Music is better than we are – an in-depth interview with Patricia Barber

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Chapter 1: Angels, Birds and Us – the trip to Vienna 

Every year, I spend January 1 performing a very cherished ritual.

From the moment I get out of bed, I retire to the living room with a large cup of coffee and two daily planners. One is for the previous year, the other for the one that’s just starting. I don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to e-mails or even turn on the computer. For up to ten hours, I’m engrossed in a meticulous routine during which I’m completely isolated from the world. It’s my favorite day of the year.

For exactly a decade I’ve been keeping a daily journal, recording everything I do and all that’s important to me. I write down my schedule, the amount of work I get done and the specific way I relax afterwards. I document where I go and whom I meet, whom I talk to on the phone or online and the topics of our conversation. In case Ioana and I happen to be traveling, I mention the places we visit.

My new year’s ritual consists of meticulously studying every entry in the old planner and occasionally writing down important information in the new one – names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthdays and appointments.

The entire first day of every year since 2007 has been dedicated to one long, detailed trip down memory lane. It’s not only an effective mental exercise that has verifiably improved my memory, but also an opportunity to reminisce. It’s a chance to come to terms with the lows but, more importantly, to relive the highs.

Once in a while, something so cool happens that I get excited at the prospect of reliving it even while the event is still taking place. Which brings me to December 3, two days before my thirty-first birthday.

Exactly four weeks after the monumental Bagatelles marathon wherein I got to see a great number of my favorite musicians live, I once again found myself inside the legendary Porgy & Bess, this time staring at a photograph of one of my absolute creative role models, Chicago-born composer, pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber.

The night of the Zorn concert I kept thinking that a bucket-list experience like that was a fitting event to close off an intense, capricious year and usher in the lull of the winter holidays. Little did I know that, for The Music and Myth, 2016 was far from over.

Those who have been following The Music and Myth over the years know what Patricia Barber’s work means to me. I’ve discovered her a short while after setting up the website (and, implicitly, starting my study of serious music) and her phenomenal record Smash has been a constant presence in the Cherascu household ever since.

I’ve never shied away from expressing my opinion that Smash is one of the best records in any genre in recent memory. This flawless, profoundly lyrical and thematically comprehensive work has even inspired me to create The Music and Myth Awards as a response to its artistically criminal omission from the 2014 Grammy ballot. Simultaneously, it has inspired me to ridicule NARAS at every turn, which has become almost as notable a tradition as the prestigious Music and Myth Awards themselves.

For Ioana and me, seeing Patricia in concert meant fulfilling a musical ambition that dated back almost four years. But there was another longtime goal I was looking to achieve: sitting down for an interview with one of music’s most captivating storytellers.

On Friday evening, one day before the concert, I was standing outside Patricia’s hotel on the Vienna beltway. The interview was scheduled for 22:00 but I’d arrived early, accompanied by my usual jazz-traveling party: my wife and in-laws. I spent that hour at the ground floor restaurant, mostly fretting about where the hell I was going to conduct the interview, since the establishment was uncomfortably loud and the receptionist had assured me that there was absolutely no other communal space in the boutique hotel. I knew from walking around the area that there were no other quiet spots in the vicinity, so I was left anxious and irritated.

My anxiety was instantly dispelled when Patricia came down to meet us in the lobby (I’d asked Ioana to join me for the interview). There was something about the distinguished musician’s personality that gave me the feeling I’d known her for years. She greeted us like friends and we proceeded to look for the quietest place we could find. A quick inspection instantly disqualified the cramped locale, so Patricia just shrugged and said, “My room?”

We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, while Patricia recounted how she’d had to call the reception to get an extra chair, because there was only one in the room.

“I told them, ‘I need more than one chair, I’m an old person’,” she joked. “This is a children’s hotel.” We laughed and she turned to Ioana. “See, but now you’re going to have to sit on the bed.”

Chapter 2: Post-Enlightenment Free – the interview

Patricia, I know you’ve been struggling with a cold for the past few days. How are you feeling now? 

It’s fine. It’s over.

That’s good to know. First, let me say, we’re happy to have you back in Europe.

Thank you.

I know you haven’t been here in 2016, but you’ve been here many times over the years. Can you discern a difference between the jazz scene in Europe compared to the United States?

I can’t tell because I’m only playing these specific clubs, so I can’t tell if you have more than that… in Vienna, for instance, more than Porgy and Bess. So I can’t tell you what it’s like in Europe, unfortunately. You’d have to live there for a while to understand.

When you’re traveling, do you have the chance to collaborate with European musicians or play together at festivals?

No. We go like this (she makes a gesture of the hand to symbolize going directly from one place to the next).

Do you always go to the same venues?

No. Budapest, for example, was a different hall – a wonderful, wonderful experience. But often… I’ve been to Porgy & Bess, I’ve been to the New Morning in Paris. So, some are new, some are old.

You’re a resident musician at the Green Mill in Chicago…

Yeah. I play every Monday.

How did you end up collaborating with them?

I had been working at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which was a very popular club; a very nice club. The only thing about the Gold Star was that [the owner] insisted that I do standards, which I got to know very well after nine years there. I knew them anyway, but I got to know them extremely well. But I had a feeling that I wanted to write my own music and that wasn’t okay with him. So I sat home for about a year (laughs). I took time off. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to do this. And Dave Jemilo called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you just come in Sunday night and see what happens?” I said okay. So I did that. And from there we went Sundays and Mondays and it became very full and then we stayed on Mondays.

For how long have you been playing there regularly?

We don’t know. Dave and I don’t count exactly. Eighteen years… something like this.

That’s a long time.

It’s a long time.

So, basically, your career developed simultaneously with this ongoing gig.

(Art this point I dropped my notebook and papers and spent a while picking them up off the floor. I joked about the fact that I’m Romanian and that until 1989 we barely had electricity, which is why I prefer good old fashioned pen and paper over modern technology. Patricia agreed that “paper doesn’t run out of batteries.”)

