Bernardo Monk’s A Toda Orquesta – the passion and rigor of tango, the expressive freedom of jazz

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Without a doubt, the greatest aspect of running The Music and Myth for four and a half years has been the opportunity to discover a wide and varied array of new music. Most of the time, it’s simply because I’m paying more attention to what’s playing around me, or what I’m randomly playing as background music for my long writing sessions. I’ve also been more proactive about seeking out new music since I’ve started this website.

Some of the time, I discover new music while following the careers of my favorite musicians. Through their countless collaborations, I’m exposed to the talent of fascinating new artists. That’s how Tom Waits led me to Marc Ribot who, in turn, led me to John Zorn, in whose concerts I’ve discovered the likes of John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mike Patton and Sofia Rei. I am currently a fan of all of these musicians and everyone can be traced back to Tom Waits like some musical version of six degrees of separation.

Sometimes it’s by directly talking to musicians, who recommend someone they think is great and whose work they want to bring to my attention. Other times, they recommend The Music and Myth to their peers, urging them to contact me and send me their work or they just come across The Music and Myth on their own and decide to write to me. That is by far my favorite way of getting to know new artists. I’ve not only broadened my musical horizons, I’ve also made many friends over the years.

Composer, saxophone player and vocalist Bernardo Monk was encouraged to contact me by none other than The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei. I am very glad he did, because I was immediately captivated by the temperament and sheer musicality of his work. When he sent me his 2014 release, A Toda Orquesta, I couldn’t wait to sit down and study it.

My excitement had a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t had the opportunity to grow very familiar with tango and I’m always looking forward to expanding my understanding of serious music. I knew that studying and reviewing Bernardo’s work would provide me with exactly the type of challenge I enjoy the most.

The record opens in a forceful way, with the high-powered, almost aggressive “Microcentro”. A haunting, suspense-building piano sequence that brings to mind film scores introduces the rest of the instruments, which proceed to erupt in a high-octane explosion of sound, before ceding the stage again to pianist Abel Rogantini for a splendid solo.

The key word here is narrative tension, as it seems to be throughout the record. A superb example of this is the dialogue between Pablo Motta’s double bass and the bandoneons courtesy of Daniel Ruggiero, Ramiro Boero and Nicolás Enrich.

As was the case with Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables, I once again find myself in one of the rare instances when I regret not having a musical education, which I am sure would have enhanced my understanding of this already promising record.

While the opening track follows a fairly traditional construction, slowing down at times to allow each of the main instruments (piano, soprano sax and double bass) to take center stage, it is saved from being predictable simply by the intensity of the band’s performance. In a profoundly captivating genre that commands the listener’s attention in a unique way, timing and tension are vital and “Microcentro” delivers in spades.

With its typical tango narrative and outstanding use of the string section, “A La Pista” contains all of the compositional elements that make this genre so captivating. At its best, tango is an intimate bond between music and listener, who become as intensely engaged as the partners absorbed by the homonymous dance.

The title track is a perfectly-paced piece full of warmth and mystery, where the composer demonstrates his sensibility for all instruments. The beautifully timed crescendos, divided by moments of almost precautionary stillness bring about a powerful finale, making this one of the record’s highlights.

It’s followed by another highlight, “Pentatonico”, where Bernardo gets to bring his instrument (this time an alto) front and center. A song that borrows from jazz perhaps more than any other, “Pentatonico” has a repetitive introduction that quickly unfolds into a splendid display of controlled chaos. Dominated by the presence of the saxophone, the rest of the instruments melt away into a false finish, with only the saxophone remaining unscathed. Left alone to cast off the silence, it softly calls out, summoning the other instruments, bringing the song back to life. It is one of the longest and most dynamically complex pieces on the record and my personal favorite.

Outstanding for its superb melody and fascinating interplay between piano and strings, “Cuando Volvamos a Vermos” provides a tender shift in tone and pace before “Zapadora” once again switches the tempo with its unrestrained energy and splendid solos.

