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!

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Jazz/Friendship/Music/Love – a story from the Timisoara Jazz Festival

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Chapter 1: Toasting to Friendship

I’m looking out the window of the hotel room as the sun is about to set, thinking of Paris, which has so far been my defining musical experience. The view is beautiful so I decide to snap a quick photo; I probably won’t be back here very soon.

I’m waiting for Jeff to come out of the bathroom so we can get back to the show and listen to Richard Bona. Jeff comes out wearing a new shirt and looking admirably fresh, as if the fatigue caused by the trip and by hanging out around town all day has just melted off with the aid of nothing more than a splash of water on his face, even though he’s been up for more than twenty hours and has thrown back half a dozen beers with me all afternoon. He’s also got a show to play the next night but he’s in remarkably good shape.  I’m thinking it’s got to be a musician thing; these guys are so used to touring, to the dynamic lifestyle of planes and hotel-rooms that they’re nearly indestructible. I keep joking around with him that I’ll try my best not to “damage” Kurt Elling’s bass player before the gig.

As we’re about to leave the room I take one more look around. Hanging out with a touring musician is a first for me so I try to “take in” the entire scene.

“I was wondering if this is fascinating to you,” says Jeff, who in the past few hours has gotten to know me pretty well. From the moment we met in the hotel lobby, a little while after he checked in, we instantly clicked (as is to be expected from two guys who shared the nickname “Dude” their entire lives, albeit on two different continents).  We became fast friends and we spent the whole afternoon hanging out, talking and laughing, discovering how many other things we have in common besides our nickname (I did not expect anyone else to dislike Tom Cruise with the same passion I do).

We talked a lot about Jazz but not exclusively. We’re both fast talkers so we ran through a plethora of topics from Pro-Wrestling to Quentin Tarantino’s movies, Cracked, Breaking Bad and of course, wanting to punch Tom Cruise in the face. I got to smoke my first “American Spirit”. I found out the top six cities for Jazz in the U.S. I learned that you “play bass with your back”, that Detroit is a great city for music, that there is such a thing as a folding double bass, that in Jazz, if you play a bad note you’re supposed to “play it again”, that you can fix a double bas with a steak knife and I also found out that it’s Jeff’s first time playing with Kurt.  He was brought in as a substitute for regular bass-player Clark Sommers who couldn’t make it. At least in that respect, this whole experience is as new to him as it is to me.

Right before we exit Jeff takes another look at the bottle of homemade palinca (my country’s go-to hard liquor) I gave him as a gift and decides we can’t just leave the room like that. One minute later we’re toasting to friendship while, on stage, Richard Bona is starting his set.

Chapter 2: Day 1 – Hidden Orchestra and Richard Bona

Jeff and I got back to our seats about fifteen minutes after Bona’s gig started and the first thing we noticed was that he place was packed. Many more people showed up for Bona then were there when we left to the hotel half an hour ago, which is a bit of a shame because Hidden Orchestra, who performed before Bona, put on a pretty good show.  I was familiar with their most recent record, Archipelago, which is right up my alley since I’m into European Jazz and its occasional techno-vibe (As I mentioned before, In Praise of Dreams is my all-time favorite record). I had read somewhere that Hidden Orchestra was a great band to catch live and I have to say they did not disappoint. I dig their record and I think it has some pretty awesome moments although it’s not always consistent in its delivery; it’s not so much about highs-and-lows as it is highs-and-not-so-highs. It is a good listen though, one that I would definitely recommend, and I especially recommend catching the band live. They managed to create a very “hypnotic” atmosphere and the musicians themselves are very likeable, especially the delightful Poppy Ackroyd whose endearing facial expressions while getting immersed in her instruments (violin and piano) made for a feel-good moment. Check out her solo work as well for some haunting and very delicate music, but more on this talented young lady in a future article.

Unfortunately I did not catch Sebastian Spanache Trio but since they are from my country I’m hoping I can make up for that and go to one of their gigs soon. As for the “main event” Richard Bona was, as expected, electric, entertaining and great fun. His music has a positive vibe to it that is very energetic and uplifting and his playing is very entertaining to watch. All in all, Bona was a perfect choice to close off the first night of this “infant” Jazz festival (we’re hoping it becomes a tradition) as his lively music,  with its blend of African Jazz and Latin Jazz was perfect to send the fans, who perhaps weren’t sure what to expect from JazzTM, home happy. I don’t know how many fans noticed this but, right before the end of Bona’s set, Kurt Elling appeared on the balcony of his hotel-room to take a look (the hotel was overseeing the square in which the Jazz festival had been set up).

