El Gavilan by Sofia Rei featuring Marc Ribot – a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment (advance review)

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A little over a week ago, during a flight to Berlin, I re-read an old National Geographic article called The Real Price of Gold. In this cover story from January 2009, author Brook Larmer describes the harsh working and living conditions of the modern-day miner, focusing on the town of La Rinconada in Peru, the highest permanent settlement in the world.

When, just a few days later, I heard the words “mejor habita en su concha el caracol” (a snail lives better inside its shell), I was immediately reminded of the article and its vivid description of labor under the cachorreo system (which entails working thirty days without payment for the chance to claim as much ore as you can carry on day thirty-one – a questionable arrangement resulting in a dangerous lottery). The coincidence of this recurring theme was as profound as it was uncanny, not just because I’d randomly picked out the old magazine from my collection or because the song’s lyrics closely reflected the article’s content, but mostly because “Arriba Quemando El Sol” was written more than half a century ago.

This acute reminder of an unchanging reality was indeed sobering, but it was just one of many things I found fascinating about this latest record I’d received for review – El Gavilan, by Sofia Rei and guest artist Marc Ribot, scheduled for release on April 25th.

If you’re familiar with The Music and Myth, you probably know how I feel about these two musicians. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Sofia Rei the most exciting vocalist in the world at the present moment. The reasons for this are manifold: from her powerful, educated voice, exhaustive in its expression of the human experience, to the daring playfulness with which she combines modern arrangement techniques with age-old South American themes, to the captivating manner in which her natural charisma brings those timeworn stories to life.

But the most important quality that makes Sofia such an interesting musician to follow is simply the profound dedication with which she researches her subject matter. In many ways, listening to a Sofia Rei song is akin to reading a National Geographic article in that it manages to condense an impressive catalog of information into the limitations of its concise form. One need only revisit La Gallera for a convincing demonstration of her evocative talent. When I found out this self-described “song researcher” had recorded a tribute album to legendary Chilean artist and tragic figure, Violeta Parra, I was already interested.

If you’re searching for proof of Sofia’s ability to produce a memorable tribute, look no further than her superior take on La Llorona, arguably the most imaginative modern version of the song currently in existence. My excitement only increased when I found out she had invited one of the most intense and eclectic guitar players of this generation to be a guest artist.

The idea of this record became as mysterious as the concept was promising. How did Marc Ribot fit into the vocalist’s vision? It wasn’t hard to imagine that John Zorn’s go-to guitarist and one of the key-figures in Tom Waits’ abrupt, mid-eighties shift to the experimental side would make his presence felt, but what shape would the sound of this shape-shifting musician take? And how would the dynamic, colorful vocalist tackle Parra’s distinctively despondent poetry?

I have to be honest: it’s the first time in a while that I wasn’t sure what to expect from an album. On the one hand, this was a dream-collaboration, featuring my favorite vocalist and my all-time favorite guitarist, a pairing that had contributed to some of the most beautiful vocal songs of the last few years as well as the Music and Myth’s best vocal record of 2014.

On the other hand, I’m a documented fan of Sofia’s previous record, De Tierra y Oro, and I wasn’t sure how that would influence my experience with the bold musician’s first solo release in five years.

El Gavilan starts with “Casamiento de Negros”, in hindsight, the right choice for an opening track, though I was initially ambivalent about its placement since it’s immediately followed by one of the most powerful compositions in the set. All of the chosen songs are time-tested, so the record’s primary challenge was to bring them back to the forefront in a form that would make its existence musically relevant (the lyrics, as I’ve mentioned before, are still frightfully relevant today).

An enormous part of an album’s appeal, at least for me, is what I call its narrative coherence. Ironically, this appeal seems to increase in importance during a time when only the most ardent music enthusiasts listen to records as complete, cohesive bodies of work instead of just random piles of songs in a playlist. For that reason, I feel “Casamiento” was ultimately the right pick to start the journey, purely because of its straightforward introduction to the album’s stylistic direction – minimalist, experimental, centered around the multi-faceted use of vocals in creating atmosphere. Marc’s presence is beautifully understated throughout, his subtle but targeted contributions doing a perfect job of enhancing the effect of Sofia’s unearthly voice.