I remember playing in Romania and it was raining on the Steinway piano. I was so upset. I wanted to cover the piano instead of continuing the concert.

This always happens at the Garana Jazz Festival. I don’t think they’ve had a single year without a downpour. In fact, I was going to ask you whether you had any notable memories from performing in Romania.  

That was my memory. “Oh, my God, we can’t let it rain on the piano (laughs).” But it was a beautiful place up there on that mountain. And that hotel was really, really beautiful… just gorgeous.

On October 5 at the Ear Taxi Festival you debuted a new song cycle called Angels, Birds and I. Are your concerts in Europe going to revolve around this new project? Will you be presenting it for us tomorrow? 

Yes. I’ve been putting [the songs] in the concerts, but not like a song cycle, in order. Because that takes a very special kind of situation and this is not that. But I have been putting them in the concerts, two or three per set and they definitely influence the set, they definitely influence the whole vibe… the sound.

When you put together the set list for a concert, do you specifically look for a narrative coherence? Do you pick the order of the songs based on their topic?

No. It has much more to do with tempo, pacing, key. To make a difference between those things for the audience, who may have never heard me before and they’re not so interested in the five tunes. So it has to do with tempo, key, variation, time signature.

Tell me a bit about this song cycle. I know the songs are built around your fascination with singers, specifically opera singers. How did this project start?   

The first song I wrote is called “Higher.” I wrote this one for my mother, who was a great singer. So that was what brought me to the singing. Singing to her when she was dying was a great source of relief for her and I also wanted to tell her that it’s okay to go. So,this is called “Higher”, meaning…

(she quotes from the song)

And you my true love

Have been stilled by pain

Grounded in silence

On Earth you’ll remain

Until an Air

Blows in like spring

You’ll be young again

Raise your voice, take wing

So it’s a song meant to ease the transition.

Yes, but using song, using music. That started it. After that started, I wrote another song. Then, Renée Fleming came into the jazz club. She had been at the club before and we just enjoy each other’s company. I said, “Is there something you’d like to hear?” and she showed me her iPhone which had a very specific list of my songs. Some of them were these songs and some were other songs like “Scream”, which she also sings and it sounds beautiful, really beautiful. Working with her, I wrote more songs and then she would take them and so I wrote some more songs. “Surrender” she also sang and I accompanied her. We ended up doing a concert together in Chicago, New York and Washington DC of my music – only my music. So a lot of these songs have become art songs, because they don’t really need a drummer.

When you performed them together, did you also sing or just play piano?

I played. I played, she sang.

So you wrote the other songs with Renée in mind.

In the middle of it, I did. In fact, “Voyager”, which I’ve done and I’ll probably do tomorrow night, is written with her in mind. It is definitely about Renée Fleming. It’s definitely about her or the phenomenon of the operatic singer. Then, “The Opera Song” I wrote for her – only for her – which I probably won’t do tomorrow night and “Muse” I wrote for her. “Muse” is the culmination of the five-song cycle. I became the god of music because I’m the protagonist, I’m the one writing music. And the god makes a contract in agreement with her – “If I give you music, will you give me form?” As gods always want mortal form.

When you’re writing music, do you perceive yourself as a songwriter first, then a vocalist or pianist?

It’s hard to say. Different times, different things, you know? Sometimes I feel like playing the piano, sometimes I feel like singing. I love composing, but it’s a very solitary activity. Being an introvert, I think that I could do that only and then just change the keys and hand them to Renée, or hand them to somebody else and I think I’d be relatively happy with that. But music is dead if it’s not communicated… it’s just dead. You write it and it has to go out and have a relationship with people, otherwise it doesn’t work. So, I’m stuck in this situation; once I write this music I have to play it and sing it for somebody, otherwise it doesn’t work. They have to hear it and I have to understand in some way that they understand it. I have to know in some way that they get it. They don’t have to get it all the way, but it has to work in some way. Just musically perhaps, harmonically, lyrically… you know?

Who is the first person you play new music for? Is it your wife?

Often. Often it’s Martha, yeah.

I remember talking to Neil Cowley about this. I asked him if he ever got feedback from his family and he joked that he’s sensitive and he’s scared of what his wife would say. That she has, I quote, “the unfortunate habit of saying the things that will make me cry the most.” That’s why I was wondering about the first person to hear your songs.   

Martha, definitely Martha. But then I send it to two or three people. Renée is one these days. If it’s this kind of a song, I send it to her. And, whatever she’s doing… she’s all over the world, she’s busy right now, especially this year… but she always gets back to me.

Where did this interest in opera and classical music, especially the classical musician, originate?

It started… well, with Martha. Martha’s an expert in 18th century opera; it’s her field… Mozart and the castrati… She’s written three big books and won a bunch of book awards now. She introduced me to classical music twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to opera, just amazed sometimes. The first time I heard Verdi, I was amazed. But I started to feel trapped by the harmonic language of jazz. It’s very specific, very strict. So I went to a friend of ours – whom she’s out with tonight, in fact – Shulamit Ran. She’s a great composer. She’s won a Pulitzer prize and everything. I went to her for a few harmony lessons and she taught me – it was like a magic key that she gave me – she taught me how to break apart or break away from that very strict harmonic system of jazz.

Since then, it’s been crazy. I mean, even on Smash, a lot of those things are stepping outside of the normal jazz harmonic system. You can see that influence starting very early on in pieces like “The Wind Song”. Some of those chords I go to on the bridge are not jazz. You would not expect them to happen. Way back in “Morpheus” – that was 1993, when I won that Guggenheim fellowship – I started stepping outside. And for “Morpheus” I used Schumman.

I studied Schumman and watched the way that he moved his chords and I kind of based “Morpheus” loosely on that kind of idea. So this is an art song, there’s no reason to have a drummer. Any opera singer can sing it. Shulamit told me as soon as I put them in a book, they will.

