor as the art itself.  […]a good, well thought-out record, sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate.

Though she heavily employs her voice I can’t think of this as a vocal album. Her voice is used as an instrument all of its own and the focus of the record is the dynamic, almost sentient musical entity that results from the symbiosis between Iva’s voice and her violin. Iva Bittova is a hypnotic, innovative record that is more performance art than mere music. As the artist herself so wisely put it “Everything is music” and this record reflects that enlightened mentality. Indeed, beautiful and original music created with great awareness and personal involvement and deserving the highest praise. In my opinion, the best in its league.

So here they are, my picks for the 2013 Music and Myth Awards. Thank you for your attention and I am interested to hear your opinions.

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Iva Bittova at the synagogue in Timisoara – Everything is Music

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Photo by Andrei Cherascu

A few days ago I wrote an article about Iva Bittova’s self-titled album released this year under the prestigious ECM label. While researching the record, I wanted to see what the artist has been up to lately, so I checked out her tour dates as well. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Iva was going to hold a concert at one of the synagogues in my city just a little over one week later.  Now, I had never seen the inside of a synagogue before but, most importantly, I had never seen Iva Bittova perform live before. As I wrote in my article, I enjoyed the record and her distinctive brand of music so I was more than curious to see what a live performance would involve especially since what I had seen on Youtube was very promising.

Let me just state this from the get-go: a recording does not do Iva Bittova justice! Her live performance was out of this world, a unique experience I will not soon forget. But let’s start with the beginning: I got there a few minutes early and I immediately spotted Iva walking around. Many people did not seem to know who she was. Since the concert was part of the SoundCzech music festival, promoting Czech music and culture perhaps some people just came because of that, not necessarily knowing who would be performing. This also brings me to my only major gripe with the concert, one that does not have anything to do with the performance itself. I’ve noticed many young girls and boys attending and it didn’t take me long to figure out that they were schoolkids more or less forced to be there by what I can only assume was their music teacher. It also didn’t take them long to become a complete nuisance, constantly giggling, talking and probably wishing they were at home listening to One Direction. They bothered me to the point where I had to switch seats. That turned out to be to my advantage though because I got closer to the artist and thus able to better appreciate her quirky stage presence. But the presence of those hapless teenagers does prove my point that you cannot force-feed art and good taste. The teacher who came up with this little field trip, though well-intended, should definitely rethink his or her teaching methods.

Anyway, on to the performance itself (but without leaving the aforementioned teenagers behind just yet): Some people representing the festival took the stage and said something barely audible in the rather big synagogue. Meanwhile Iva Bittova had appeared completely unnoticed from somewhere close to the back rows and near the entrance. She stopped right next to my row. I think I was one of the few people (if not the only one) who noticed her and…what, you don’t believe me? Fine, here’s a picture:

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Pictured: I told you so!

Anyway, when she started singing, in typical Iva fashion she scared the bejesus out of the aforementioned teens much to my amusement. The humoros moment as well as the mild commotion caused by Iva’s ghost-like appearance quickly dissipated and within a few moments the entire synagogue grew silent in amazement with Iva’s voice. I believe she started off with “Fragment X” but I’m not entirely sure.

I mentioned before that the record does not do her justice. The first thing you notice upon listening to her live is just how incredibly powerful and versatile her voice is, an aspect of her music that is perhaps a bit underplayed in her latest album. You could already tell in the recording that she has a lovely voice and I believe I wrote “make no mistake; hers is a powerful and educated voice that the singer purposefully chooses not to flaunt and instead, to use only as much as a certain song requires.” Well, that powerful and educate voice really shined last night in a manner that left me completely impressed. It is not uncommon for capable singers to sound much better live than on a record but I’ve never before experienced such an enormous difference. The reason for that I believe has as much to do with the subjective experience of her performance as it does with the incredible accoustics of a place of worship.

Again, that is not to say that Iva’s voice does not sound good on the album, it most certainly does, but I think there is a dynamic aspect to the way she delivers her vocals that just cannot be captured on audio. Iva sings, not only with her voice, but with her entire body, her face, her hands and her feet. Also, the way in which she interacts with the crowd, often making eye-contact, smiling like Alanis Morisette when she played God in the movie Dogma, seeming to sing directly to and for some random member of the crowd becomes such an integral part of her art that – I can now state -, you can feel its absence from the record. Mostly, it is the facial expressions of the very expressive singer that help convey the message of her music and the humor, that I mentioned also in the CD review, is an even larger part of her work than I expected. Her voice often changes registry, she stops singing abruptly, then starts again in a higher-pitched tone, switching gears like Jeremy Clarkson on crystal meth (sorry, I’ve recently seen the ending of Breaking Bad) all the while walking back and forth in the synagogue so that the sound of her voice and violin move with her like sentient entities and she occasionally stomps, swivels and claps her hands, all part of her act.  Many (avant-garde) singers like to brag that they are doing something different but in the case of Iva Bittova that is undoubtedly true. I don’t even think there is a name for what she does yet.

A few days before the event I had sent the talented lady an e-mail asking for the opportunity to conduct an interview. My e-mail sadly never got answered but that does not mean that I didn’t get the opportunity to catch a small glimpse into her worldview. Shortly after the first couple of songs Iva started talking to the audience and more or less warning them expect an open and dynamic performance, referring to the many shrieks, wails, hums and bird sounds produced not only by her voice but her violin as well, a very emotional spectacle. As Iva herself so wonderfully put it “Everything is music!”

Then, as if predicting my never-asked questions she started explaining how, unsure of her violin-playing ability, she began using her voice to stregthen her playing, thus creating a musical symbiosis that works incredibly.

Not that she would have any reason to worry about her violin-playing as her masterful control of the instrument provided a powerful backbone for her performance.