The song’s subject matter – a tragic recount of a “black” wedding and a destiny of inescapable poverty – clashes with the upbeat rhythm and melody, creating a certain discrepancy that brings to mind Parra’s original version. Here, it’s greatly enhanced by Sofia’s layered vocals and Marc’s unprecedented use of pedal steel to create a sort of sepia-toned, historical reverberation. Disturbingly, the listener discovers that the music is a lie, as the words reveal the burdensome truth: marriage, sickness and untimely death under the sign of abject poverty.

Se ha formado un casamiento

todo cubierto de negro,

negros novios y padrinos

negros cuñados y suegros,

y el cura que los casó

era de los mismos negros.

Cuando empezaron la fiesta

pusieron un mantel negro

luego llegaron al postre

se sirvieron higos secos

y se fueron a acostar

debajo de un cielo negro.

(A wedding has taken place

All covered in black

Black were the groom and the bride

Black were the in-laws

Black also was

the priest who married them

When the party started

They placed a black tablecloth

When they got the desserts

Black figs were served

And they went to bed

Under a black sky)

Spearheaded by Sofia’s use of the caja vidalera (an Argentinian drum) and the guitarist’s electric, confrontational approach, “Arriba Quemando El Sol” plays like a call to war, quickly becoming the record’s unofficial anthem. Summoning the ghost of Violeta Parra, the vocalist manifests her voice in its rawest, most single-hearted form to lament the historically unchanging fate of the miners.

Cuando vi de los mineros

dentro de su habitación

me dije: mejor habita

en su concha el caracol,

o a la sombra de las leyes

el refinado ladrón

Y arriba quemando el sol

(When I saw the miners

Inside their rooms

I said: a snail lives better

inside its shell,

Or under the shadow of law

the refined thief

and above the sun is burning)

The final line of each stanza – repeated for emphasis – is delivered with complete abandon, breaking off into a banshee’s shriek to create a fitting impression of perpetuity.

“Una Copla Me Ha Cantado” is a mournful ballad where Sofia draws from her work with John Zorn’s Mycale to tackle another important theme in Parra’s work: the agony of lost love. Reminiscent of the most delicate moments in Frantz Casseus and Silent Movies, Marc’s guitar seems to haunt Sofia’s voice. Meanwhile,  the singer delivers this splendid ballad with an almost reverent restraint.

In “Maldigo Del Alto Cielo”, the only track that features only the vocalist, Sofia makes the most pronounced use of her layering techniques (to an almost distracting extent) in order to symbolize the character’s infinitely echoing curse. The song gets off to a bit of a rough start as the combination of vocal percussion and piercing charango makes it difficult to warm up to, but the course is quickly restored by the inspired use of tempo and echo to create the illusion of space-time dilation. Ultimately, it becomes one of the most interesting songs on the album.

“La Lavandera” is as simple and straightforward as a ballad can get. A traditional duet that sees vocalist and guitarist on equal footing, this gorgeous piece relies entirely on instinctive force and calculated frailty. Here more than anywhere else, the two musicians seem to have an almost otherworldly understanding of each other’s strengths. Parra’s incisive poetry serves to emphasize the raw, romantic interplay, making for another one of the album’s highlights.

Reminiscent of “Arriba Quemando El Sol”, the aggressive and visceral “Corazon Maldito” again shows Sofia unhinged, banging on her caja from amid a veritable wilfdfire of guitar effects. With unparalleled vigor and more than a hint of madness, the vocalist cries:

Corazón maldito

sin miramiento, sí,

sin miramiento,

ciego, sordo y mudo

de nacimiento, sí,

de nacimiento.

Me das torment

(Wicked heart,

You have no mercy,

You have no mercy on me,

Blind, deaf and mute

from birth

from birth

You torment me)

This introspective hymn increases in intensity, building up towards the record’s uncontested thematic centerpiece.