What’s the plan going forward with this? Do you plan on extending the song cycle or will you keep it to five?

This particular one ends at five because the god of music has struck the deal with the singer and she gets what she wants – she gets to be inside the sinner’s skin. She gets to know what it feels like to be the opera singer. I didn’t realize when I started the song that it would be the end but that is the end. They’ve merged. There will be more songs and they may be art songs or not, but that song cycle is done.

Do you plan on recording it in any form?

Yes, I would like to. I was just having a conversation on the computer with Paris. TSF wants to record the concert and I’m saying, “Not yet.” These songs haven’t been recorded and I don’t want to record them at a live concert. So we’re having this discussion.

Why not?

The first time they’re heard I want to make sure they’re right. I want to make sure they’re perfect.

This is decidedly not a jazz approach.

Right. Well, I have so many of those songs I can do, but this song cycle is different.

How would you envision your next record?

I don’t know. I just finished the five songs, so I want to take my time. This isn’t the problem. Everybody’s telling me, “We need a record.” First of all, I think the album is outdated. I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. I just did a live CD from the Green Mill. You can get it on my website and it’s really fun. It sounds exactly like the Green Mill, including the bus that comes by – you can hear the bus.

Now that’s a jazz approach.

That’s really fun. I’m not sure I want to hand myself over to any kind of record company anymore. I think that it’s old fashioned, but I’m the minority at this point. But I’m sure I’m right… I’m sure I’m right (laughs). So I will record a CD or an album with the five songs, but I haven’t written the rest of them. I have time.

Nothing in the immediate future, then.  

No.

I definitely think you can take your time. Smash will undoubtedly stand on its own for a long time.

Well, I feel that way. I definitely feel that way. There’s no hurry. I just feel completely confident in the path I’m taking right now. It’s definitely not consistent with the path that other musicians are taking.

Did you maybe feel that the record company or the record format didn’t do [Smash] justice? Is this doubt about putting out another traditional record somehow connected to your experience with Smash?

Well, they didn’t do justice to it at all. But I think that’s partly because of the times, you know? The record companies are just falling apart. They have nothing really to offer anybody and they just take the money from individuals. If I offer an album on my website, I can actually make some money… not a lot, but some. And that seems more fitting to me, so we’ll see. People threaten me all the time, “If you don’t do this, this is going to happen to you” and I’m like, “What is the worst that can happen to me?” What is the worst that can happen to me? What? I don’t come back to this club for a while? So what? I don’t care… I just don’t care.

As you know Smash is one of my all-time favorite records. It also inspired The Music and Myth Awards back in 2014 when I chose it Best Vocal Record. As the person who inspired The Muisc and Myth awards, I was wondering who you’d pick as Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental record for this year. It can be from any genre.   

Renée Fleming, Berg. That Berg album is great. And Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory. Her latest string quartet is unbelievable. The Pacifica Quartet plays it. And they did an amazing series of Shostakovich.

So, these are the best records of the year.

For me, you know? This is what I’ve listened to.

That’s what the Music and Myth Awards is all about: the listener’s personal experience with the music. When I write my Music and Myth awards article every January, I always make a point out of stating that these are my subjective picks. My point being that any awards are entirely subjective and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Music is an individual experience; nobody can conduct an objective evaluation. NARAS has no idea what they’re doing…

No. Not at all.

It’s all just somebody’s personal opinion. This is the cornerstone of The Music and Myth Awards. I just wanted to bring this up since it all started with you and Smash. But going back to Angels, Birds and I, is there any other musician you’d like to hear performing these songs?  

All of them (laughs). As many as I can get. I mean, all of them that I love and admire. My music might, in fact, appeal to people like this, as it appeals to Renée. I would love to get Philippe Jaroussky to do a thing but, you know, he’s too famous. I would love to get Alice Coote, a mezzo-soprano – a low mezzo-soprano – to do some of these tunes. So… many, many people.

How about Angela Gheorghiu? My wife is a great fan of her work and I know you are too.  

Oh yeah, she’s pretty special.

I don’t listen to a lot of classical and opera. I mean, I can listen, but I don’t presume to understand its complexity. I’ve always been drawn mostly to jazz and world music.

I’d love for great jazz singers to sing this. I’ve been trying to get Sheila Jordan to sing one of my songs forever, but it’s not happening. I don’t think that she reads music, so it would take some time for her pianist to teach it to her. But any great jazz musician. Kurt Elling sang “The New Year’s Eve Song” and it sounds great. And it’s getting more and more play, I can see it from my royalty statements.

Speaking of royalty statements, could you tell me a bit about what it’s like for jazz musicians nowadays trying to support themselves from their art. Al Di Meola told me that people are buying a steadily decreasing number of records in the U.S and that, I quote, “there’s not one CD store in the U.S.” What is it like now compared to ten, fifteen years ago?  

You mean the computer? Oh… well, it took away our living. It took away any payment from writing songs. So I would think that people who might consider writing songs for a profession will not do it anymore. I can’t imagine how they would start. They can make money in concerts but… I used to make really good money writing songs and now I make none. Zero. Songwriting is just zero. Spotify and all… they have taken it all.

As a self-published author, I understand the situation very well. But I have to admit that the internet has helped me discover so much new music and so many musicians whom I’d never have known otherwise. I ended up buying their records and going to their shows.  

There are good things. There are good things about it. It’s hard for anybody. If you make shoes or you make rocket ships, somehow the value of it… You know, if you don’t get paid for it, somehow it screws around with your head a little bit. But I’m very independent. I’ve been so independent all my life so it doesn’t screw around with me as much as other people but it’s definitely something… it’s definitely a thing. Because I started buying real estate when I was twenty-six, I can survive.

So it’s not exclusively music then.

No, I can survive because I bought real estate. I rent places, you know? Even today… I’ll be on the road and someone writes to me and says, “Where’s the milk?”

Do they know they’re renting places from Patricia Barber?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

That seems like it should drive the price up.