Bernardo steps into the forefront again, this time as a vocalist on “Chau Bulin” and “Que Siga Lloviendo Asi”. His delivery is spot-on, especially on “Chau Bulin” – polished and balanced, evoking emotion without becoming melodramatic. It’s so good, in fact, that it left me wishing there had been more vocal tracks on the record and wondering why that wasn’t the case. Still, the order of the songs is well arranged, with the two vocal tracks positioned as a climactic moment of candid expression.

At once straightforward and complex, “Ecos de Vals” sets the album up for a powerful finale, which is delivered in the intense and haunting “Avalancha”. A veritable tour de force for all musicians (which includes a superb stretch of collective percussion) “Avalancha” is a powerful closing statement, fitting for an album that maintains the passion and rigor of tango while allowing the musicians to express themselves with jazz-like freedom.

A pleasure to listen to from the first note to the last!

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El Tren del Sur by Serge Lopez & Anouck Andre – flawless cadence and finesse

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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by French guitar player Anouck André, who had some great news to share: the upcoming release of her debut record. I was extremely excited, as I’d been following her work for years and was looking forward to listening to her first studio release.

Anouck and I got acquainted a couple of years ago when the fusion enthusiast read my interview with Al Di Meola and contacted me to introduce herself and her work. I was immediately captivated not only by her evident skill, but also by the tenderness and affection with which she treated her instrument. She told me that she was hoping to put out a record soon and I asked her to send it to me whenever it was ready.

Though I already had high expectations of whatever the promising musician would come up with, when she sent me El Tren del Sur I was completely blown away.

For starters, it was entirely different from what I’d envisioned. I thought I was going to get an entertaining but inconsistent presentation of an ambitious young musician’s first attempt at putting together a coherent story. Perhaps a fast-paced fusionrama with just a bit too much flash and a bit too little depth. That would have been expected, and it would still have been a ton of fun.

What I received instead was a polished masterpiece, a work of maturity and finesse.

Here’s the catch: instead of exploding on the music scene with the aforementioned typical debut album, shouting “This is me and this is what I do!” from the top of her lungs a la Land of the Midnight Sun, Anouck softly whispers, “I’m here to tell you a story you will not soon forget.”

The story in question is penned by French flamenco guitarist and composer Serge Lopez.

Now, if you’ve never heard Serge before, you need to stop reading this article, click on this link and come back when you’ve exhausted the playlist, or – better yet – just let it play in the background while you read.

El Tren del Sur is a collaboration featuring, in Anouck’s own words “nylon string for [Serge] and folk guitar for me.” It consists of eleven tracks, nine of which are written by Lopez, all of which feature exquisite aesthetics and a delightfully homogeneous blend of the composer’s vision and experience and Anouck’s warmth and tenderness. The chemistry between the two guitarists and the level of mutual respect discernible in their interplay took me back to Mark Knopfler’s and Chet Atkins’ Neck and Neck, one of the most beautiful collaborative efforts in the history of guitar music.

The album begins with “Sueño Andaluz”, a surprisingly restrained song that gently eases the listeners into the story, rather than throwing them right in the middle of the narrative, as is usually the preferred method of the recording industry. This haunting, nocturnal tune reminds me a bit of Marc Ribot playing the works of Frantz Casseus – incidentally one of my all-time favorite albums – as it lulls the listener into the spell of its allegorical scenery. It’s an elegant point of departure that sends a resounding message about the mindset behind this splendid record.

“El Americano” demonstrates the skillful balance between folk melancholy and flamenco energy that lies at the core of this partnership. Its compositional texture is similar to Horea Crisovan’s My Real Trip – chosen Best Instrumental Record of 2014 by The Music and Myth – especially of Horea’s duet with Vlatko Stefanovski.