At almost fifteen minutes long, “El Gavilan” merits perhaps its own, separate review. Essentially documenting a person’s psychological breakdown, this story of love and betrayal is constructed almost like a play. With a method actor’s dedication, the vocalist brings to life a tortured character, running the gamut of emotion, from anxiety to sorrow, rage and, ultimately, delirium. This bipolar frenzy is aided by Marc’s dual use of his instrument. Its ominous, acoustic form builds up tension while the faded, electric effects allude to the character’s perceptible aura of madness.

This is a truly colossal work, a veritable study in storytelling and emotional expression by two of the best in the industry today. It’s a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment that would have completely carried the record even on its own. As it stands, it’s a climactic conclusion to an unbelievable stellar recording.

The final track, a beautiful, pensive version of “Run Run se fue pa’l Norte” features Angel Parra on guitar. Sofia’s arrangement feels ethereal, ending a bleak story on an almost encouraging note. The words “y cuenta una aventura que paso a deletrear” (and speaks of an adventure that I now begin to spell out) signal the end of Violeta’s life and the beginning of her legend.

Often times, the enormous difference between Violeta’s organic, unrefined delivery and Sofia’s faultless, all-encompassing vocals leads to a sort of transcendent interpretation of the songs. By the very nature of her voice and the energy of her delivery, the vocalist has, in a way, liberated these songs from the bondage of their intrinsic emotional weight, preserving them in a timeless and boundless form.

Through this carefully crafted tribute, Sofia Rei manages to outdo herself, paying homage to her influences as she claims new territory. El Gavilan continues to add depth to one of the most interesting musical résumés of the last decade.

Tin Pan’s Yes Yes Yes – drunken-dixieland, rudo-jazz, mock’n’roll, gritty blues and Tom Waits Noiricana

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The Music and Myth starts off 2016 with a dynamic record from Tin Pan, a band that – in their own words – “originated out of an innate need for music that meets people exactly where they are, providing an immediate, pure and energetic release from the everyday routine.”

Yes Yes Yes is the band’s sixth album, a 2015 release. I’ve received it for review from composer, lead vocalist and trumpet player Jesse Selengut a few weeks ago and was planning to publish the article sooner, before a personal matter got in the way of work. Nevertheless, here it is, and the timing is great. I was actually looking for something just like this for a while now.

The sound is a mesh of what I can only describe as drunken-dixieland with a slap of rudo-jazz, a pinch of mock’n’roll and a cough of gritty blues, set against the backdrop of Tom Waits Noiricana. The band describes it as American roots music. Tomato, tomahto!

Anyhow, I knew I was going to love this record from the first chords. As has been well-documented on this website, I’m a sucker for a great opening track and “Yes Yes Yes” delivers just what it should: a five minute synopsis of the “story” (read: the narrative of the record). You immediately get the sense that Tin Pan is a well-oiled machine, a tight-knit unit extremely comfortable with the sound they’ve perfected throughout years of street performances all over NYC (most notably in Central Park, the band’s apparent “base of operations”).

The driving creative force is Selengut, whose expressive vocals and natural charisma are supported by a stellar band, in which every player adds his personal flavor, contributing to a beautifully homogenized sound. Towards the end of the first track – roughly around the time the preacher, sister and the chicken started doing the eagle rock and then the boogaloo (seriously, you need to check this out!) – I was already a fan of the sound, on my way to becoming a fan of the album.

I must have listened to the title track a dozen times (and the part with Sean E Z Cronin’s bass solo a few extra times) before moving on to track number two, “Lord Help Me Now, delivered in the same extroverted vein and once again spearheaded by Selengut’s spot-on vocals.

The record peaks early with the intense “In A Van”. This murky, gravelly track pays heavy homage to post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits, not only by means of the Waitsian scenery evoked by Selengut’s splendidly grotesque delivery, but also through the performance of guitarist Adam Brisbin, who channels his inner Marc Ribot to the extent that I had to double-check to make sure Ribot wasn’t actually a guest musician on the record. Given that he is my all-time favorite guitarist you can imagine that the artful tribute scored extra points with me.

In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to applaud Brisbin’s superb work throughout, because if I stopped to mention every time the talented guitarist absolutely kills it on this album the review would end up twice as long as intended. Watch out for this guy!