Well, Air BnB is making it so that you can do that. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But most people – ninety-nine percent – enjoy it when I practice (laughs).

Because we were talking about singers and your new song cycle being about singers, I wanted to ask you a related question. You have a very unique way of expressing yourself as a vocalist. There’s a certain particularity about your delivery that involves not only your timbre, but also your intonation, your speech tempo. Does it come naturally or is it something you’ve practiced and developed? Are you aware of it while you perform?  

Yeah, people tell me that and I don’t exactly know what they’re referring to, which is fine. I don’t look into it too deeply. I did, of course, work as a singer when I was young, to stay in tune. I worked as a singer to keep the hands in exact metric time and to loosen up my voice so that’s like a two… double-brain thing. I worked on all those things but… no.

You’re not aware of it.

No, no.

This is a question I ask almost everyone. Being a science fiction author, it’s somewhat of a trademark question in my interviews. If you could travel back in time to the moment when you first realized you wanted to pursue a career in music, what would you tell yourself?   

I would say, “Do what you love. Always do what you love.” Because I get up in the morning and I do what I love. The financial aspect… you have to think of something. If you have some other idea that can help you, if you can start investing when you’re young, that would be great. Maybe not in the stock market but something else. I don’t trust the stock market right now, with the way things are. I never have. I’m not very good at it. I’m good at a buildings and windows and toilets and stuff like that.

In recent years, the political sphere has been dominated by a powerfully divisive rhetoric and there seems to be growing anger and discord all over the world. Do you think that musicians can play a part in bringing people together or help bridge the gap or should music stay completely outside of politics and current world events?

I think music is very healing. I was very political during the election; I worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I know her. But when I go into the concert hall or the jazz club I do not speak of it. Because, to me, music is better than all of that. Music is, interestingly, the one thing that survives centuries. It survives Aleppo being razed to the ground. Music will survive that, and it floats over the centuries and it comes to us in the form it was in the fourteenth century or the tenth century, it still comes to us. Music is amazing that way.

Now, having said that… some of my songs are political. They have been in the past, less so now, because I’ve been interested more in universal themes. Sometimes my songs are political, so you can tell kind of where I stand on the political scale. And I’ve had to pay for that in terms of… I’ve been banned from certain venues and certain radio stations because of the content of my lyrics.

Did it ever affect the way you compose?

It didn’t before, but now the U.S is different so, I don’t know… It probably won’t affect the way I compose. But when I was working for Hillary Clinton, I would have to take the pins and everything off before I went into the club, to make sure that I was just neutral. And I took out the songs that were political. I used to write funny songs about Bill Clinton and Obama – I took them out. Because I don’t want someone to be uncomfortable. I just think music is better… it’s just better than we are. It’s just better. You can give someone something better than what we have on this Earth.

I think you just gave me the title of my article.

That’s good (smiles).

I have just one more question. This one is from Ioana. Will you be performing “Scream” tomorrow night? 

Chapter 3: An Angry Song – the performance

“Yes,” she said, flashing a mysterious smile whose significance we would discover the following evening. We told her that “Scream” is Ioana’s and my favorite and she seemed pleased to hear that.

We said our goodbyes and I was surprised and delighted to find out that Patricia reads science fiction, as I’d brought along a copy of my first book as a gift – a token of appreciation for being so generous with her time. After getting to talk to her so extensively and getting a glimpse inside the mind of this thoroughly dedicated musician, we were even more excited about the upcoming concert.

We arrived at the venue thirty minutes early and were seated at a balcony table, right above Patricia’s piano. By the time the artist walked out and informally introduced herself and her band, the place was packed. When she started playing, I realized why meeting her the other night had felt so familiar.

It’s a rare thing among musicians – and indeed artists of any kind – but Patricia Barber the person resembles Patricia Barber the artist almost perfectly. It’s like she is a walking embodiment of her music: captivating, graceful and intelligent, candid but at the same time somewhat mysterious. On stage, her confident and charismatic presence belies the stage fright she claims to suffer from to this day. Her rapport with the audience is reserved but sincere, and her crowd interactions never come off as forced or pandering.

Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of her performance was the very visible degree of intimacy between the pianist and her instrument. She seemed to relate to the venue’s trademark Fazioli as an old friend, not just a tool of the trade, at times seeming as though she and the piano were speaking a language only they could understand, complete with its own set of private jokes.

Though Patricia’s incomparable voice and the aforementioned particularities of her delivery can be so captivating as to demand the listener’s full attention, her piano playing is equally distinctive. Her percussive and unrestrained technique stands in fascinating contrast with her deep voice and controlled cadence, giving the songs a feeling of strength, even when she sings – in her own words – “a bad song” like Sinatra’s “This Town” or – in my words – fantastic songs like “Code Cool”, “The Moon”, “Caravan” or “You Gotta Go Home”.

Her band consisted of longtime collaborators Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jon Deitemyer (drums) whose performance was absolutely commendable for the subtle ways in which it enriched and highlighted Patricia’s articulation, without ever distracting from or stepping out of the songwriter’s creative identity.

For us, the highlight of the evening came right at the end. After the musicians left the stage to enthusiastic applause, they returned for an encore of “Light My Fire” before leaving again without having played “Scream”. I realized the significance of Patricia’s smile from the night before – she’d been planning to close the with “Scream”, demonstrating a brilliant insight into narrative coherence after all.

“It’s an angry song,” Patricia said, telling the audience that she’d been feeling rather angry herself lately. “Perhaps I’ll record an entire album of angry songs,” she mused.

After the first encore, the band returned to a standing ovation. When they started playing “Scream”, it took me back to the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler playing “Telegraph Road” in Budapest. For someone born in a country that was, until fairly recently, musically and artistically isolated, hearing your favorite musicians playing your favorite songs carries just a touch of otherworldliness that would be hard to imagine for someone from a different background.

