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!

The 2015 Music and Myth Awards

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In 2013 I came up with something I like to call The Music and Myth Awards. Angry that the boneheads at NARAS failed to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for a Grammy, I decided to create my own awards in the form of an article wherein I discuss the very best works of music I’ve come across all year.

There are two categories: Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental Record. The scope is not restricted to jazz or world music, though those are the genres I write about the most, so there’s a higher likelihood of such a record getting the nod. The primary criterion is storytelling: how well does the artist convey his or her vision and does the narrative flow seamlessly. This narrative is achieved through everything from lyrics to the dynamics of the sound and the placement of the tracks (which is why I’m always so excited about a good opening track).

In 2013, The Music and Myth’s Best Vocal Record was Patricia Barber’s Smash, and in 2014 it was John Zorn’s impressive The Song Project. The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Records so far have been Iva Bittova’s self-titled album, released under the ECM label in 2013 and Horea Crisovan’s My Real Trip, released independently the following year.

The very first article I post every January, my subjective but thoroughly love-filled coronations are meant as a comment on the restrictive and often ridiculously political nature of “big” awards, as well as the sheer absurdity of a certain group of people pretending they possess the authority to objectively choose the very best in something as subjective as art, be it music, literature or cinematography (I’m looking at you, Oscars!). In the end, there is no intrinsic value to any form of recognition, it’s just somebody’s opinion. This is exactly what The Music and Myth Awards represent: my own personal opinion as a music writer and lifelong audiophile.

There is so much wonderful music in the world. Many artists deserve the highest praise but will never be recognized by big organizations like NARAS and come into possession of that ugly little gramophone statue. That is mostly because they don’t have a big marketing machine behind them to place them on the radar of something like NARAS, who, by the looks of their yearly nominees (at least in the jazz categories, which are the only ones I follow) seem to believe that there is a total of around forty jazz musicians on the planet, and thirty of them are named Chick Corea.

Alas, not much has changed since 2013. You still see the same names nominated over and over again, and NARAS is still overlooking fantastic records. This year, the “Patricia Barber treatment” went to Kamasi Washington, whose phenomenal The Epic has most, if not all, listeners agreeing that it is deserving of its title. But, fear not, The Music and Myth is here to right the wrongs. First, the predictions:

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Traditionally, I like to start my awards articles by trying to guess the winners in both categories (Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Jazz Instrumental Album – I think the concept of a “Large Ensemble” category is a bit silly). So far, my success rate is 50%. In 2013, I correctly predicted that the vocal award will go to Gregory Porter, whose Liquid Spirit is truly magnificent (and, in my opinion, the best record nominated in the last 5 years), but I thought the instrumental one would go to Gerald Clayton’s very deserving Life Forum, when it went to Terri Lyne Carrington’s (slightly less deserving) Money Jungle. Last year, I thought Gretchen would take best vocal, but they gave it to Diane Reeves. I did, however, correctly predict that Chick Corea’s Trilogy would get the nod (not really a prophetic feat on my part, since you can never bet against Chick at the Grammys).

Let’s see if I can improve my record this year!

Once again, I must state in advance that I am not a big fan of cover or tribute albums being nominated. I thoroughly appreciate that certain tribute records can be groundbreaking, and in my next article I will talk about Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane, which might very well be the very best cover record I’ve ever heard. In fact, even my pick for Best Vocal Record last year – John Zorn’s The Song Project – is technically a cover album, since none of the tracks are originals (Zorn asked three talented vocalists to write lyrics for some of his most popular instrumental tracks). The result is sublime.

But it’s difficult to catch lightning in a bottle. Patton’s album was amazing because he put his powerful voice and heavy-metal delivery to ’50s and ’60s Italian pop music. Zorn’s worked because the musicians added a level of poetry to already splendid instrumental tunes, in effect, creating entirely new songs.

Another example of a great cover record would be Al Di Meola’s All Your Life, the Beatles tribute where the guitar virtuoso employs his impressive technique to add an instrumental complexity that the originals – with all due respect – simply did not possess. But even Di Meola admitted in an interview I did with him that re-imagining existing music takes about one third of the effort it takes to write entirely new songs. In most cases, these cover albums merely boil down to: so-and-so sings/plays so-and-so’s music. For that reason, I feel that – unless breathtakingly original in the vein of the records I’ve just mentioned – cover albums are simply at a creative disadvantage. With John Zorn putting out roughly seventeen thousand projects each year, I find it hard to believe that there isn’t enough great new music in the running.

Anyway, let’s look at this year’s records:

In the instrumental category, we have Robert Glasper’s suggestively titled Covered (ahem!). In this elegant live album, Glasper’s piano trio (Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums) play some of the pianist’s own existing compositions as well as covers of songs by everyone from Kendrik Lamar to Joni Mitchell.  I found it a pleasant and well-balanced record, but not the best of the bunch (though I immensely enjoyed Reid’s percussion).

John Scofield offers Past Present, a warm, bluesy and very melodic set of new compositions, allegedly inspired by the loss of his son. One of the most memorable records in this year’s ballot, Past Present would have been my pick to win if not for certain circumstances surrounding Jimmy Greene’s Beautiful Life, but more on that later.

