The 2017 Music and Myth Awards

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2017 has been a strange year for The Music and Myth. For the biggest part of it, the website was on hiatus while I focused all of my time and energy on taking my career as a full-time science fiction author to the next level. I’ve written a total of only six articles last year and one of them was the 2016 Music and Myth Awards. Despite that, 2017 has been the year when I discovered more great music than at any time since starting this blog back in 2012. So many quality records have been released last year by so many amazing musicians that it’s been torture not having the time to write about them. Today, I get to compensate for that a little bit by rounding up the best in my yearly awards article.

If you’re new to the website, the format is this: I start by discussing the year’s Grammy nominees in the Best Jazz Vocal and Best Jazz Instrumental Album categories, complete with my predictions. Because this is such an unusual edition of the Music and Myth Awards, the article will end up published sometime after the Grammys have taken place. Nevertheless, I’ll leave my predictions section intact, as it was written in the first draft on January 27.

The reason I traditionally include the Grammys stems from the fact that the Music and Myth Awards originated with my dissatisfaction over NARAS failing to nominate Patricia Barber’s Smash for best vocal record in 2014. I’ve grown to think of my awards article as a sort of Anti-Grammys and I’ve discovered that I enjoy the process of studying the nominees and predicting the winners.

Now, before we take a look at the anti-Grammy picks, let’s see what the Grammys have lined up this year.

After years of criticizing NARAS for featuring essentially the same dozen artists every time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this year’s ballots for Best Jazz Vocal includes many fresh faces. I was especially thrilled to see among them Jazzmeia Horn and Raul Midon, whose incredible performances I’ve caught at the 2014 Inntoene Jazz Festival.

Let’s start with Jazzmeia, nominated for her debut album, A Social Call. First of all, this 26-year old vocalist seems like a lab-grown prototype for a successful jazz musician. She’s got the look, the name, the attitude, the heritage and especially the talent. Most importantly, she has a mission – one that developed from a profound awareness of who she is as an artist. This became quickly evident when I interviewed her after her show at Inntoene. After finding out that she has a debut album planned for that autumn, I concluded the interview with the following phrase: Prediction: you will see Jazzmeia Horn at the 2015 Grammys, you’ve heard it here first folks!

Though my timing was off by a couple of years, as the self-christened Mama Jazz decided to focus on family and raising her daughters, the essence is that she immediately strikes you as destined for greatness. I’ll be reviewing the record in a separate article, so I’m just going to sum it up here by saying it’s a powerful, legacy-conscious album and a perfect introduction to this artist and her mission. Though I don’t think she’s quite ready to get the nod yet, A Social Call establishes her as a powerful contender for the upper echelon of jazz for years to come.

As for Raul Midon, I was really happy to see this phenomenally gifted artist get the proper recognition. A multi-talented, multi-tasking powerhouse performer, Raul Midon is simply an explosion of creative energy. I’ve described his live performance at Inntoene as a “profoundly spiritual experience” and this must-hear musician consistently delivers. In typical Midon fashion, Bad Ass and Blind is a high-energy record with a distinctive sound and an empowering vibe. That being said, I don’t feel like it’s Midon at his creative best and I do feel that this particular album, mislabeled as vocal jazz, might have benefited from increased exposure in another category.

Randy Porter’s Porter plays Porter, a record of – you guessed it – Cole Porter covers is built around the natural charisma of guest vocalist Nancy King and her very evident chemistry with the pianist, but feels neither comprehensive nor groundbreaking in its conceptualization. Meanwhile, The Journey, by husband-and-wife duo The Baylor Project featuring a plethora of amazing musicians is supremely lyrical and stylistically comprehensive, feeling celebratory in its sound. Ultimately, though, it’s surpassed in scope by the one album I feel stands way above the rest this year.

Dreams and Daggers brought Cecile McLorin Salvant her third Grammy nomination, following up on her Grammy award winning For One to Love and her Grammy nominated Womanchild. In 2016, I successfully predicted her win and I’m hoping to do so again this year because this record is just a fantastic display of talent from a complete musician.

Salvant brings the heritage and social awareness of Jazzmeia Horn, the energy of Raul Midon, the melodic diversity of the Baylor Project and the vocalist-band chemistry of Porter and King, combining them in a superb display of musicality on a double record that especially excels in one key aspect: storytelling.

This superlative double-album is one of the best I’ve heard in this category in the last few years and the clear standout of this particular ballot. While I did have some quibbles with For One To Love, there is absolutely no reproach for any aspect of the flawless Dreams and Daggers. I think it should easily earn her the award.