There isn’t a lot to say about the band’s rendition of this modern-day anthem. It was perfect, start to finish. Perfect. Any attempt to describe it would not do it justice and might even be discourteous. “Scream” is, by excellence, a song that speaks for itself and demands to be experienced.

The feeling of otherworldliness persisted long after the excellent concert. On our way home, while waiting for the subway, I thought back to a few hours before. We were having dinner at a restaurant close to the venue. The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei, had just texted me to talk about a new project she’ll be bringing to Europe in 2017. She asked me how the Zorn show was and I told her that I’m actually back in Vienna, just an hour away from seeing Patricia Barber in concert.

The surrealness of that moment instantly made me think how exciting it will be to relive the experience on January 1. Now, just a few hours away from my yearly ritual, the day I think about the most is the day I started The Music and Myth. I think about how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come and what an incredible journey it’s been.

Happy New Year!

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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 Music and Myth’s top 5 female vocalists

In my previous article I talked about working on my novel and the way in which music influences my writing. I use music to calm me down when I get restless (after hours of sitting in front of my PC) and I use it to invigorate me when I get tired. I also use it to help me mobilize my thoughts and let my imagination flow. On the backdrop of certain songs I shape scenes and characters and give them life.

My first novel (which for the time being is resting comfortably on my shelf) featured a character named Alan Waits. I used a line from Tom Waits’ “Sins of my Father” as an opening quote for a chapter in my second novel (which will definitely not lay forgotten on a shelf).

The main character from my second novel is a strong, intelligent and independent woman. As a male writer it was very important to me to shape her into a complex, multifaceted leading lady. Again, music was an inspiration. Thankfully, I have so many outstanding, smart and talented musicians from which to draw inspiration. Though the pop music scene seems bent on objectifying women and downplaying their talent while emphasizing what it perceives as beauty, the quality music scene fortunately abounds with strong female musicians who command respect through their artistic accomplishments.

Here’s The Music and Myth’s favorite female vocalists:

5. Florence Welch

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I was first introduced to Florence + The Machine by my wife, who is a great admirer of the charming and charismatic Florence Welch. Though at times the young British musician seems to only be teetering on the precipice of the quality-music scene (and I always fear her next step will take her plummeting into the side of pop that is easy on the eyes but difficult on the ears – this video feels like a bad omen) for now she has still managed to maintain her position through her amazing talent, which she expresses in her wonderful compositions, her powerful voice, her relentless energy and intense stage presence.

I first got acquainted to her through an awesome performance of “What The Water Gave Me” on Later… with Jools Holland. I was absolutely mesmerized. After listening to her first two records it’s clear that Florence Welch is a very serious musician swimming in not-always-serious waters. However, she has so far managed to stay afloat and produce two of the most fresh-sounding records of the last few years. What worries me is that, in spite of the irrefutable value of her own work, she has sometimes shown preference for music of dubious quality and has often exhibited a great admiration for exactly the aspects of pop music that her work itself seems to oppose (and successfully, I might add). With her third record in production, I sincerely hope she will continue on the same road. As long as she does she will remain one of (if not the) most original, credible and powerful female composers and vocalists on the present pop music scene.

4. Emmylou Harris

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She is the leading lady of country music. A distinguished and delicate musician who has been a constant presence in the country scene for over four decades, Harris exudes the grace and style of a true artist. I first discovered her work in 2006 when she teamed up with former Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler (whom I’ve been worshiping since my teens) to produce a stellar record called All The Roadrunning. Her gentle voice and graceful personality were the perfect fit for Mark’s low-toned vocals and laid-back demeanor. Here is a song called “I Dug up a Diamond” which my wife and I loved so much we had it featured on our wedding video.

Also, their duet “If This is Goodbye” has been featured in an article I wrote called Secrets of Sadness: Four songs that will make you completely lose your shit. I believe it needs no further explanation. Ever since then, whenever I listen to country music it is most often either Johnny Cash or Emmylou Harris which I also believe needs no further comment.

  3. Cibelle

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Cibelle is another musician I wrote about before, when she absolutely rocked a rather difficult Tom Waits tune. I checked out her solo work when I came across this remake of Gilberto Gil’s “Punk da Periferia”.

This is quite possibly my favorite video on the internet. Everything about this performance is top-notch, from the way they’ve altered the original tune making it funny and bad-ass at the same time, to the cellist who looks like Helena Bonham-Carter and uses her instrument to make scratching noises like she’s Jam Master Jane, to the Ric-Flair-tastic cape on the drummer and the way the entire band just stops playing at one point to join in on the finger-snapping. Then, of course, there’s Cibelle herself. Everything about her is perfect in this performance: her voice, her dress, her facial expressions (which make up half the song’s “attitude”), the way in which she just casually fumbles around with the instruments looking disinterested and how she alters the sound-effects with her foot. Absolutely brilliant! There are other great Cibelle tunes out there (some of them remind me of Xela Zaid – shout out my man!) and they’re usually great but “Punk da Periferia” is perfect in every way and I must have listened to it hundreds of times. Cibelle is a strong musician with a bright future and a great understanding of the importance of performing.

2. Sofia Rei

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Let’s get this out of the way first: when John Zorn asks you to be in one of his projects (alongside the likes of John Medeski, Mike Patton and freakin’ Marc Ribot) it already means you’re a pretty big deal on the music scene. I first discovered Sofia in a video from Zorn@60’s Warsaw concert playing “Besos de Sangre”.

Initially I had checked out the video because it said John Zorn and I also saw the name Marc Ribot (which always means my Jazz-senses are tingling) but I quickly forgot that Zorn and Ribot were even there as my jaw dropped at the incredible performance of this young New York musician. In fact, why the hell am I even wasting your time here: go ahead and listen to the whole concert which is fantastic! I looked for some more of Rei’s work and stumbled across this little gem which would have made the old woman proud.

Whether she is playing with Zorn, performing classics with the Pan American Symphony or singing her own exquisite compositions this lady has a fantastic way of conveying emotion.