Next off is a delicate tribute to Claude Nougaro’s “Toulouse”, one of the album’s highlights for its flawless cadence and purity of emotion. Following it, the title track sets a melancholy tone that borders on anxiety, where you get a sense that the musicians not only play off one another, but fervidly depend on each other – a gorgeous, almost agonizing symbiosis and another one of the album’s best offerings.

This deeply emotional interaction turns into a festive, flamenco-infused display of stunning stringwork in “Esperando el Viento” and culminates in the provocative “A mi Amigo Jacky” where the musicians truly get to let their hair down, playfully switching mood and momentum several times. The intense “La Familia” stays true to its name. It’s heavier, laden with a generational dynamic that ranges from warm and cozy to strained and even slightly aggressive, down to its climactic finale.

Though certainly a satisfying track, “Viajando” feels like it falls just a bit short of the ambitious standard set by the rest of the songs. However, the tempestuous “Montañas” quickly directs the course, preparing the listener for the grand finale that consists of the up-beat and intimate “Maestro Rachid” and – perhaps a surprise (it certainly was for me!) – a superb rendition of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No 1”. As a long-time admirer of Satie’s work I was delighted by this tribute, which concluded the album on a note of reflection and compliment.

On The Music and Myth, I often feature records whose sound is unorthodox, avant-garde, sometimes confrontational and other times downright courting the grotesque. I’ve written about trailblazers and mad scientists, people who turn their inner turbulence into a wild emotional catharsis and reimagine their medium in complex ways. El Tren del Sur is not one of those records. What it is, however, is something that made me aware of its increasing rarity: a collection of straightforward, simply beautiful music that is neither reductive nor – as is sometimes the way of the ECM catalog – cold and spectral.

A charming and tasteful record, El Tren del Sur receives a standing ovation from The Music and Myth!

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:

The Grammy Awards

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.

 

The Epic by Kamasi Washington – a bold statement from a self-confident author

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Nobody can accuse American composer and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington of lacking ambition. His debut album, titled The Epic, spans eighteen tracks and roughly three hours of music, running the gamut from heartfelt evocations of jazz legends from the past, to fresh-sounding compositions that incorporate everything from funk to R&B. It is as if the thirty-four-year-old musician –who stated that the record was inspired by a dream – wrote it with a very clear idea of where exactly he wanted it positioned in music history.

In spite of the composer’s declared goal of “bringing jazz to the uninitiated” (or perhaps because of it), The Epic opens with a flagrant throwback, as Washington channels the spirit of John Coltrane in the playfully titled “Change of the Guard”. There are no intros or ECM-like warm-up tunes on this record. Washington starts off strong with a catchy piano, crisp drums, a powerful sax and the addition of a choir for added sentiment. From the start, it’s clear that this is a supremely extroverted work that also manages to be cautious and contemplative.

Only a minute into the record the listeners are already treated to an excellent piano solo by Cameron Graves – an early highlight. It becomes rapidly clear that The Epic was composed with grandeur in mind – a very bold statement from a self-confident author.

Normally in The Music and Myth I try to look at every track and analyze its narrative construction, but the sheer volume of music on this record would make that time-consuming and ultimately boring to the reader, so I’ll stick to a broader thematic overview.

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. Those who were led here by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, on which Washington was featured, are in for a big surprise. Hopefully, they’ll stick around and discover the depths of this multi-layered work.

The lengthy tracks – many of which are over the 10-minute mark – give the listener ample time to get truly immersed in the composer’s vision. The record also benefits from a seamless progression from one track to the next, which helps the narrative dynamic (best exemplified by the tidal transition from “Isabelle” to “Final Thought”). The latter also contains a fantastic performance by Washington, whose talent as a composer has, so far, overshadowed his actual playing. A high-octane delivery by Washington over Leon Mobley’s frenzied percussions makes the “shorter” (only six minutes long) “Final Thought” one of the record’s highlights.

On “Askim”, look for an entertaining electric bass solo from Thundercat, who generally delivers in spades on this monumental record, as he is wont to do. “Askim” is also a great example of the dramatic effect achieved by the choir, especially coupled with Washington’s and Ronald Bruner Jr’s intense sax and drums (respectively) towards the end of the song.