Another standout on this particular song (and in general) is drummer Anders Zelinski, whose timing enhances both Brisbin’s bluesy awesomeness and Selengut’s spit-shine delivery. Speaking of spit-shine, the vocalist embodies his character with the intensity of the most dedicated method actor, howling, growling and barking things like:

I’m gonna lay my head in my hands. IN A VAN down by the river.

Looks like I done messed it up again. IN A VAN down by the river.

IN A VAN down by the riverside, yeah.

I’m gonna smoke up all my friends. IN A VAN down by the river.

Guess I’m gonna smoke up all alone again. IN A VAN down by the river.

(…) Get back Betty, Wendy and Sue. IN A VAN down by the river.

Get back Betty. What they done to you? IN A VAN down by the river.

IN A VAN down by the riverside, yeah.

Overall, a brilliant composition where everyone gets to look good. Unfortunately, the muse doesn’t carry over to “Fat Baby”, where the band trades the clever and sometimes dark humor of tracks like “Never Gonna Call” and “Lady Doc” for simple chuckles and giggles. The song’s lack of substance is somewhat offset by the consistently capable band whose playing turns it into a fun and catchy tune, but nothing more.

The record quickly regains its balance with the moody and intelligent “Gambler’s Blues” where the vocalist laments:

Roll me slowly like those loaded dice.

You take your chances when you take a wife.

Lyin’. Cheatin’. Sleeping in the sun all day. (You know you’re cloudy inside now, baby.)

Well hear me talking. I gambled my life away.

The song further drives home the idea that the band is best when they’re at their darkest.

And, as if to contradict my previous statement, the album continues with the mock-rock’n’roll (mock’n’roll?) energy of “Walk Right In” and a quick trip through the repertoires of Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, with “Buck Them Dice” and “Minnie”. Again, the band’s chemistry translates into raw enjoyment for the listener –  on “Minnie”, Selengut’s call and response is pure gold.

Tin Pan’s gritty vision of the old-timey “Deep Ellum Blues” sounds like it could have been written by a young Johnny Cash and sung by an old Mason Casey. It introduces the closing line-up of “Swing Gitanes” and “Handyman”. The former offers a surprising change of pace and sentiment (not to mention language) – a brilliant track that I feel would have worked better as the album’s closer, especially because of its tidal dynamic. Instead, the finale comes in the form of “Handyman”, finishing off a loud record in an uncharacteristically subdued manner. Switch up these two and you have an exceptionally consistent narrative flow, which is always relevant when you’re trying to tell a story (in music, as well literature). Instead, if you’re fussy about this sort of thing (which I am) the strange track placement disrupts said flow. Nevertheless, it does little to hurt the overall quality of the album.

With clever compositions (old yarns spun by new voices), an immensely talented band that clearly enjoys the heck out of playing this music and a charming “method” vocalist who knows when to be funny and when to be serious, Yes Yes Yes is a roguish, hilarious, confrontational record and simply a ton of fun.

So, in case you were wondering, The Music and Myth gives Tin Pan a thumbs up and an emphatic “Yes, yes, yes!”

 

 

 

The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

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The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

noun

  1. 1.

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

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

Grammy Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music and Myth Awards go to…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

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

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

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

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

The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition – a veritable ode to synergy

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As a music journalist with a website dedicated to promoting the world’s most skillful musicians and composers, I listen to a lot of new material every year. I play records when I write, when I clean up the house, when I work out and often when I read. I try to cover as much “ground” as humanly possible in order to discover and write about the truly remarkable gems of this sublime form of artistic expression.This dedication to quantity makes it hard to get attached to a record. I simply don’t have time to return to a particular work as often as I’d like. If you’ve been following my website, you may have noticed that I don’t believe in “content writing”. I only write about a handful of records, those that truly stand out, even among noteworthy peers.

I do have my little desert island list, comprised of works to which I constantly come back and, let me tell you, they are few and far between. But every so often I come across a piece of music that just absolutely resonates with the core of my being. It becomes haunting, as unrelentingly vital as air or books.