1. Patricia Barber 

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She is the Meryl Streep of musicians. Like the distinguished actress, Patricia Barber exudes intelligence and magnetism. Long-time readers of The Music and Myth will remember that Smash was chosen the Best Vocal Record of 2013. Her songs are veritable lectures in writing and composition and her stage presence conveys vitality and prestige. She is the standard-bearer for female musicians and Smash is her magnum opus. There is really not much I can say about Patricia Barber without falling into an elated discourse of celebration. Her music is smooth, well-timed, her voice is noble and refined and her lyrics are brilliant. As a writer, I feel she is a kindred spirit, and she herself seems to agree. In this interview, which preceded her latest record, she says: “I am a fiction writer.”

Indeed, an outstanding storyteller!

Florence Welch, Emmylou Harris, Cibelle, Sofia Rei and Patricia Barber are The Music and Myth’s favorite female vocalists. In an industry whose landscape is vast and constantly changing, it is hard to speak of the absolute best. These five musicians, however, manage to transcend the limits of the very music they perform. They embody their musicianship in a way that makes them indistinguishable from their art and that is an exceptionally rare occurrence. They are deserving of the highest accolades and their work comes highly recommended by The Music and Myth.

by Andrei Cherascu


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover

The 2013 Music and Myth Awards

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Photograph by Andrei Cherascu

The Music and Myth returns in 2014 with the first annual “Music and Myth Awards”.  As always, there is a story behind this inaugural yearly tradition so sit back, relax, think Jazz and allow me to spin my yarn.

Chapter 1: The Story

The idea to start off 2014 with an article about the very best of 2013 came to me in summer of last year but until December I was not sure I would sit down and write it. I listen to a lot of music. Every day, as I sit down to work on my novels in writing sessions that can last up to 8 hours there is always a record playing in the background. Music has the purpose of guarding my sanity against the strain of a most repetitive activity and preventing eventual boredom. Simply put, it stimulates the desire to keep on working.

More often than not I play new records, albums I’ve never heard before because if I play records I already know it can get a bit distracting when my mind starts anticipating my favorite parts. In consequence, I go through a ton of new music every year. Still, the idea of Music and Myth Awards seemed too ambitious, as the relevance of such an article would, in the end, be limited by my own subjectivity (though it would be fitting for a very subjective blog whose sole purpose is to spread the word about good quality music).

I am a writer, an aspiring novelist, my sole knowledge of music comes from whatever understanding I may have gained from the extensive catalog of records I’ve listened to throughout the years and from my love and passion for this art form which makes me listen very carefully.  Still, I was unsure of what to do until a certain record helped me with my decision as well as the realization that any award, no matter how grand or well-known, could be flawed and subjective.

Back in May 2013 I’ve had the chance to listen to Patricia Barber’s Smash, an absolutely stellar album released under the Concord label. It was love at first sound. I don’t often have records I instantly adore and I don’t always listen to a record very often over a long period of time as I try to keep my experience as diverse as possible but Smash had it all and I must have played it over fifty times in the last six months, deeply engaged in my study of one of the best records of the last few years.

Sometime in December I read the nominations for the 56th edition of the Grammy Awards and was very disappointed to find that Smash was not nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That is not to say that I have a great deal of respect for the Grammys in general, after all, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is the same organization that awarded thirteen Grammys to Eminem while granting two to Tom Waits, one to Jimi Hendrix (and even that was for “Lifetime Achievement”) and none to Led Zeppelin, thus demonstrating that their views on genres that are more mainstream are equally peripheral. But this is JAZZ. I mean, is nothing sacred?

Anyway, the point is that Smash undoubtedly deserves to be on any serious and knowledgeable list of not only the best in Jazz but the best in music in general as do many other records that I am sure get overlooked every single year for a plethora of reasons. The fact that the Grammys overlooked this very good record made me realize how fallible any list of awards can be and also made me think that The Music and Myth has every bit the right to voice its opinion on the best of Jazz as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I have no golden statues of gramophones to hand out to the artists and no cash prizes to award. I only wish I did so that I may further support these brilliant musicians but for now all I have to offer is the recognition and admiration of a writer who holds music in the highest regard, who writes about Jazz (always with a capital J) and tries to help promote quality music through the exposure granted by a music website with an ever-increasing audience (and thank you for that my dear readers).

That being said I present the 2013 Music and Myth Awards. I am not a musician and have no authority to comment on a certain musician’s technical prowess on a given instrument. I am, however, a storyteller, very apt at judging a work of music in its entirety. I care about its story, first and foremost.

In consequence, there will be two categories:

Best Vocal Album and Best Instrumental Album.    

The categories are open, not limited to Jazz. However, since I feel it is a superior genre that sets a high bar in quality don’t be surprised to find it in my awards as you are bound to find it on my blog.

Also, since the Grammys have been part of what made me create my own award I would like to start by taking a moment to comment on the respective nominations for this year.

Chapter 2: The Grammys

My displeasure with the unfortunate omission of Smash should not be understood as a critique of any of the artists that have been nominated. Truly, all the works in both the categories are exceptional. But is any of them the best? Well, that is debatable, and I think it’s a subjective opinion no matter how you look at it. I will try to bring solid arguments to back up my views.

Two particular things have caught my attention, things I feel I need to address. First of all, in both categories, some of the records consist entirely of cover songs and some are so-called tribute albums. Tierney Sutton’s After Blue pays homage to Joni Mitchell, Terri Lynne Carrington’s Money Jungle reinvents the 1962 record by Duke Ellington and Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Womanchild  consists of Jazz standards. Now, I have nothing against covers when they are done correctly, with passion and respect for the original and without taking an approach that is too comfortable. Certainly these three records are very good and they deserve the highest recognition. However, I recall a conversation I had with Al DiMeola earlier this year. He was promoting his own tribute record All Your Life where he plays songs by the Beatles. I asked him about the effort of reinventing already existing tunes versus the strain of composing entirely new music and here is what he had to say:

It’s way harder to write new music, something original, something that’s complex. It’s a lot more evolved and far more difficult to come up with original music.  Each time you write for a record you’re challenging yourself to come up with something different which is very hard to do. […] Writing the music that’s mine […] is far harder than taking something from the Beatles or Piazzolla and adapting it to my style, because I’m basically reading music that’s already been written and then adapting it to my rhythmic focus. Even though it poses challenges that still is probably a third as much work as it is to compose something new.