My favorite track from the first disc – Volume One: The Plan – has to be “The Rhythm Changes”, for the simplicity of its message and the fact that it is something rare in today’s quality music scene: a genuinely uplifting tune. I really enjoyed Patrice Quinn’s even vocals. Some reviewers have commented on a perceived ‘lack of passion’ from the vocalist but I thought her timing and energy matched the spirit of the song and any other approach would have been dissonant.

Volume Two: A Glorious Tale, starts with the climactic “Miss Understanding” spearheaded by Miles Mosely’s acoustic bass. The highlights are “Leroy and Lanisha” for its hip, downtown retro-vibe and funky rhythm,  “Seven Prayers” for its Miles Davis-charm and the closer, “The Magnificent 7” for it’s awesome tension on piano. Meanwhile, the second volume’s sole vocal track “Henrietta our Hero”, again with Patrice Quinn on vocals, sounds like it translates best to a live rendition. On the recording it falls just short of achieving the poignancy it seems to try to convey.

Volume 3: The Historic Repetition starts off in a different way, with an old school funk-feel and hypnotic horns via “Re Run Home” and includes some interesting covers of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”. I also enjoyed the beautiful Patrice Quinn/ Dwight Trible duet on the tender tribute to Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s Theme”, easily the best of the vocal tracks. Trible’s voice is exceptionally evocative, making it a great fit for this respectful tribute.

Though it feels like the least cohesive of the trio, Volume Three ends on a high note with “The Message”, one of the best tracks for its remarkable energy. All in all, The Epic is a beautifully unconstrained record that never becomes tiresome, in spite of its length.

Even on the very first listen, I was certain that this album would be a shoo-in for a 2016 Grammy nomination. I should have known better! Once again, the NARAS proves it has its head up its ass, overlooking this splendid work much like it did Patricia Barber’s Smash in 2013, easily one of the best records of the past ten years in any genre.

Well, fear not! Even though I’ve had to put The Music and Myth on hiatus for a few months due to working on my novels, the third annual Music and Myth Awards are still scheduled for January 2016 and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is a deserving frontrunner.

How Big How Blue How Beautiful – a good record made exceptional within the larger context of the band’s evolution

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On June 17th, while my wife and I were vacationing in lovely Sicily, The Music and Myth quietly turned three years old. I say “quietly” because I usually have an article up, wishing my oldest writing venture a happy birthday. Since that wasn’t possible this year, I chose to commemorate the special date with a belated birthday article.

Florence + the Machine’s Lungs was the first record I ever reviewed for The Music and Myth. I thought this would be a proper occasion to write something about the band’s third installment, How Big How Blue How Beautiful. The newly released studio album follows the elegant Ceremonials and attempts to do the right thing from a creative standpoint by pursuing a completely new musical direction. But is it the right one? Until very recently I would have said no.

With Ceremonials and the subsequent single “Breath of Life” the band has completely exhausted the creative territory of “big choirs and massive orchestration”. Any attempt to continue in the same vein or try to surpass “Breath of Life” – in my opinion the band’s most powerful song to date, with its heavy theme, booming percussion and sixty-piece choir – would most likely have been destined for failure. But it was exactly this song’s magnificent execution that made the follow up, “What Kind of Man”, feel like a disappointment. Hearing Florence Welch sing about “complicated” relationships just felt like a step backwards, in spite of the song’s catchy, straight-up rock vibe. It just didn’t feel like something Florence and the band should be doing in 2015 but more like a track that belonged either before Lungs or somewhere in between the debut and sophomore releases. The fact that it was chosen as the first promotional single did not predict good things and I had low expectations for the record to begin with. Fortunately, there was ample room to be pleasantly surprised.