Sometime in spring, while searching for John Zorn videos on Youtube, I came across this concert:

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

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

The album opens with “Flying Blind”, based on Zorn’s “Batman”. With an instant explosion of his characteristically forceful and edgy sound, guitarist Marc Ribot does a perfect job of introducing the first vocalist and catering to my passion for a good opening track.

Long-time Zorn collaborator Mike Patton probably needs no introduction. This incredibly versatile musician possesses an impressive six octave range and a supremely charismatic stage presence. He is best known as the lead singer of Faith No More, though he’s been part of numerous bands like Mr Bungles and Tomahawk, among others. On “Flying Blind” Patton presents the screaming and growling incarnation of his monumental voice in a high-octane delivery that sees vocals and guitar embrace each other’s craziness. Living up to the creative intensity of a Zorn composition is no easy task, but Patton and Ribot – both brilliant musicians in their own right – expertly build anticipation for the rest of the album.

The record continues with “Sombra en el Espejo”, a 180 degree shift in tempo and ambiance, spearheaded once again by Ribot. This time delicate and soulful, the chameleonic guitarist compliments the next singer’s exquisite voice.

As a vocalist, Patton seems like a natural fit for Zorn’s work. The two artists share a creative vision and feed off each other’s energy. It comes as no surprise that their collaboration is a perfect union. Sofia Rei, however, is probably not the first singer who comes to mind when you think Zorn. This Argentine-American musician is known for her imaginative hybridization of jazz and South American themes, which she knowledgeably explores in her own excellent recordings.

When she takes the reins of this stunning ballad, she delivers one of the most passionate vocal performances you will ever come across. It was in The Song Project that I was first introduced to Sofia’s work and my opinion of her talent is already well-documented.  With her forceful and astonishingly gorgeous delivery, Sofia’s contributions are absolutely superb, the highlights of an overall powerful album.  She turns the mysterious and melancholic “Besos de Sangre” into a gorgeous recital of lost love.

Jesse Harris takes over for “The Wind in the Clouds”, formerly “Tamalpais”. Though his voice doesn’t match the fierceness of Patton’s or the heartfelt intensity of Rei’s, it would be a mistake to overlook this New York musician’s contribution. His even, low-key delivery, counterbalances the more emotionally charged moments, expanding the melodic scope and strengthening the overall narrative. In the end, the record is about expansion as much as it is about harmony, and the individual contributions of each singer speak to a different facet of the human emotional and intellectual sensitivity.

The record continues with “Dalquiel”, which becomes “Perfect Crime” under the haunting poetry of Sean Lennon’s lyrics and the hypnotic vigor of Patton’s modulation. In a cavernous voice, Patton ominously declares:

 When the first universe expanded

It was a perfect crime

For nobody knows who planned it

But the planets are doing their time.

So far, I have focused a lot on the vocalists and the way they each express their own vision of Zorn’s magnificent compositions but I also have to applaud the band. Living up to their collective experience, these accomplished musicians form a vast instrumental environment in which the singers’ stories can survive and evolve. Their irreproachable timing and the way they each manifest the subtleties of their respective personality without ever sacrificing balance is admirable. Nowhere is this equilibrium better realized than on “Perfect Crime”. Everything is well-timed, from Dunn’s bass, as ominous and resonant as Patton’s voice, to Baron’s dusty drums, Baptista’s  gravely percussion and Wollesen’s ghostly vibes. Everything “clicks” in a masterful way. The exceptional use of background vocals turns them into an instrument of their own. By the time Ribot once again takes over with his vehement solos, the song has already become a veritable ode to synergy.

It’s hard to speak of an absolute highlight in this exceptional record, but I feel most attached to “Para Borrar tu Andar” (or “La Flor del Barrio”). Sofia’s flawless control of emotion is unparalleled – a profoundly spiritual statement. When she hits the high notes the result is heartrendingly beautiful. Patton’s background vocals certainly help, as his low incantation, at times shadowing Sofia’s lyrics, helps create a distinct phonetic entity.