I am not saying that a brilliantly executed record of cover songs could not be recognized as the best in a certain year, but if we have powerful records that are equally beautiful, comparably masterful in their delivery, should then not a record of wholly original work be granted that much more recognition? I think it should and I chose my records accordingly. The second thing is that, given the vastness of the Jazz scene I find it a bit curious to find Christian McBride and Gerald Clayton, both nominated with their own respective records, playing on Terri Lynn Carrington’s nominated album. I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying it makes the list of nominations appear a bit restrictive.

Anyway, in “Vocal Jazz” Andy Bey brings forth The World According to Andy Bey a soulful and intimate work that stands out due to its honesty and the brilliant use of the aging singer’s spectacular voice (which made me think of Johnny Cash’s American series) and Lorraine Feather presents the brilliant Attachments where her intelligent lyrics coupled with her charming wit and a beautiful orchestration make for a wonderful and sentimental album. Still, I think the Grammy should go to Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. Admittedly, it is in a way not as complex as some of the other recordings in the category but it does benefit from some great compositions (“No Love Dying” is one of the best opening songs I’ve heard in a long time) a very charismatic delivery of good lyrics and a genre-bending musicality that will attract many listeners that might normally not venture into Jazz. It also has a particular energy, an edge that instantly charms the audience and makes the music stand out.

In the “Instrumental Album” category we have the rhythmic diversity of Kenny Garret’s Pushing The World Away, the composed and time-honored sound of Christian McBride Trio’s Out Here, the impeccable compositions and flawless arrangement of Gary Burton’s Guided Tour and the raw, pulsating sound and general diversity of Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum.

I would have a hard time deciding between Life Forum and Guided Tour, both brilliant records in their own right. I’ve used the term “impeccable” to describe Burton’s work and truly, that is exactly what it is. Marvelous compositions by each of the band-members create a beautiful and diverse landscape that, at the same time, preserves the uniqueness of each individual song.  The fantastic technique of the players (especially the incredible 25-year-old guitarist Julian Lage)  regales the ears and the musicality and coherence of the arrangement (as I understand the record was produced by Burton himself) makes for a captivating story start to finish. Anyway you look at it, this record is flawless and it is exactly this aesthetic perfection and the slight predictability that ensues from it that I think will cost it the award. I would give it to Clayton’s Life Forum. There is a quality about this record that makes you feel it has a life of its own. Out of all the nominees for Best Instrumental Jazz Album this one is the least instantly-likable. It definitely takes a few start-to-finish plays to truly appreciate the many nuances of this great recording. Its compositions are varied and complex, sometimes mesmerizing and other times almost off-putting at first listen and yet its highlights are subtle and magnificently complex. From its spoken-word opening track, through its raw and edgy instrumentals and its few delicate vocal tracks this record shines through its complexity: a beautifully crafted and intelligent album.

Now, here are my own picks for records of the year and the reasons why I chose them over all others. Naturally, they are records I have already reviewed as I only take the time to write about albums I consider great.

Chapter 3. The 2013 Music and Myth awards go to…

Best Vocal Album: Patricia Barber – Smash (Concord)

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Obviously the first one is not a shocker since it is the very record that convinced me to create The Music and Myth Awards. Here’s what I said about it in the review:

Barber’s voice is flawless, her piano-playing is wonderful and the general instrumental arrangement of the record is brilliant; still neither of these things is the defining trait of Patricia Barber’s work. The qualities that stand out the most are her extraordinary intelligence and her articulacy, evident in the songwriting. Trust me, brilliant lyrics are not always a given, even in Jazz. […]Overall, Smash is the Meryl Streep of records: intelligent, elegant, with a disarmingly honest intensity but also well-timed humor.

 

Now, half a year after reviewing it I can tell you that there is not a single week that goes by without this record being played in my house and for good reason. The compositions are crisp and intelligent, written with an admirable balance between reason and sentiment, Patricia’s voice is flawless, powerful and charismatic but also with an attractive enunciation that makes all the difference. Her songwriting is top-notch. The record seems to combine all the qualities that make the other Grammy nominees great: the honest and intimate character of Andy Bey’s record, the wit and intelligence of Lorraine Feather’s compositions and the edge and energy of Gregory Porter’s work. In my opinion, Smash is the best vocal record not only of this year but of the last few years.

 

Best Instrumental Album: Iva Bittova – Iva Bittova (ECM)     

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In 2013 this avant-garde Czech violinist made her debut on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label with a one-of-a-kind album that features twelve tracks called “Fragments” on which Iva plays violin and kalimba and occasionally sings. It is only fitting that this should be a self-titled record as it carries the distinct mark of Iva Bittova’s unique style of music and encapsulates the essence of this talented musician’s performances (I know because I’ve seen her live in October of last year).

This work is a world of its own, bearing no resemblance to anything you’ve heard. It isn’t really Jazz but I don’t think there’s an actual name for her style of music.

Here’s what I wrote about the record in my review:

I have always had a deep admiration for musicians who just disregard what everyone else is doing and go out there and do whatever the hell they feel like. Same with Iva Bittova. This lady is a hoot, her music is unlike anything you’ve heard before. […] I’m a fan of the way in which the tracks are open to interpretation, offering just enough material to stimulate the listener into using his or her imagination and connecting the dots.  In music, as in literature, leaving a few “empty” spaces and structuring the product well is a sign of good storytelling. It is interesting that “Iva Bittova” cannot be thought of as a violin recording and neither a vocal Jazz recording as we might have expected glancing upon the letters ECM. Instead, the backbone of this album is represented by the way in which Iva’s voice relates to the sound of her violin, you almost feel like her voice is an instrument shaped by her trance-like reactions to the sound of her violin and vice-versa. She is always aware of her surroundings making her delivery as important a factor as the art itself.  […]a good, well thought-out record, sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate.

