The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

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The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

noun

  1. 1.

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

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

Grammy Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music and Myth Awards go to…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

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

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

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

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

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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.