The song is followed by the spellbinding, if a bit docile, “Towards Kafiristan” (shortened to simply “Kafiristan”) where the standout moments are provided by the dialogue between Medeski’s piano and Wollesen’s vibe. Patton returns for “Do Not Let us Forget” (“Zapata Rail”), a sublimely energetic piece that builds up to a cathartic, frenzied and memorable apogee before Sofia gets to showcase the more buoyant, sinuous aspect of her voice in “La Despedida.”

For some reason, Zorn decided to forego “Book of Shadows” which, in the concerts, provided a tender duet between Sofia and Jesse. Its absence is unfortunate, primarily because I feel it was Jesse’s strongest outing, at least from their wonderful Warsaw set list.

“Osaka Bondage” is split up in two and renamed “Burn” (Take 1 and 2).  Patton’s hysterical barrage of wails and roars over the chaos of the instruments provides an almost humorous interlude and a supremely satisfying emotional discharge.

“Waiting for Christmas” continues in the vein of “Kafiristan”, preparing the listener for the record’s final act with Patton front and center. “The Man in the Blue Mask” is an absorbing ballad which finds the talented vocalist at his best: transitioning in depth and tempo from a slow, deep recount to an impassioned shriek and back. In a way, the narrative dynamic of this song mirrors that of the entire record, with its melodic ebb and flow.

Serving as closure, “Assasin’s Bay” showcases perhaps Patton’s most lyrical outing, as well as Medeski at his most gripping. The song concludes the story of the album in a powerful and pertinent way, leaving an opening for this excellent ensemble to continue telling its story – a story that begs for a sequel.

As you could easily infer from this article, The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition is an outstanding work. I’m immensely happy that this live project materialized into a physical record and I hope Tzadik will decide to make it available in other formats as well. Few musical outings are as deserving of large-scale exposure.

 

Ceramic Dog’s Your Turn – unkempt and unrestrained

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I did not pick out this week’s record specifically because it’s so radically different from last week’s, it just happened this way and I’m glad it did.

It’s interesting to compare the two guitar-driven works. They are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum just like the two respective guitar-players, both brilliant for different reasons, have powerfully contrasting styles and an antithetical approach to songwriting.  One  is a technique-driven virtuoso with an almost scientific approach to songwriting and melody and the other is an avant-garde, experienced session-master with a vast and diverse repertoire, who takes melody, throws it in a meat-grinder, then sets it on fire, puts it in a hammerlock and hits it with a bull-wrench.

I’ve written about Marc Ribot before and I think he’s one of the most entertaining musicians of the modern era. He’s also very much an acquired taste no matter which one of his many projects you check out.  With works that range in scope, sound and delivery (not to mention decibels), Marc Ribot, one of the most versatile guitarists and songwriters in the world, seems to be having the most fun on his Ceramic Dog records. At least that’s how the music comes off to the listener.

The sound is unkempt and unrestrained, a liberating experience for both band and audience as the three musicians spend little time worrying about the norms and conventions of modern music.

The aforementioned band consists of Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums, both powerful players and impeccable technicians and, of course, Marc Ribot on guitar and sometimes vocals. The variety of sounds is amazing for a band that consists of only three musicians.

The trio’s 2008 debut record Party Intellectuals was a ton of fun and it’s a work that still manages to sound fresh. Now, five years later, Your Turn  proves a worthy successor; a more consistent but also more conventional record that documents the three musicians’ growth as a band.

In my review of Party Intellectuals I said the record had “multiple-personality disorder”, meaning that the styles and sound of the songs contrasted powerfully which gave it its diversified sound but also its not-always-consistent quality. It was definitely a roller-coaster-ride but it felt like it lacked a common thread.

Your Turn, on the other hand, manages to take a page out of Tom Wait’s book and offer variety while maintaining a distinct character throughout. It’s less experimental-noise and more hard rock which I think brings it closer to what Marc Ribot had in mind for Ceramic Dog in the first place. This consistency in its structure also makes it a tad more accessible as some of Marc’s avant-garde work (and I’m thinking primarily of his Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek phase) at times proved too hard to digest even for the most stubborn connoisseur.