I still feel that both this track and “Ship to Wreck” were poor choices for promotional singles because the record has so much more to offer than these two songs would suggest. They are also used as opening tracks with the former following the latter. Initially, it felt like a bad omen for this new project to open with the words, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head” and continue through a typical Welchian dreamscape of “great white sharks swimming in the bed” and “red-eyed mice scratching at the door” only to reach the hackneyed indecision: “Did I drink too much, am I losing touch, did I build this ship to wreck”. Catchy as the lyrics and riffs may be, it still felt like a considerable narrowing of the pensive scope, especially since Ceremonials opened with “Only if for a Night and “Shake it Out” and followed those up with “What the Water Gave Me”.

On the latest record, the so-so openers are followed by the title track, the first to hint that there might be more to this album than meets the ear. Indeed, the record seems to be the lead singer’s most personal endeavor to date, an almost confrontational recount of exhaustion, heartbreak and emotional turbulence. That makes it perhaps the most honest of the albums, but also the least accessible to new listeners.

The expansive orchestration of Ceremonials is replaced with a raw dynamic of straightforward rock aided by a powerful brass section to help maintain the band’s distinctive touch of melodrama. This new approach of favoring horns over harp makes for a record with a well-defined identity.

“The Queen of Peace” is the first truly great track on the new album. An emphatic, unrestrained stomper with a particularly memorable chorus, the song firmly establishes the record’s musical theme of coupling woeful lyrics with an upbeat rhythm to create a fascinating contrast. “The Queen of Peace” feels like a turning point for the story of HBHBHB and is also the place where the record reaches its full potential. From this point forward, almost all the songs sound like they might be found on Greatest Hits collections forty years from now.

The outstanding “Various Storms & Saints” is a rare ballad where the vocalist – usually known for her imaginative falsettos screamed at full lung capacity – delivers a polished performance that would satisfy the most demanding classically-trained melodist. Over a haunting string section, Florence Welch sings:

The monument of a memory

You tear it down in your head

Don’t make the mountain your enemy

Get out, get up there instead

You saw the stars out in front of you

Too tempting not to touch

But even though it shocked you

Something’s electric in your blood

Her voice expertly transitions from soft and subdued to vigorous and cathartic and ultimately becomes a veritable siren’s song, shaping a simple musical arrangement into one of the best songs not only on this set, but in the band’s entire repertoire. The clap-happy gothgospel “Delilah” picks up the pace with Biblical references and a Sturm und Drang dynamic, while Welch, ever the extrovert, keeps exploring new vocal avenues. The bluesy “Long & Lost” is effective in its simplicity while “Caught” and “Third Eye” alternate between tender melancholy and shouty groove, creating a skillfully paced musical narrative that lends itself well to repeated listening.

The record slows down a bit with “St Jude” an undistinguished ballad which, in spite of good lyrics, feels more like an interlude than an actual song. However, it recovers with “Mother”, a spectacular closing track and veritable rock anthem where the songwriter returns to the phantasmagorical imagery she is known for:

Mother, make me

Make me a big tall tree

So I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me

Mother, make me

Make me a big grey cloud

So I can rain on you things I can’t say out loud

This song is executed to perfection, as the band summons up a wild energy to match the ferocity of Florence’s voice. If the closing track feels somewhat different from the rest that might have something to do with the fact that it was the only song produced by Paul Epworth. It sounds almost like the first chapter of a new story. If “Mother” is a sign of things to come, then Florence + The Machine has a bright future and a solid position in the indie rock scene.

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’s a work best understood by people who are already familiar with Florence Welch’s songwriting and cognizant of the context of the lead vocalist’s creative and personal journey at this point in time. Seen in context, even the less-stellar songs like “What Kind of Man” and “Ship to Wreck” possess a certain depth that might evade the neophyte. For the new listener, How Big How Blue How Beautiful might be a skillfully crafted indie rock album that takes a little warming up to, but for the knowledgeable Florence + The Machine enthusiast, the band’s latest work is nothing less than exceptional.

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.