Though she heavily employs her voice I can’t think of this as a vocal album. Her voice is used as an instrument all of its own and the focus of the record is the dynamic, almost sentient musical entity that results from the symbiosis between Iva’s voice and her violin. Iva Bittova is a hypnotic, innovative record that is more performance art than mere music. As the artist herself so wisely put it “Everything is music” and this record reflects that enlightened mentality. Indeed, beautiful and original music created with great awareness and personal involvement and deserving the highest praise. In my opinion, the best in its league.

So here they are, my picks for the 2013 Music and Myth Awards. Thank you for your attention and I am interested to hear your opinions.

Patricia Barber’s Smash – extraordinary intelligence and articulacy

With the one year anniversary of The Music and Myth fast approaching I was planning on quickly getting one more review/recommendation in before I work on my “anniversary article”. Still, there is no way in hell I am going to rush through a review of Smash, one of the best records you are bound to encounter this year.

(Note: initially I had written “one of the best Jazz records you are bound to encounter” and then I changed my mind)

American singer, songwriter and pianist Patricia Barber is probably one of the most well-liked and most respected Jazz musicians in the world right now and it’s not hard to figure out why. Thirty seconds in, you can already see that it will be very hard to find any fault in this record especially given that it just might be her best yet.

Barber’s voice is flawless, her piano-playing is wonderful and the general instrumental arrangement of the record is brilliant; still neither of these things is the defining trait of Patricia Barber’s work. The qualities that stand out the most are her extraordinary intelligence and her articulacy, evident in the songwriting. Trust me, brilliant lyrics are not always a given, even in Jazz.

The record starts off with “Code Cool”, a very ambitious opening track for various reasons. The bass and drums provide a catchy rhythm and, a few seconds later, Patricia’s piano instantly hooks the listener. And then, of courses, come the lyrics:

Split seconds can carry quite a surprise/diffuse white matter will close my eyes/thus brutalized

I will sleep as if I were dreaming

Emergency downbeat Code Cool begins rapid sequence intubation/IV squeeze and circulation

thus stabilized

I inspire as if I were preaching

Only a minute and a half into the song (and implicitly also the record) Barber makes the very ballsy move of inserting a very slow interlude of sound effects, completely disrupting the pace and leaving the listener “up in the air”. I cannot stress enough how incredibly difficult this is to pull off successfully and when, one minute and twenty seconds later, her piano returns, gentle at first and then intense, you know you are listening to something special. I’ve talked before about the importance of a great opening song and it does not get any better than “Code Cool”. You learn all you need to know about this record from this single track: it is a record of well-calculated instrumentation, sensual vocals and above all brilliant poetry (i square dance slow make love with my lips/ read eyes like books read books like science / i remember and fix citation to case/ case to form/ discombobulation and i can cook up a storm/ i’m Michelangelo’s David tested and worn).

When I say well-calculated instrumentation what I mean is that this record has the singular quality of always being one step ahead of the listener. It is man’s nature, when listening to music, to anticipate the next sound, the direction in which the song is moving and Smash completely disrupts that tendency by changing tempo, instruments or by just flat-out stopping at certain points and pausing for a few seconds before resuming its journey.  You can never really guess where it’s going and that is near-impossible to pull off without angering or frustrating the listener. And yet, Patricia Barber does it to perfection.

“Code Cool” is followed by the haunting and, at times, melancholy “The Wind Song” and the restrained and introspective “Romanesque” before moving forward to the title track. “Smash” is outstanding especially for its switch from gentle and refrained (so this is the sound of a heart breaking) to a well-timed electric-guitar explosion with which the song ends. Reviewer Andrea Canter of The Jazz Police likened this transition to the duality of emotional pain versus physical pain and I think that’s a brilliant observation.

The more upbeat (at least as far as tempo is concerned) “Redshift” is next and, at least in a matter of lyrics, I think it’s the crown jewel of this record, with its clever use of scientific imagery:

Einstein would concur / trajectories are curved / things aren’t what they were or where we left them /

Heisenberg was right / fixing speed and site / for all who love are blind is unwise and uncertain

Starting with “Spring Song” the record moves on to a more conventional “late-night” Jazz feel with more stress on heartfelt ballads, like the stunningly beautiful “Scream” (my personal favorite) and the thoroughly poetic “The Swim”, abounding with wit though never light on content.

An important exception from this more mellow second part is the lively “Devil’s Food”, with bits of disco-funk making use of humor to touch on the subject of gay love as a direct comment on the right-wing reactions against gay marriage. Patricia sings:

look at you, look at me/ baby I can see/ we’re a lot  alike/ does that seem right to you

silk on silk/ sweet on sweet/ meat on meat

boy, you’re smooth/ and you’re just my type/ does that seem right to you

and she befittingly states

boy meets boy / girl meets girl / given any chance / to fall in love / they do

There is also an entirely instrumental track called “Bashful” which allows fellow musicians Larry Kohut (bass), and Jon Deitemyer (drums) a pleasant moment in the spotlight (guitarist John Kregor gets his on “Smash” and “Devil’s Food”) while also highlighting Patricia’s talent on the piano but it doesn’t really stand out from any other point of view. The record closes with the tender and heartbreaking “Missing” an exclamation mark on the more “sentimental” second part proving that, although the album might have lost a bit of steam as it progressed it steadily gained more depth and perhaps more heart.

Overall, Smash is the Meryl Streep of records: intelligent, elegant, with a disarmingly honest intensity but also well-timed humor. I insistently recommend it!