While the Best Jazz Vocal category featured some exciting fresh faces, I was really disappointed in what I feel is a tepid, conservative selection for Best Instrumental. This is especially conspicuous in a year that presented such an amazing array of remarkable records. Now, don’t get me wrong, each of the nominated albums is masterfully crafted, as music tends to be at this level when produced by this caliber of musicians. However, in a year with so much daring new music, selecting a crop of mostly conservative covers seems like a decision that should have any serious music enthusiast scratching their head. Perhaps, after doing the complete opposite for the Best Vocal category, NARAS got cold feet and reverted back to its old ways.

Bill Charlap Trio and Billy Childs offer elegant, sophisticated piano in Uptown, Downtown and Rebirth respectively, while Fred Hersch takes a primal approach in his splendid and pensive solo-piano opus, Open Book. Joey De Francesco brings a touch of color to a rather monochrome batch of contenders with the bluesy, soul-funk Project Freedom, serving essentially the same role as last year’s Dr. Um by Peter Erskine. My personal favorite is Chris Potter’s The Dreamer is the Dream, a characteristically tender, introspective offering from ECM, the label that can do no wrong. I’m generally a fan of the trademarked ECM sound and I find Potter’s selection of original tunes an inspired and inspiring session. My pick for the Grammys, however, is Fred Hersch’s Open Book.

That being written, let’s take a look at this year’s Music and Myth Award winners.

Best Vocal Record: Sofia Rei (feat. Marc Ribot) – El Gavilan

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This one might feel, at once, predestined and surprising. Predestined because I’ve made no secret of the fact that Sofia Rei is my favorite vocalist (and slowly becoming one of my favorite composers and arrangers) and I’ve been even less secretive about the fact that Marc Ribot has been my favorite guitarist for over a decade, since he was largely responsible for my venturing into previously unexplored musical territories. In fact, the first time I’ve ever heard Rei’s spellbinding voice, it followed an exquisite guitar intro by Ribot himself, on the song “Besos de Sangre” from 2014 Music and Myth Award winning record The Song Project (Vinyl Singles Edition). It makes sense that any further collaboration between the two would be a personal dream come true. Last year, this dream-duo rekindled their preternatural chemistry on this groundbreaking minimalistic recording.

The surprising part I mentioned before might be the record’s subject matter. Built around the forceful song, “El Gavilan” the eponymous record marks Rei’s tribute to one of her musical heroes, Chilean songwriter Violeta Para. Featuring innovative reinterpretations of Parra’s work on the centennial of her birth, El Gavilan succeeds where almost everyone other album of its type fails: in paying tribute instead of merely gathering together a number of covers.

Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

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

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

To be clear: this is how you produce a tribute record! For years, I’ve picked on the Grammys for favoring cover albums over wholly original content, when these cover albums often amount to little more than so-and-so sings the music of such-and-such in an approach that relies almost entirely on nostalgia. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of good cover albums, albums that honor their source material by presenting it in a light that both celebrates and innovates, creating a new work of art that stands entirely on its own.

When Sofia Rei pays homage to Parra, she does so in a way that taps into the essence of Parra’s social message while reworking it around Rei’s own musical vision. Aided by one of the most talented guitar players in modern music history, Sofia Rei never attempts to channel her inner Violeta Parra. Instead, she chooses an established body of work with a profound sentimental relevance through which to reveal to us her innermost Sofia Rei. And what a splendid revelation indeed!

Best Instrumental Record: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy

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For the first time, a Music and Myth Award goes to a work I haven’t had the opportunity to write about in advance. I will do so in the coming weeks, in a separate article. Thus, I won’t elaborate too much on the details of my selection, but rather talk about how I’ve arrived to it.

As I’ve mentioned, it was a year with an abundance of great instrumental records and I’ve truly had a tough time coming up with a clear favorite. Even the shortlist was staggering, with Linda May Han Oh’s unpredictable Walk Against the Wind, Steve Coleman’s cerebral Morphogenesis, Yazz Ahmed’s exotic La Saboteuse, Ambrose Akinmusire’s A Rift in Decorum, Dave Douglas’ fun and eccentric Little Giant Still Life, Vijay Iyer’s universally acclaimed Far From Over and Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which is essentially a dystopian scifi envisioned as a work of music. For the last few weeks, I’ve listened to these records ceaselessly until I cut the list down to Coleman, Akinmusire and Scott, but I still couldn’t decide. In the end, my wife decided for me.