Young Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander makes an interesting appearance with his debut record, My Favorite Things. There is certainly a bright future ahead for the gifted preteen pianist and just being nominated for this award should place many eyes on him. From the standpoint of technique, it’s certainly beyond reproach – a masterful display of skill. However, it just lacks the charisma of Glasper’s album, or the emotional depth of Scofield’s, Greene’s and Blanchard’s records.

Speaking of Terrence Blanchard, I think the Grammy should go to his record, Breathless. It feels like the most complex work out of those nominated, with sprinkles of Miles-Davis-fusion over a complex soundscape that incorporates everything from classical to funk. It reminded me a bit of Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum, nominated in this category in 2013. Though Blanchard is – I feel – the most deserving, I think the award will go to Jimmy Greene’s Beautiful Life.

This mellow but profoundly musical recording is as beautiful as its backstory is tragic. Greene’s six-year-old daughter was a victim of the infamous Sandy Hook school shooting. Her beautiful life defines this album, and her lovely voice can even be heard on one of the tracks. One can’t help but have a special affection for this profoundly sentimental – though never melodramatic – album and I don’t think NARAS will pass up the opportunity to make a political statement by giving the award to Greene.

On the vocal side, we have Jamison Ross’s self-titled debut, benefiting from a fairly unique sound with an RnB energy, but suffering from a weak opening track and inconsistent lyrics. Lorraine Feather is once again nominated for the polished and clever Flirting with Disaster, while Karryn Allison’s Many A New Day and Denise Donatelli’s Find a Heart – both collections of standards and covers – are beautifully crafted, but nothing you haven’t heard before.

I think the Grammy will go to Cecile McLorin Salvant’s old-school For One To Love. This splendid, charming and often humorous record contains five original compositions and seven covers and mostly stands out because of Salvant’s top-notch vocals. Her last record, Womanchild, was also nominated. This young vocalist is clearly a charismatic presence on the microphone with a wonderful ear for timing. Her feminine vigor, sometimes flirtatious, other times confrontational, gives the record an air of honesty and authenticity, but it also somewhat narrows its pensive scope, making it difficult for some listeners to relate. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference, but I think tracks such as “Growlin’ Dan” really don’t age well and I can’t help but cringe when I hear someone singing, “She shook her hoochie-coochie, tried to steal my man” in the year 2016.

Nevertheless, I still think this will be Salvant’s year.

The Music and Myth Awards

Best Vocal Record of 2015: Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Island) 

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For the first time, The Music and Myth and NARAS actually agree on something, and that something is Florence and the Machine’s How Big How Blue How Beautiful (from this point on referred to as HB3). The band’s third studio record is up for Best Pop Vocal Album at the Grammys, going up against the works of Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Mark Ronson and James Taylor.

I’ve been a fan of Florence and The Machine for years, since my wife introduced me to Lungs, which I’ve called “a breath of fresh air” in my review. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them live and Florence Welch’s voice can often be heard cooing and screaming from our speakers.

However, I have to admit, I did not take an instant liking to HB3. Welch’s songwriting is always very personal but on this one there is a degree of intimacy, a raw, almost aggressive energy that makes the aftertaste linger, even if the music isn’t instantly likable. I found myself returning to it almost every single week, to the point where I must have listened to it about a hundred times. Like Smash and The Song Project before it, How Big How Blue How beautiful has forcefully seized my attention and simply refused to let go.

The lyrics, documenting the composer’s disastrous love-life, are honest and personal while remaining relatable. As mentioned before, that wasn’t the case with Salvant’s “gee-golly-gosh-I-can’t-find-my-man” approach. An expert storyteller, Welch manages to take her memories and emotions and make them yours, and that’s what makes this record a deserving Best Vocal Record of 2015.

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

With profoundly personal lyrics telling of failed relationships, almost debilitating vices and emotional aimlessness, How Big How Blue How Beautiful is definitely an acquired taste. It’s certainly a powerful album, but it doesn’t have the instant charm of Lungs and Ceremonials. However, it makes up for that with a disarmingly honest narrative that will almost certainly help cement the record’s legacy over time.

It seems that my words then were prophetic, as “over time” I obsessively returned to it, beckoned by Welch’s manic-depressive call until I decided it’s the best I’ve heard all year.

 Best Instrumental Record of 2015: Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)

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This one is not a surprise, since I mentioned it at the beginning of the article. Of stunning complexity, both in composition and delivery, The Epic is just that – an epic feat of storytelling and the new measuring stick for instrumental jazz records. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

The soundscape is immensely varied, an atlas of the classical and modern jazz world with stunning attention to detail and a plethora of information, though ultimately lacking in true novelty. The last statement is not really a criticism. The Epic isn’t about shaping the future of jazz with a cutting edge sound, but rather encompassing the essence of its past and present.

With talent and confidence, Washington managed to create perhaps one of the all-time great jazz records. Only time will tell!

This is it for this year! Starting next week, I will return with the regular review articles, but I’d love to hear what you think about this year’s Music and Myth Awards.