The album starts off with “Lies My Body Told Me” a somewhat low-key track (at least for this record) that offers great interplay between Marc’s guitar and his vocals. Speaking of that, the record is fairly evenly divided between instrumental tracks and vocal songs.  Marc is aware of his pretty much pedestrian voice and he makes brilliant use of it by intentionally employing it as burlesque instrument of sarcasm through which the message is delivered all the more raw and convincing. Some of the vocal tunes carry a powerful punch, like the clever and cranky “Masters of the Internet” which follows the technically impeccable but otherwise unremarkable title track. “Masters” is a brilliant, straight-forward song that lashes out against music pirating but can be applied to any art-form in the Internet age. Against a (sort of) Arabian theme Marc yells:

We have a new business model, We’ll blow you for a nickel

And if you like our CD we’ll blow you for free and if you don’t you can bite our heads off

As a freelance writer I personally feel a special connection to this particular track. I can’t help but get chills down my spine when I hear “our labor has no value/content is our name”. I believe this single line is the most pertinent commentary I’ve ever come across on what I call the “contentization” of art (but you can just go ahead and call it the “content craze”, it has a much better ring to it)

This being The Music and Myth, I also have a little story:

I’ve recently conducted an in-depth interview  with Al Di Meola and what resulted is probably the most extensive article I’ve written for this website. It features my recount of the struggle of getting the 30 minute sit-down, a review of the concert as well as the interview in its entirety. A reader told me she thought the article was absolutely great, that  “you can see it is well documented, and written with great passion” but that it is “too long to read when you don’t have much time but are dying of curiosity”.

Her well-meaning feedback which completely missed the contradiction, painted a great picture of a society that craves quality and information but cannot stomach anything beyond readily-available light-on-content distractions and free entertainment. “Masters of the Internet” sums this up brilliantly. I also have to commend the excellent percussion on this song.

The record continues with the instrumental track “Ritual Slaughter”, another vehicle for the band to show off their amazing skill and intuitive timing, after which “Avanti Popolo”, an interlude that would have seemed out of place on any other record (but not on this one) leads us to  “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Round” (or what Marc calls the Affordable Health Care Act song). I’m not an American so I don’t feel I have the right to comment on the context but I can make the statement that I feel this song delivers its message very efficiently.

Speaking of delivering messages efficiently, the prime example is the record’s flagship track “Bread and Roses”. Inspired by the eponymous poem by James Oppenheim, the song adapts the lyrics to fit its dynamic and explosive structure:

As we go marching, marching / through the beauty of the day

A thousand kitchens darkened/ A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance/ a sudden sun discloses

Yeah, it is bread we fight for/ Bread and Roses

Powerful lyrics and passionate vocals, coupled with the angry energy of the instrument and the flawless timing of the musicians make this one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve heard in a long time. Also Marc’s “industrial” guitar solo is truly something magnificent, my favorite since his emotional guitar work on “La Vida es un Sueno” from his first Cubanos Postizos record.

For “Prayer” Marc goes back to his roots as a Rootless Cosmopolitan (I can never pass up the opportunity to make a bad pun) as the band gets to go crazy with what I’ve already affectionately called “seizure music”, once again displaying masterful cohesion in an instrumental tour-de-force. They follow it up with the laid-back, bluesy and surprisingly catchy “Mr. Pants goes to Hollywood” and the mock-nostalgic “The Kid is Back” before taking a crack at Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. I’ve always been a fan of Marc’s cover songs, he adds his entertaining and eccentric spin on them ( see “The Wind cries Mary” or “Dame Un Cachito Pa Huele”); again, he does not disappoint.

The record closes off with the funny, if somewhat juvenile,  “We are the Professionals” in which the band parody the sound of the Beastie Boys followed by “Special Snowflake”, a quick instrumental mish-mash to close the curtains on another great album.

I generally have nothing but praise for what Marc Ribot brings to the music industry, whatever form his projects may take. I find his entire body of work fascinating but I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Ceramic Dog.

In the company of the musically like-minded Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith, Ribot seems to be at his most comfortable. The band  takes the elements that make Ribot’s various projects great and combines them to produce the distinctive sound of Ceramic Dog.  Their sophomore release is a commentary on the multi-faceted music industry but also it is simply one wild ride.