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)
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)
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.