While I’ve been leaning heavily toward free jazz and avant-garde in the last few years, I try to keep a broad perspective when granting the Music and Myth Awards. Ioana often provides this perspective. Herself a long-time jazz aficionado, Ioana has never studied music in such an in-depth way as to fall into the trap of over-analyzing. While I’m often prone to immediately disassembling any piece of music I hear into its components, looking for patterns, stories and  historical anchor-points, Ioana merely listens and instantly knows what she loves. While I was listening to The Centennial Trilogy, she walked into my office to tell me that it sounds great.

Fascinated by the pugilistic motion of Coleman’s sax and, on the othe end of the spectrum, Akinmusire’s old-school atmosphere, I found a balance in Scott’s conceptual dichotomy. With his trademarked Stretch Music, Scott seems to be able to pay homage to the vast history of jazz while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the present. With melody that evokes modal nostalgia and modern influences from the techno, hip-hop and even rock spheres, The Centennial Trilogy  – a collection of three records, all released in 2017  – is a colossal work that manages the difficult task of instantly appealing to the neophyte while keeping the seasoned listener satisfied. When Ioana praised the music she made me realize the essential aspect of this collection of records: it has instant appeal but remains intriguing upon a thorough examination. Simply put, it’s complex enough to provide hours’ worth of study but also simple enough to be instantly delectable.

More on this fantastic work in its dedicated article. For now, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2017.

So, what did you think about the Music and Myth’s choices? What are your favorites? Sound off in the comments and let’s start a discussion.

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INNtöne – Jazz on the Farm: the perpetual proto-festival

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Chapter 1: Jazz on the farm

A small, almost unnoticeable, arrow-shaped sign marked JAZZ confirms that we are heading in the right direction. It’s comical in its candor, especially since we are in the heart of the Upper Austrian countryside and there is nothing around for miles but grassland, forest  and a few scattered farms. One of these farms is of great interest to us because it hosts the INNtöne festival, arguably Europe’s best-kept secret when it comes to Jazz music of the highest caliber.

Every year since 2002, legendary musician, record producer and bio-farmer Paul Zauner turns his farm in the small village of Diersbach into the home of one of the most unique festivals in Europe (and probably the world).  A giant barn becomes a concert hall where accomplished veterans and up-and-coming names from the international Jazz scene grace the stage over the course of three days (in this case June 6th to 8th), creating a colorful and  fascinating musical tapestry.

By the time the first signs of life become visible – cars, trailers and RVs parked on the spacious meadow in front of the estate – we have already been driving through the woods for a while. The place has a surreal feeling, created by the contrast between the loose, unrestrained vibe of what is basically a giant camping spot and the very urban image of men in orange vests directing you to the nearest parking space. When we step out of the car and into the heat of early-June midday we are met by the distant sound of Daniel Nösig’s trumpet and Jure Puckl’s tenor sax. Unfortunately, our long drive prevented us from making the first evening of the festival,  so we missed the Friday line-up of James Blood Ulmer with Pierre Dorge & New Jungle Orchestra, Mario Rom’s Interzone, Melvin Vines Harlem Jazz Machine ad Chicago Blues A Living History. With me are my wife and in-laws, all fellow jazz-enthusiasts and all excited about the plethora of concerts that await us (in total – including the ones we missed – there were eighteen, a generous offer for any festival). I’m especially excited about one gig in particular. The Music and Myth’s favorite Jazz guitarist, Paul Kogut, is playing later in the evening, accompanied by the incomparable George Mraz. In fact, Paul is the main reason I came to the festival, as I was looking forward to hearing him play and meeting him in person. We had been introduced via e-mail by a mutual friend (shout out to Lindsay Curcio of Brooklyn NY) about a year earlier, shortly before I reviewed his excellent record Turn of Phrase.

Once we pass through the gates we are treated to a picturesque view: to the right, the barn that houses the show and to the left a series of long tables under an enormous tent where people feast on roast pork and beer under the watchful gaze of Mansur Scott. Seated on a chair overlooking the yard, with his back against the wall of the so-called St. Pig’s Pub (which will host the after-party) and his walking staff in his right hand, the accomplished vocalist looks like the Patron Saint of Jazz, watching over the event. I have the honor of shaking his hand and telling him how much I respect and appreciate his work and that I’ve just reviewed his latest record, Great Voices of Harlem. I find out that this festival has “the best food, the best drinks and the best music”. Later in the day I get the opportunity to test and confirm his enthusiastic claims. Meanwhile, inside the barn, the Nösig Puckl Quintet grants the stage to Pablo Held Trio as I search for Paul Zauner to set up an interview.