To conclude: if you have the opportunity go see this talented and intelligent artist live! Also, if you have the time, read my prior article and then this one again for a pertinent picture of the difference between experiencing music on a record and in a live performance.


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

Mindguard Cover

Iva Bittova – sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate

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As September is coming to a close I look at the date of my last blog entry and see that I’ve gone two and a half months without returning to my first and certainly favorite writing venture. Unfortunately, it has been a sad summer, the sudden loss of my grandfather to whom I was very close has left me in no mood to write. I have discovered with regret that there are certain moments when not even music can lift my spirits. As the summer came to a close and I had to return to writing there were many other pressing projects to get to first, before I could make time for my blog. My second novel was behind on the word count and my most recent project, debuting comic book series Fairytale Therapy (Terapie de Basm in Romanian) was nearing its deadline.

Now, with autumn having a firm grasp on the calendar and with this crazy summer behind me I can return to my first writing love, The Music and Myth.

There is an interesting record I’ve been planning on writing about for months and I am glad I am finally able to get to it.  That record is Iva Bittova, released this year by the Czech singer and violinist of the same name. It was released on the highly respected Manfred Eicher-label ECM, and that comes as no surprise since it sounds entirely like something the legendary German producer would love to attach his name to.

I have always had a deep admiration for musicians who just disregard what everyone else is doing and go out there and do whatever the hell they feel like. Same with Iva Bittova. This lady is a hoot, her music is unlike anything you’ve heard before.  Just look at this video properly titled “Iva Bittova – A Strange Young Lady”. It basically sums up what you will get out of an Iva Bittova recording, not to mention a live performance. I’ve discovered her newest release at the start of summer and fell in love with her music and unique type of performance from the first moment.

Ok, I admit, it was actually from the second moment, the first moment was reserved for figuring out just what the hell to make of this strange music (and keep in mind I listen to Tom Waits and John Zorn).

That being said this isn’t Andre Rieu or Nigel Kennedy, her avant-garde approach is certainly not for everyone, though her mastery as a musician cannot be disputed. She is like the female, violin-playing version of guitarist Marc Ribot.

She has a very interesting, dynamic and open approach to sound which, if exposed to an open mind, can make the listener feel intimately involved in her performance. Her solo record (and by that I mean there are no accompanying musicians) consists of twelve songs (all titled Fragment I-XII) and they all feature the eccentric Iva on vocals, violin and kalimba (thumb piano – because why the hell not).

From the first track – or “fragment” – you are lured into Iva’s world by the sound of said kalimba which appears to have been thrown in there randomly but which works to perfection; its gentle sound, like raindrops, in combination with Iva’s sonance are perhaps the most conventional sounds on the whole album and do a great job of not scaring off the first-time listener. The track directs attention to Iva’s voice and it takes little time for a listener to bond with the imaginative way in which she uses it, alternating from regular singing to all sorts of chirping and cooing noises.

On “Fragment II” we are introduced to the violin. At first, compared to the kalimba on the first track, the sound is almost dissonant,  somehow threatening and loaded with tension, promising an aggressive musical explosion that never happens. It sounds like her voice is trying to escape a prison represented by the sound of the violin. I know that sounds crazy but it is the type of visual sensation that Iva Bittova’s music will evoke and that, in itself, is a rare treat.

The tone shifts completely in Fragment III, where Iva’s singing and her violin playing are in tone with one another, producing an almost humorous result with constant shrieks and changes of tempo, in voice and violin alike. Her English lyrics, purposefully difficult to understand, add to the comical effect of the track though it is almost a threatening comedy, like the hysterical laugh of a madman.  As the record progresses a listener will discover that the humor is not accidental, as it appears to be an integral part of Iva’s music, especially in her live-performances (though her affiliation with ECM has significantly toned down that aspect, presumably in order to keep her in the vibe of the legendary label).

In “Fragment IV” the tense comedy vanishes, leaving in its place a very serious very beautiful and almost mournful chant.

It is with this structure-pattern that the album continues as the tone of the fragments switches from playful but at the same time somewhat melancholic, with tempo-driven tracks like Fragments VII and XI to somber incantations (Fragments V, VI and X) where Iva’s versatile voice takes center stage,  or tracks that highlight her talent and excellent timing as a violinist (Fragment VIII and, again, Fragment XI) . Yet, my favorite track has to be Fragment IX, with its clever use of the kalimba as (almost) a percussion instrument that accompanies Iva’s interesting voice; a voice that is, most of the time, overshadowed by its own liveliness. But make no mistake; hers is a powerful and educated voice that the singer purposefully chooses not to flaunt and instead, to use only as much as a certain song requires – a display of admirable musical wisdom (think back to Mark Knopfler purposefully not including prolonged guitar solos on his latter, more ripe, work).

I’m a fan of the way in which the tracks are open to interpretation, offering just enough material to stimulate the listener into using his or her imagination and connecting the dots.  In music, as in literature, leaving a few “empty” spaces and structuring the product well is a sign of good storytelling.

It is interesting that “Iva Bittova” cannot be thought of as a violin recording and neither a vocal Jazz recording as we might have expected glancing upon the letters ECM. Instead, the backbone of this album is represented by the way in which Iva’s voice relates to the sound of her violin, you almost feel like her voice is an instrument shaped by her trance-like reactions to the sound of her violin and vice-versa. She is always aware of her surroundings making her delivery as important a factor as the art itself. In fact, my only minor gripe with the record is that Iva’s personality seems a bit more toned down than in her quirky live performances, again an aspect probably planned in order to better fit the ECM canon. Other than that: a good, well thought-out record, sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate.

But do let me repeat: this is not Andre Rieu playing Johann Strauss. If you are interested in song and melody you might best skip this one but if you are interested in music, well, in that case it comes highly recommended.