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I’m glad I noticed it because to me his almost spectral figure appearing to watch over the show seemed to foreshadow the outstanding performances that would continue in this three-day festival. As a writer, I found it an awesome and intense moment. Speaking of awesome and intense…

Chapter 3: Attack of the Three-Stringed Double-Bass.

It’s day 2 and we arrived as early as we could so that we’d catch seats close to the stage. Now, Kurt Elling is only a few minutes away and we’re all anxiously awaiting his gig. With me are my wife and fellow Jazzhead and my in-laws, both of whom are longtime Jazz enthusiasts themselves. I had introduced them to Jeff the other night and we all hung out at a terrace in Piata Unirii, a square near the one in which the Jazz festival was being held.

Now we’re not only excited to see one of the greatest voices in Jazz but also to clap and cheer for our new friend who is already well-liked by everyone in my family. Kurt Elling comes out and with him are Laurence Hobgood, John McLean, Bryan Carter (filling in for Kendrick Scott) and our new friend Jeff Pedraz. We’re all clapping wildly in what is equal parts excitement and support for Jeff. The unmistakable voice of Kurt Elling starts to grace our ears as his legendary band-members are ready to put on an awesome performance. Then my wife turns to me and says “What happened to Jeff’s bass?”

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Pictured: Kurt Elling asking himself the exact same question.

Chapter 4: Day 2- Mario & The Teachers and Manu Delago

As I mentioned before, we had arrived early so I was happy to be able to catch both opening bands. First on were Mario & The Teachers, who I understand are a local band but I have never had the opportunity to catch them live yet. It was a good warm-up gig but I can’t say I was blown away by anything they did. Still, plenty of room for them to grow as they all seemed like competent musicians. Manu Delago was next, on his third appearance in Timisoara (if I remember correctly). I hadn’t seen them either and when I heard he was playing hang I feared we were going to be treated to a “gimmick band”. I was glad to see that it wasn’t the case at all as Manu made very wise use of the instrument (meaning he didn’t overdo it). The band proved very entertaining to watch and their music was thoughtful and well executed. I instantly became a fan of what they do and a fan of Manu himself who seems intelligent and down to earth.

I did, however, have one aspect of their performance I did not enjoy at all: I found the lyrics very weak to the point of being distracting from their otherwise good music.  Perhaps it would not instantly bother everyone but as a writer I could not help but feel annoyed at times (“I don’t know if I should laugh or cry/But I know there’s a reason why”). It seemed like an unfortunate waste of Isa Kurz’s otherwise pleasant voice. But to get back to the positive: aside from the uninspired use of lyrics the band is definitely worth checking out live for a well though-out show.

Chapter 5: The Essence of Jazz

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Jeff Pedraz on double bass

Looking for Jeff in the hotel lobby, where we had planned on meeting after the gig, my wife and I run into John McLean. “Congrats man,” I tell him “I’ve been to many shows but I’ve never seen anything like this!” Every word is the truth. By the end of the set the crowd was on their feet giving Kurt and the band a well-deserved standing ovation. When Jeff’s string had broken, one minute into the first song, we all felt devastated. I felt so sorry for the man, on his first show with Kurt, first track, first minute he’s left with three strings. Turns out I had no reason to worry. Jeff finished the song on three strings like a class act and I find out afterwards that sometimes he purposefully practices the songs on three or even two strings, just in case something like this would happen although it almost never does. “In twenty years of playing bass, I had that happen maybe three times,” he tells me later, when the incredible show is over and we’re drinking beer on a terrace in Piata Unirii, the same one from the night before. The crew is also the same: my wife, my in-laws, my best friend, his girlfriend and the man of the hour Jeff, who humbly accepts our praise and elegantly answers our many fan-boy/fan-girl questions. Turns out that the whole incident with the string, although undoubtedly stressful for Jeff, actually improved the whole show and added a touch of humor to it. Kurt turned around, saw the whole thing, started laughing and signaled for Bryan to go into a drum solo. The incredibly talented young (only 22 year-old) drummer kept it up for all the time it took Jeff to change the string, while Kurt was beatboxing and scat-singing to everyone’s entertainment. To me, this entire scene is the essence of performing Jazz.

But…to get back to the hallway of Hotel Timisoara: I ask John about Jeff’s whereabouts. I had met John earlier in the day and got to hang out with him for a while which was amazing since he’s one of the coolest people on the planet.