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A wonderful sight: the legendary Mansur Scott with the charming Jazzmeia Horn

Chapter 2: Saturday – Pablo Held, Nino Josele, Jazzmeia Horn and Kogut/Mraz

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I find my family on the balcony (read haymow). The sound is surprisingly good and the view is really something else but sadly the heat quickly becomes unbearable and we have to look for seats at ground level. I tell my wife that I managed to locate Zauner, who told me that we can do the interview a bit later in the evening, at around six or seven.

Unfortunately, because it’s still early on in the day, people are moving about, either coming in and looking for seats or going out to get a refreshing beer so it’s a bit difficult to properly appreciate this talented young trio’s raw, haunting music. I plan on catching one of their gigs in the near future to immerse myself deeper in their work as their performance has left a good impression on me. I especially enjoy drummer Jonas Burgwinkel’s “controlled chaos” approach.

The change of pace is striking when the stage is occupied by Spanish flamenco guitarist Niño Josele, whose performance is forceful and uplifting. His impressive skill is enhanced by a very capable band: Julian Heredia on electric bass and Guillermo McGill on drums and percussion. The young bassist is a delight; his technique is impressive and his chemistry with Josele becomes immediately apparent. McGill is one of the revelations of the festival with an outstanding performance that makes me definitely want to check out some of his work as a leader.

Up next comes one of the gigs I’m looking forward to the most. Dallas-born vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, fresh out of the the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, has generated quite a bit of buzz, with many people comparing her to some of the great voices from the past. I’m interested in interviewing the young musician after her set and also finding out if all the hype is justified.

To say that Jazzmeia’s performance exceeded my expectations would be an unforgivable understatement. Before I start the praise for this powerful and charismatic singer, let me write about the band a little bit. On stage are the wonderful Kirk Lightsey on piano and the very talented Wolfram Derschmidt and Dusan Novakov on bass and drums respectively. I was excited about Derschmidt especially because his recent work on Great Voices of Harlem is slowly but surely turning him into one of my favorite bass-players (and he just looks like a genuinely nice guy). Needless to say, he did not disappoint.

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Wolfram Derschmidt

Now on with the praise for Jazzmeia: She is absolutely delightful. Her stage presence exudes charisma and vitality, but also a deep-routed love not only for the music itself, but for the tradition and the cultural significance of Jazz. The balance between her old-school delivery and her youthful energy really make you feel like you are listening to something special. You can just feel how much she enjoys herself on stage. Her voice is powerful and educated enough to strike that emotional chord, while still maintaining a tiny drop of that rough, raw youthfulness, which goes away with age and experience but which I find particularly refreshing. When you watch Jazzmeia Horn perform you get a palpable sense of the wonderful future that no-doubt awaits this incredibly promising musician. I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to see her at this early stage in her career and in this intimate setting. I look forward to seeing her again.

When her set ends and she exits the building I follow her, leaving behind that distinctive sound of applause from an audience that has been very pleasantly surprised. I catch up with her and manage to get my interview, which you will be able to read on the Music and Myth in the following days. However, I’m not so lucky with Paul Zauner, who suggests we postpone it for the next day in what would for me become the recurring theme of the festival. As the beating heart of this animate event he is understandably busy, approached from all directions by artists, journalists, event staff and guests but I’m determined to talk to him and find out the workings of this one-of-a-kind festival.

I hurry back to my seat because a round of applause announces my good buddy Paul Kogut. When I reviewed Turn of Phrase  (which also features George Mraz, who is doing double duty at INNtöne – but more on that later) I used the words “flawless construction and perfect symmetry”. That could easily be used to describe their set. The technique is absolutely flawless. Paul’s fingers barely seem to touch the chords and, in the parts where George is front-and-center, he accompanies him so gently it seems as though his fingers are merely levitating over the strings, producing the equivalent of a guitar whisper. George, of course, is fantastic and drummer Klemens Marktl (filling in for Vinnie Sperrazza who couldn’t make it) shows no signs of the short time he must have had to prepare (but then again, this is Jazz). The trio displays at once the cold, calculated craft of a scientist and the warm fluency of a master storyteller, to put on an immaculate show that the audience does not fail to reward with forceful ovations. My only regret is that it didn’t last longer than the roughly fifty minutes it was granted (the duration of the sets varies greatly).

After the gig I have the opportunity to hang out with Paul for a little while. We talk about a show we were trying to put together in my hometown and which unfortunately fell through, but I do find out that Paul plans to do “more of this” (which I assume means festivals and events in Europe) in the future. Unfortunately I can’t stick around for Raphael Wressnig and Soul Gumbo feat. Craig Handy & Johnny Vidacovich as I have to get back home –  a comfortable bed and breakfast in the neighboring baroque town of Schärding – in order to prepare for my interview the following day.

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Paul Kogut

Chapter 3: Sunday – Carlton Holmes, Raul Midon, George & Camilla Mraz

“After the Raul Midon concert, ok?”

Once again I approach Zauner in between gigs and once again he is restlessly running around, trying to juggle his many responsibilities. I nod and make my way back to my seat for the next performance. Unfortunately time constrains made us miss Unterbiberger Hofmusik & Matthias Schriefl and Mathisen-Robin-Borlai. We got here in time to see Carlton Holmes’ solo set. As the New York pianist tells his tuneful story he completely captivates the audience with his hypnotic playing that is as delicate as it is delectable. I have the opportunity to talk to him afterwards and I use the word “hypnotic” to describe his performance. “Good, that’s kind of what I was going for,” he says before he graciously signs his record You Me and I for me. You can read a review of the record on the Music and Myth sometime in the following weeks.

The next scheduled performer is Raul Midon. I’m very excited about Midon because of his spotless reputation as a live act. First of all, let me just say: you know a gig is going to be good when the sound-check guy gets a hearty round of applause.  However, nothing could have prepared the audience for the inspiring performance of this incredible songwriter, vocalist and musical multi-tasker (he effortlessly plays his guitar with one hand, a pair of hand-drums with the other while using his lips as a makeshift trumpet when he is not regaling the audience with his angelic voice). This is more than just a fantastic set. The combination of the lyrical power of his music and the magnetism of his personality, which he displays through humorous anecdotes in between songs, turns his concert into a profoundly spiritual experience. Needless to say the standing ovation is so loud it nearly blows the roof off the barn. I’m pretty sure he is already in the dressing room by the time the audience stops cheering.  After Midon’s excellent gig I walk over to Zauner, ready for the interview.

“We’re going to get something to eat right now,” he says, and I say “Sure, no problem,” though I’m actually starting to doubt that our interview is going to take place. Clearly, he is busy, and the last thing I want to do is distract him during these hectic moments. I grab something to eat myself and return to my seat. I know Midon will be a hard act to follow but I also know that veteran bass player George Mraz – back on stage with Pavel Zboril on percussions and the lovely Camilla Mraz on piano – will rise to the challenge. Indeed, they deliver a complex, cerebral performance characterized by great chemistry and intuition. The band’s regular set is followed by an original performance of live film scoring, where they provide the soundtrack for the short film “Dance of the Blue Angels” by Czech director Steve Lichtag. The motion picture was touching, if tad too predictably sentimental for my personal taste. Overall it was an interesting, novel experience and the performance was flawless.

The end of this concert also announced the end of the festival for us. Because of the long drive back the next day we have to get home early and sadly can’t stick around for the next acts: Raab/Godard/Heral/Hegdal, Sun Ra Arkestra and Hazmat Modine.

The concerts I did see made me realize the cultural phenomenon that is the INNtlöne festival. Paul Zauner managed to create a living entity, a musical gathering that has remained intimate and small in size in spite of its almost three decades of existence. It constantly showcases outstanding performances from legendary artists and young musicians on the brink of major breakthroughs. The audience itself is a very select, musically cultured crowd, and the bond between artists and audience is heavily emphasized. It is an event in which the myth certainly matches the music. It made me think of the Gărâna Jazz Festival (a similarly rural affair, held in the mountains of Western Romania) in its infant years, before word got out and it started attracting mobs of thousands, not all of whom are necessarily interested in attending a quality music event.

It’s interesting that this never happened to Zauner’s festival. I’m curious if perhaps the organizer is consciously keeping the event at this stage of development but, sadly, it doesn’t seem like I will get to find out this time. I comfort myself with the fact that I managed to take part in this amazing experience and I figure I will ask Zauner for a Skype-Interview sometime in the near future, after the hectic INNtöne days have passed. However, before I leave, I want to thank him for organizing this festival and for graciously providing me with a press pass. I ask my family to wait for me in the car, that I will be back in a few minutes, and I go looking for him. Predictably, I find him surrounded by people, one of whom is telling him about “this great festival in Russia, which I organize and which is exactly like this one”. When Zauner looks at me I take a step forward and shake his hand, prepared to say goodbye when he says “Two minutes, I’ll be with you in two minutes and we can do the interview.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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The Music and Myth’s favorite Jazz guitarist

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.

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