“So you play guitar,” I said to him when we first met, pretending not to know who he was.

“Yeah,” says John.

“You any good?”

“No.”

This just goes to prove what I’ve talked about before: Jazz musicians are simply cooler and more intelligent than any other musicians.

“Do you know where Jeff is?” I ask him.

“Yeah, actually he’s backstage hanging out, come on I’ll take you to him,”

Chapter 6: Ilhan Ersahin, David Murray, Macy Gray

Once again, in typical writer fashion, I ended up late for the show and missed the opening act, Iordache. The second scheduled band is Ilhan Ersahin Istanbul Sessions. Hadn’t heard of them before and when the presenter described their music I didn’t get very excited as I felt I had already seen this “act” various times. When they showed up and started playing my suspicions were confirmed as it felt like some of the other East-meets-Jazz stuff I had heard and their approach to Jazz as “almost rock” (if you switch the guitar with the saxophone) is not really my thing. A few minutes into the show though, I slowly found myself enjoying it, mesmerized by the really great playing (especially sax and percussion).

By the time they finished I was sorry to see them go and I’m definitely planning on checking out some of their stuff. The rest of the crowd loved them as well but, as sorry as we all were that the set was over, we were looking forward to David Murray’s Infinity Quartet and Macy Gray. I know Macy is not everyone’s cup of tea but I find her voice really interesting and her stage-persona very entertaining. Sadly, the audience didn’t really seem to know what to make of the aforementioned “stage persona” and Macy’s ballsy and straightforward crowd interaction made for some awkward moments. By the end of the set, though, the audience seemed to have loosened up and, overall, was treated to a good show by these very accomplished musicians. For me, personally, their gig had a very old-school, straight-up Jazz feel which I greatly enjoyed and I was also impressed by Macy’s performance and her voice.

Chapter 7: The Essence of Music

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Myself having the honor of having my picture taken with John McLean, Laurence Hobgood and Kurt Elling

“This is the cat who showed Jeff around yesterday,” says John, introducing me to Kurt and Laurence. It has always been a goal of mine to get to hang backstage at a Jazz show and get a feel of the vibe and the dynamic between the musicians. It’s also been a goal of mine to be called a “cat” by a Jazz musician so there you have it, what more can a writer and Jazzhead ask for. As I shake Kurt’s hand I tell him the same thing I told John: “I’ve been to many shows but I’ve never seen anything like this!” It’s God’s honest truth; entertainment-wise, the combination of Kurt’s flawless voice and his charismatic stage-presence as well as the company of a truly remarkable band made this a memorable gig, by far the highlight of the festival for me personally. We take the obligatory picture and end up talking about the bottle of palinca I gave Jeff.

“Have you had any of it?” I ask Kurt.

“No, not yet,”

A few seconds later we run into Jeff who is sipping on a dark Leffe. I ask him if he still wants to hang out for a little while and I can see he’s torn between his new friends and wanting to hang out with the band on his first gig with them, which is probably the highlight of any musician’s evening. I’m happy that he decides to join us as it would have been a sad moment having to say goodbye in a hurry.

“I didn’t get you in trouble with the guys or anything, did I?” I ask. He tells me it’s not a problem, that the band thought it was cool he made friends in the city. I find out that, since he only has a carry-on with him, my bottle of palinca ended up in the great Kurt Elling’s luggage which could have easily been another goal of mine had I imagined it possible.

At about 3 AM we’re saying goodbye in front of the hotel, hugging it out, knowing we’ve each made a new friend for life. Forty-eight hours prior, our mutual friend Paul Kogut had written Jeff Pedraz on Facebook “You might run into my Romanian pal, journalist/jazz fan Andrei Cherascu”

Now we’re giving each other a hug, friends, not wanting to say goodbye and vowing to meet again someday soon. More than anything else that happened at the Jazz festival in the last few days, for me, this captures the absolute essence of music.

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Hanging out with Jeff at a local restaurant.


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.

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Getting ready for JazzTM

“The Music and Myth” is going to be at the JazzTM festival for the next three days enjoying the sounds of Sebastian Spanache, Hidden Orchestra, Richard Bona, Mario& The Teachers, Manu Delago Handmade, Kurt Elling, Iordache, Ilhan Ersahin, David Murray and Macy Gray. I’m going to be writing about it as it progresses so check back for some stories and concert reviews.